$103 million Gettysburg museum ready to open

A place where voices of the Civil War can be heard

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- The tattered map and painstakingly lettered wooden tag tied to the toe of 19-year-old Lt. William Fisher that enabled his father to find his grave and body ...

The medical case carried by a physician who served at the first battle of the Civil War and, two years later, at the monumental clash that determined its outcome ...

The narrow camp cot and pigeonhole desk used by Gen. Robert E. Lee while he executed the doomed three-day assault on his Northern enemy ...

Each is a surviving, tangible testament to a soldier whose life intersected with thousands of others in July 1863 in this pastoral town near the Maryland border.

By weaving their stories with scores of others drawn from those who fought, died and witnessed at Gettysburg, planners of a new museum and visitors center aim to provide a more personal understanding of the battle's toll and inestimable impact on the nation's future.

Teeming with artifacts, archives, educational and research facilities and interactive exhibits that allow visitors to sample a Civil War soldier's life, the $103 million center opens tomorrow at the Gettysburg National Military Park in Adams County.

Designed to resemble a Civil War-era red plank barn and stone farmhouse, the 139,000- square-foot complex nestles in a 100-acre glade adjacent to the battlefield.

A joint project of the National Park Service and the private Gettysburg Foundation, the center replaces an 87-year-old facility that lacked space for artifacts and elbow room for nearly 2 million visitors each year.

Moving the center two-thirds of a mile from the old location will permit restoration of land along Cemetery Ridge, where soldiers fought during the three-day clash in which about 50,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded or captured.

The center also will house the "Battle of Gettysburg" Cyclorama painting, which had been displayed in a separate building and had suffered extensive damage before restoration began in 2004. The three-dimensional piece of art, created in 1884 by Paul Philippoteaux and a team of painters, will return to public view Sept. 26.

Visitors could spend days working their way through the center's films, computer databases and exhibits, with pauses in its "saloon'' for period refreshments of biscuits, chicken and dumplings or macaroni and cheese. But its contents are intended to be digested in "bite-sized pieces'' that will inform and enhance forays onto the sprawling battlefield, chief park historian D. Scott Hartwig said.

The center provides context for battlefield visitors by addressing the birth of the United States, the events that drew two armies to Gettysburg, and the ongoing struggles for civil and voting rights that roiled the country for more than a century after the war.

"We typically in museums don't tell the public how [the armies] got here. It was like they just showed up here and started to fight,'' Mr. Hartwig said. "[Now] we learn what sets up Gettysburg.''

Visitors enter a meticulously designed lobby where a brief film answers questions about park attractions, parking, transportation and hiring battlefield guides. An atrium leads to the museum, theaters, education wing and bookstore; more than a million artifacts and documents and thousands of books are stored in a climate-controlled lower level.

Period materials abound -- hardwood, stone, slate, white pillars with embedded cannons -- and dozens of high windows provide light and views of woods and wetlands where armies once swarmed. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic,'' "Dixie'' and other martial tunes play while visitors approach 11 galleries.

Bearing names drawn from President Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," each gallery is packed with display cases, photographs, newspaper reproductions and theaters. A 12th gallery will house temporary or loaned exhibits.

Weapons, uniforms, flags and recreations of soldiers' and officers' camps are shown. Bibles, wallets, improvised games and other homey items are accompanied by information about their former owners.

Among the irreplaceable artifacts: the iron door of the cell where abolitionist John Brown was jailed in Harpers Ferry, Va., before the war; the battered canvas stretcher used to carry Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson after he was fatally wounded at Chancellorsville, Va., in the spring of 1863; and the bed, desk and camp stove used by Gen. Lee.

"We don't just show you racks of rifles or how many minie balls we have . . . Now you will see [artifacts] in the context of the soldiers' experience,'' Mr. Hartwig said. "Every single piece has to tell a story, and those personal stories help visitors to make a connection.''

Galleries also cover political events and issues, exploring the country's growth, economic conditions and its bitter conflicts over slavery as well as the military campaigns that led to and followed the battle at Gettysburg. Other galleries delve into the "Gettysburg Address," the preservation of the battlefield and the struggles for freedom that continued for many Americans after the war ended in 1865.

"We're [touching on] experiences that can reach all different levels of learning and all different age groups,'' said Dr. Robert C. Wilburn, president and chief executive officer of the Gettysburg Foundation, who held the same positions at the Carnegie Institute from 1984 to 1992.

Quotations are everywhere, reflecting the comments and opinions of commanders, common soldiers, civilians and war correspondents who followed and documented the experiences of both armies. Films and audio exhibits detail victories, defeats, light moments among friends and the carnage that followed in the words and re-created voices of battle combatants and witnesses.

"We want you to read and hear the voices of the people as much as we could,'' Mr. Hartwig said. "This whole museum is a story.''

Indeed, the most poignant exhibits are those that provide a snapshot of the lives, and too often the deaths, of individual folks rather than entire regiments or armies.

Particularly effective is the wall covered by 560 overlapping portraits of soldiers, some grim and formal, others sporting shy smiles, many heartbreakingly young. All were killed, wounded or captured at Gettysburg. Information about their fates is available in the center's extensive resource room.

Equally moving is the glass case devoted to Lt. Fisher, of Delaware, who died on the second day of fighting in the area known as "The Wheatfield.'' Along with his toe tag and maps drawn by a comrade to mark his grave are letters written by his father, who traveled to Gettysburg to search for his son.

In his final letter, the grieving father informs the slain soldier's mother: "William is no more.''

The Museum and Visitor Center at Gettysburg National Military Park is located at 1195 Baltimore Pike. It can be reached from Baltimore Pike or Taneytown Road and will be open daily, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

Admission is free, although fees will be charged to view the feature film "A New Birth of Freedom.'' Tickets are $8 for adults and $6.50 for youth (ages 6-12). Children under age 5 are admitted free. Film admission will be coupled with admission to the Cyclorama painting when it opens Sept. 26. Admission then will be $12 for adults and $10 for youth.

For more information, call 866-889-1243 or go to www.gettysburgfoundation.org or www.nps.gov/gett.

Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973. First Published April 13, 2008 4:00 AM


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