01 January 2015

Those Places Thursday: Civil War Museum

One of the family gifts this year was four passes to the National Civil War Museum up in Harrisburg. Earlier this week – Tuesday to be exact – the four of us headed up. The NationalCivil War Museum is located in Reservoir Park in Harrisburg and attempts to cover the entire Civil War on its two floor museum and book store. 

A variety of media is used to tell the story of the Civil War. Artifacts are appropriately displayed here and there throughout the museum. The self guided tour begins on the second floor with “A House Divided.” It covers the time period before the War, from 1850 to 1860. It moves into “American Slavery: The Peculiar Institution.”  Some of the artifacts displayed in that section include wooden shoes - yes slaves wore shoes they handmade out of wood- as well as clothing and the chains. Also on display was an 1852 copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom Cabin which talked about the conditions of slavery. 

The next section was “First Shots” which depicted the first shots at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. An interesting side note here: the day we went (30 December) happened to be the day that the Confederates took the Charleston Arsenal in South Carolina. 

“Weapons & Equipment” covered a variety of artifacts. From swords to guns to bullets and ramming rods, this section was extensive. The Calvary section included saddles and the uniforms one would have worn. The one side dealt with the Union soldiers and the other displayed the Confederate side. A section on the Navy covered weapons and uniforms as well.  

Camp life was also featured. Obviously the men did not constantly fight. There was some down time, so to speak. Wax figures and displays show soldiers playing games, writing letters home, or having mock fights. One display also contained cooking utensils and plates and such. 

Several sections highlighted the campaigns and battles. There were sections devoted to specific more well known battles and campaigns. I have to admit I was a little disappointed that there was nothing on the battle at Weldon Railroad on 20 August 1864. That is the battle in which my uncle, Benjamin Franklin VanHorn, was captured. Gettysburg obviously had a large section devoted to it. A fence post on display still had bullets in it from that fateful battle. Several identification tags were also on display there. They looked more like buttons, round buttons, than our current dog tags. Having been to Gettysburg at least a dozen times though, I have to admit though it was disappointing in comparison.  

Several leaders were also featured. John Fulton Reynolds, a Lancaster native, was one such featured commander. (personal note: the photo of his plaque was half under glass and half not so it did not come out right). 

A section titled “Costs of War” covered civil war medicine. Wax figures displayed a surgery in a field hospital. Artifacts included surgical instruments, crutches, medicine bottles and an apothecary chest. 

A small – very small – section included Prisoners of War and “Women in the War”. The section on women was simply a video of women in period costume talking about her son or husband who was away at war. The POW section displayed “Special Instructions for the Government of the Guard on duty at C.S. Military Prisons in the City of Richmond.” The special instructions specifically mention the infamous Libby Prison but not Belle Isle Prison.
There was – throughout the entire museum – one mention and three photos of Belle Island prison camp. The mention was actually a quote from Walt Whitman (“Can those be men?”) when he saw prisoners returning from there. The photos depicted men who were so thin the flesh hung from their bones, what little flesh there was left. One thing that struck in this display section was the bone carvings. Looking at the spoons and teeny tiny bone bibles, it dawned on me that these were made of bones.  And then it hit … they were made of bones!  It is one thing to hear it and one thing to read about it but it strikes some sense of clarity when you actually see it. Several drawings and notes concerning Andersonville Prison were also noted. I noticed no mention of any Union POW Camps, which of course makes me wonder what we did with Rebel prisoners.  

Throughout the museum there were several plaques that featured “War of Firsts.” The Civil War was in fact a war of many first time events. It was the first time photographs were taken of casualties on the battlefields. It was the first time a Medal of Honor was awarded someone. It was the first time a submarine attack on a naval ship was successful. It was the first time that chaplains were assigned to regiments. Confederate General Gabriel James Rains was the first to utilize land mines in war. Railroads were used for the first time to transport troops and supplies.  

There were two special exhibits at the end of the self guided tour. The first was “In the Hands of the Enemy,” which focused on prisoners of war. While Andersonville and Libby were again mention specifically, it also covered the generalities. It spoke of prisoner exchanges and how some prisoners were paroled but not technically exchanged.  

The final exhibit was “1864.” This exhibit was in honor of the 150th Commemoration of the Civil War. Flags and medals were included in this display area, as were grave markers. The Union grave marker is noted with GAR for the Grand Army of the Republic and is a five pointed star. It is little in comparison to the size of the Confederate marker that was on display. The Confederate one looks more like an old iron cross. It has CSA on it.  

The museum opened in 2001 and, according to their publicity information, has catalogued more than 4,000 artifacts. They supposedly have 21,000 archival documents but I did not see any but members of the museum may have access to the archives.  

It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and Saturdays. Wednesdays they are open until 8 p.m. Sunday hours are noon to 5 p.m. We – the four of us – finished up the tour in roughly two and a half hours. The cost is $11 for adults. Students and military (must show id for both) are just $9. We actually had a half off deal through Groupon.

Have YOU been to the National Civil War Museum? If so, I'd love to hear YOUR thoughts and opinions after visiting. You can share your thoughts below!


Those Places Thursday is a genealogical prompt of GeneaBloggers.

    Photos by Jeanne Ruczhak-Eckman
    © Jeanne Ruczhak-Eckman, 2015

Locations listed are located in Pennsylvania (USA), unless otherwise noted in post.