- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2001

HARRISBURG, Pa. — When you stand in the first gallery at the National Civil War Museum, images, artifacts and sounds surround and seem to flow around you. Sit for a few minutes on a bench in front of three high-definition TV screens and you make the acquaintance of nine persons from North and South — slave and free, male and female, rich and poor — who will guide you, via their personal stories, through the nation's bloodiest conflict.
In a glass case behind you is the pen that Virginia Gov. Henry Wise used to sign the death warrant for abolitionist John Brown. In 1859, Brown was hanged for murder and treason at Harpers Ferry after trying to start a slave revolt. Abraham Lincoln's leather hatbox — used by the 16th president during his campaign in 1860 — rests behind glass in another corner.
From an adjoining room, the sounds of a Washington, D.C., slave auction alternate with a single voice singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Go Down, Moses."
Walk a few steps farther into the museum and find a first edition of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and a life-size photo of the scarred back of a slave.
From the next room you hear the sounds of artillery firing the opening shots of the Civil War as the Confederates attack Fort Sumter. In the center of that gallery, a life-size figure raises a Confederate flag above the ruins of the federal fort. From somewhere deeper in the two-level museum comes the cry of someone shouting "On to Richmond."
And so it goes through a dozen galleries and 27,000 square feet of exhibition space that seek to reflect and explain the causes and consequences of the bloodiest, costliest and most destructive war in American history.
"I think we have hit a home run here," said Chief Executive Officer George Hicks of his new museum.
Since its official opening on Lincoln's birthday, Feb. 12, the National Museum of the Civil War has drawn 45,000 visitors from 26 states and six foreign countries. Built on the eastern edge of Harrisburg, it occupies the high point in the city's Reservoir Park.
"I'm from the Jack Webb School of History: 'Just the facts,'" Mr. Hicks said during an interview in his office, referring to the late actor best remembered as the no-nonsense cop on TV's "Dragnet." "We're not cramming history down visitors' throats . We're not beating our chests over the wealth of our collection . We're trying to show history in three dimensions . We're telling stories."
Mr. Hicks, a Virginian, had a great-grandfather who fought in the conflict for the South. And like the museum he directs, he enjoys telling stories.
He recalled a phone call he got from a curator who advised him to see what had turned up as staff members were unpacking and organizing boxes of artifacts. The curator wasn't certain what had been found, only that Mr. Hicks should come and see it himself.
"It was a glove that belonged to Stonewall Jackson," Mr. Hicks said. "It was one of the gauntlets he was wearing when he was shot."
Jackson was one of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's bravest and most brilliant commanders. His death — the result of friendly fire — in May 1863 during the Battle of Chancellorsville was a major blow to the South.
While the museum boasts the largest collection of items once belonging to Gen. George Pickett, best known as the commander of the doomed Confederate charge at Gettysburg, Mr. Hicks finds the possessions of ordinary soldiers equally meaningful.
"We have one letter, written in a hospital by a wounded soldier to his ma and pa," he said. "As you read the letter, you notice that his penmanship gets worse and finally stops."
"The letter had to be finished by a nurse, who writes the parents that their son had passed away," he says.
Mr. Hicks says he wants the new museum to surprise visitors. As a result, the story of the Civil War unfolds in different ways in different rooms.
One gallery tries to give visitors some sense of the horror of prewar slavery. The artifacts include metal neck collars, a cat-o'-nine-tails, handcuffs, tattered clothes and wooden shoes.
A recorded soundtrack and a dozen life-size — and very lifelike — mannequins show a tearful mother and frightened son on the auction block. Two young black men scowl from behind the bars of a jail cell.
In other galleries, the story is told on a larger scale. Mr. Hicks is particularly proud of several 10-by-14-foot electronic battle maps that trace troop movements during major Civil War campaigns. As blue and red lights flicker on and off — each bulb representing thousands of men — professor James I. Robertson Jr., recorded on videotape, talks about the battles.
Mr. Robertson taught Mr. Hicks history at Virginia Polytechnic, and, like his former student, he works to bring statistics to life. If the casualties at the 1862 Battle of Shiloh were laid shoulder to shoulder, Mr. Robertson says, they would have stretched for 41/2 miles.
One large gallery is devoted to the Battle of Gettysburg, and the multimedia displays may be too graphic for younger visitors. The artifacts include a gruesome demonstration of battlefield surgery and of the moment after a soldier is hit. The mix of media includes actual objects — guns and swords — used during the battle, excerpts from the film "Gettysburg" and a wall mural showing a tiny portion of Pickett's Charge.
Another display reports on the 200,000 black soldiers and sailors who fought for their own freedom. Organized into 135 infantry, six cavalry and 22 artillery regiments, their units had the lowest desertion rates and the highest mortality rates in the Union army.
Among other treasures is a pocket Bible that stopped a bullet and a cartridge box that changed sides twice. It was originally owned by a J.J. Raynor of Company E, 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers. Lost at Fredericksburg in 1862, it was picked up and used by a Confederate soldier until it was recovered at Gettysburg a year later.
In one gallery, visitors, using personal "soundsticks," can listen to a selection of popular songs from North and South while they look over a display of authentic army band instruments.
Some items are simply heartbreaking. There is the wooden marker for the grave of Daniel Cornier, who died in a Northern prison camp at age 58 on April 10, 1865. That was just one day after Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House, Va.
There is even an example of early military marketing. A giant poster proclaims: "The Conscription Bill — How to Avoid It." How a person avoided the Union Army draft was by joining the U.S. Navy instead.
Visitors seemed uniformly impressed.
"It's wonderfully done," said William Quesenberry of Susquehanna, Pa., who was celebrating his birthday with a trip to the museum. "It's a beautiful location," added his wife, Carrie. "And you get a great overview of the war."
Distributed by Scripps Howard.

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