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Civil War Museum displays history ‘in 3 dimensions’

SHARE Civil War Museum displays history ‘in 3 dimensions’

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 people 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.

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, 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,' " Hicks said during an interview in his office. "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."

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 pre-war 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.

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.

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 Gen. 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 you avoid the Union Army draft is 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."