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Civil War Blog

A project of PA Historian

National Civil War Museum – 10th Anniversary

Posted By on April 2, 2011

The year 2011 represents the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the National Civil War Museum.  Several prior posts on this blog have featured the museum’s “Walk of Valor” (see also part 2 and part 3) and the centerpiece statue “Moment of Mercy.

The National Civil War Museum is located high on a hilltop overlooking Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.  The museum aims to provide a balanced view and to inspire lifelong learning through preservation and research about the Civil War.   It has become a national destination for “families, students, civil war enthusiasts and historians to experience and research the culture and history of the American Civil War.”

The establishment of the museum in 2001 was not without controversy.  Then Harrisburg Mayor Stephen R. Reed, himself a Civil War buff, helped quietly acquire a 25,000 piece collection of Civil War artifacts through the Harrisburg Authority, a utility and bond-issuing agency that supplied more than $30 million for what now is the core of the museum’s collections.  Reed’s dream of a tourism triangle that included Gettysburg, Harrisburg and Hershey was his supposed motivation – Harrisburg being known as the “Crossroads of the Union” during the Civil War – to have Harrisburg as the site of a national museum dedicated to a fair and balanced portrayal of all aspects of the national struggle.  But critics lambasted him for proposing an expensive monument to his own ego.

Nevertheless, the museum was built and obtained its building and grounds debt-free.  However, it was left without an endowment that would have supplemented its income and help to finance improvements and exhibit changes.   The basic collection of artifacts that was gifted to the museum lies largely unused and untouched in the museum basement with only a portion of the items on display.  As far as visitors go, it certainly does not match rival Gettysburg or any in of the Smithsonian museums in Washington, but it is holding its own as a center of Civil War study.  Critics now say that the exhibits need to updated and made more interactive to meet the needs of today’s computer-savvy youth.

As far as center of study goes, scholars regularly meet at the museum for seminars and examination of artifacts.  The Sons of Union Veterans has its national headquarters there.  Civil War re-enactors regularly hold encampments on the lawn.  And school groups have annual planned visits there.

The one fact that has helped make this museum different that all others about the Civil War is that it attempts to tell the whole story of the Civil War from beginning to end and from many possible points of view.  The museum at Gettysburg battlefield focuses primarily on that battle, although it puts the battle in the context of the total struggle.  Some Civil War sites have expanded their scope beyond the reason they were famous – or infamous, as in the case of Andersonville, Georgia, site of the Confederate prison – which today is the National Prisoner of War Museum and includes a full-sized replica of the cell in which P.O.W. John McCain was held during the Vietnam conflict.

Still, a quick look at the “Walk of Valor” gives the visitor the impression that this is primarily a Pennsylvania museum and has a long way to go to prove it its national scope.  It appears that more than half the bricks on the walk recognize Pennsylvania veterans of the war while sections set aside for other states have barely any memorial bricks in them.

Only a few of the more than 80,000 South Carolinians who served in the war are recognized on the Walk of Valor

The dedication plaque at the entrance:

Click on picture to enlarge.

While the museum has not fully realized recognition as “the” national museum dedicated to the Civil War, it is making strides toward that goal.  The fact that it is in Harrisburg, Dauphin County, has special meaning for the soldiers who are recognized in our Civil War Research Project – less than an hour from the Lykens Valley area and in the same county.

Some of the information for this post was taken from an article which appeared in the Harrisburg Sunday Patriot-News, 20 February 2011.


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