- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 12, 2002

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's second invasion of the North, in 1863, had as its initial target the Pennsylvania capital. Once Harrisburg was captured, this ambitious strategic march would then swing the Rebel army toward Philadelphia, Baltimore or Washington.

The Confederates believed the penetration of Union territory, if successul, could still sway European powers to recognize the South and also could strengthen "peace" forces in the North. The invasion, of course, was blunted at Gettysburg, 40 miles short of Harrisburg, as Lee's first invasion had stalled in 1862 at Antietam.

Harrisburg, however, was feverishly mobilizing as the Gray army crossed the Potomac, and a Union artillery battery was positioned at the highest point in the city, in Reservoir Park, with a commanding view of the Susquehanna Valley. Standing on that spot today is the new National Civil War Museum, the pride of Harrisburg though the "national" label may be an understandable local conceit, implying as it does a federal imprimatur.

The museum's executives say the institution, which opened on Abraham Lincoln's birthday last year, is the only one that attempts to portray the entire history of the Civil War. The new museum is the brainchild of Mayor Stephen R. Reed of Harrisburg. He conceived the project in 1990 and relied on discretionary city funds and private donations to begin collecting memorabilia.

By 1999, about $15 million had been spent on the collection. The state matched city money with a capital assistance grant totaling $16.2 million for construction of the museum with its 66,000 square feet of space.

"It is the only museum to portray this great American tragedy from start to finish, and in a national context," the mayor said at the dedication. "Portrayals of battles and leaders are impartial and factual without prejudice or bias to either side. It is about the lives and humanity of people involved in the conflict and its long-term effects upon our nation."

Heading the museum is George E. Hicks, who previously was director of the Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe, Va., and director of museum services for the Atlanta Historical Society. Mr. Hicks did graduate work under Civil War scholar James I. Roberston Jr. at Virginia Tech and wrote his master's thesis on Mosby's Rangers.

Mr. Hicks, like the mayor, is adamant that the museum is the only such institution that provides the entire history of the war.

Mr. Hicks starts with 735,000 as the actual number of deaths on both sides in the Civil War, about 100,000 more than the generally accepted figure. This is because of better research into Confederate figures, he says, and he especially wants visitors to think about the causes of the war.

Besides slavery and states' rights, other burning issues of the time included Western expansion and the increasing role of the federal government. The exhibits reflect these issues, as well as such immediate causes as the caning of abolitionist Charles Sumner in the Senate, the emotionalism of John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry, the firing on Fort Sumter and the basic failure of either side to compromise.

When the museum project was developing, some reservations were voiced here and there about the site in Harrisburg, a town not exactly at the epicenter of Civil War history.

Pennsylvania, however, sent the first troops to defend the nearly defenseless national capital. Gov. Andrew Curtin sent the 25th Pennsylvania, which was formed in Harrisburg, to Washington via Baltimore on April 18. (The 6th Massachusetts arrived the next day, igniting the Platt Street Massacre.) Harrisburg also contained the largest depot for staging and instruction of Union troops during the war.

As visitors approach the museum, the first thing they notice is the statue "Moment of Mercy" by Terry Jones in the circle in front of the building. It commemorates the courageous action of a Southern sergeant during the Battle of Fredericksburg.

More than 6,000 Union soldiers lay dead and wounded after the suicidal assaults on the Confederate lines on Marye's Heights. Sgt. Richard Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina would not bear the cries of wounded Federal troopers sprawled on the snowy ground. He asked permission to help some of the wounded, gathered canteens and crossed the stone wall to minister to the suffering Union soldiers. When it became obvious that he was on a mission of mercy, a Union officer shouted to his riflemen, "Cease fire! Don't shoot that man. He is too brave to die."

Thus is the tone set for the museum.

"Visitors can expect an intensely personal experience," the mayor says. Entering, the visitor ascends to the second floor, where the tour begins. Most prominent are three side-by-side TV monitors, which dramatize 10 characters (portrayed by actors) at the beginning of the Civil War.

As visitors move through the museum, they travel chronologically through the war. For example, they meet three brothers from Kentucky. The eldest is a West Point graduate who joins the Union Army. The youngest is a hothead who joins the Confederate cavalry. The middle brother goes west and joins the gold rush in Montana.

The next scene portrays a slave auction with life-size mannequins. A young mother holds her son while the auctioneer attempts to get their price to $1,000 or more. Recorded voices provide a narrative as a small spotlight is shown on the appropriate person. Then it is on to the firing on Fort Sumter.

The upper floor deals with pre-Civil War times and 1861 to spring 1863. Then, downstairs, a video portrays infantry drill and fire-and-artillery loading and firing. Next, a mannequin display features a surgeon's tent with a wounded soldier ready for amputation. The museum tour ends with a video from the Gettysburg veterans reunion of 1938.

The museum's director of education, Larry Keener-Farley, has been involved in Civil War living-history interpretation and artifact collecting for 40 years. He has given presentations for the Smithsonian Institution; the National Park Service at Gettysburg, Antietam and Harpers Ferry; and at Civil War roundtables, school and historical societies; civic associations; and youth groups.

Artifacts in the collection firearms, swords, newspapers and photographs are displayed and explained. Many of these 140-year-old pieces of American history can be handled by guests, providing a rare experience of touching a piece of the past. Mr. Keener-Farley also presents slide-illustrated lectures on topics, including Civil War Harrisburg, flags of the Blue and Gray, the Medal of Honor and naval technology.

More than 12,000 rare and unusual artifacts have been assembled from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Lincoln's top-hat box from the 1860 election campaign is counterpointed by Lee's Bible and final battle map from Appomattox. Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's sword belt is in the collection along with two of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's sabers. Union Gen. George B. McClellan's saddle is there with Rebel Gen. Stonewall Jackson's gauntlet.

Assembling the ambitious collection has not been all cake and ice cream. The museum inadvertently became tangled in a wider artifact con game.

It bought for $870,000 a rare cache of artifacts, including Gen. George Pickett's kepi. The items, however, were not legitimately owned by the sellers. Russell Pritchard III, a charming TV evaluator on the PBS program "Antiques Roadshow" and an associate were indicted by the federal government on multiple charges of fraud and other offenses involving rigged appraisals and defrauding collectors of Civil War militaria. He was sentenced in July to a year in prison and ordered to repay $830,000.

The great-great-grandson of the leader of the legendary charge at Gettysburg was one of the victims. Pritchard purchased artifacts from Pickett for $87,000 and then sold the items to the Harrisburg museum for 10 times that.

"That kepi is rightfully mine," George Pickett V fumes. "It's part of the theft of my property [by] a Yankee carpetbagging con artist."

"Not so fast," Mr. Hicks says. "All the legal cases have been settled, and the NCWM has absolute ownership to the kepi."

In the more peaceful precincts of the museum are amentities for visitors, including a Monitor and Merrimack Cafe. Rooms for receptions, weddings, parties, dinners and meetings can hold several hundred people. (On a recent visit, a symposium on the role of the U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War was taking place.) The exhibit "Gods and Generals: The Paintings of Mort Kunstler" continues through Dec. 1.

A special event will be a "Moment of Mercy" Vigil (Dec. 13 and 14), commemorating the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg. In honor of Kirkland's selfless act of charity, an honor guard of Union and Confederate re-enactors will stand vigil over the "Moment of Mercy" statue.

For information on the museum and events, call 717/260-1861.


William S. Connery is an editor and writer for the World & I magazine.



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