Book will give life to Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum's collection

'"Witness to History: Gettysburg' details Civil War items


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Right after the Battle of Gettysburg, businessman Joel Danner recognized that his town had the potential to become a tourist destination.

He soon opened a museum and store on the borough's Baltimore Street where he displayed and sold battlefield artifacts. He painted distinctive white numbers on many of his items as aids to identification.

As many as 15 artifacts from Danner's long-gone "curiosity shop" have turned up in the collections of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.

The stories behind some will be included in a book to be published next month by the landmark military museum. "Witness to History: Gettysburg" will describe 50 items from the Soldiers & Sailors displays and archives that bring to life events and people linked to the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

Michael Kraus, curator and staff historian at the memorial hall, is writing the text.

The oldest item in the collection is a bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln, based on a life mask made by sculptor Leonard Volk. It was presented by the Sons of Union Veterans organization when the hall opened in 1910, Mr. Kraus said.

The life mask was done in 1860, when Lincoln was the Republican candidate for president, and it shows him without his familiar beard.

"The newest item is a diary that somebody brought in a few weeks ago," Mr. Kraus said. John Evans, who was training to become a doctor, served as a hospital steward in Company H of the 12th Pennsylvania Reserves. In those duties, he assisted regimental surgeons, prepping patients and providing what limited post-operative care was available.

When Noel Joyce Letterio of Oakdale gave Evans' diary and letters to Soldiers & Sailors, she was carrying out a request from her late mother, Mr. Kraus said. "She had heard us on a KDKA broadcast talking about what we do here, and she and her husband decided a donation to Soldiers & Sailors would fulfill her mother's wishes."

Especially now during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the market -- and prices -- for memorabilia has grown dramatically. Among the highly sought items are the numbered pieces from Danner's 19th-century Gettysburg collection. It was a surprise to staff members at Soldiers & Sailors that their museum had so many items that had passed through Danner's hands.

In addition to buying and selling items such as spent artillery shells and field equipment, Danner also made photos of battlefield artifacts. Each item in those pictures was numbered. Four or five of those images were published in a book called "Gettysburg Battlefield Relics and Souvenirs."

Some of the Civil War-era items in the Oakland museum's collection bore white numbers, and staff members tried to match artifacts with images in the photographs.

Other items to be featured in the book include a sword, spur and telescope that belonged to Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren.

While Warren's name is not widely known, he played a crucial role during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. As Northern and Southern armies jockeyed for position July 2, 1863, Warren realized that Little Round Top -- located to the south of the Union left flank -- was almost undefended. Trained as an engineer and map maker, he saw the danger of a Confederate attack there and he scrambled his staff officers to find troops to defend the high ground. Erie's Col. Strong Vincent responded.

Soldiers & Sailors holds about 10,000 major artifacts from the nation's wars and only a fraction of them can be on display at one time. "Witness to History: Gettysburg" will include descriptions of some items not often seen by the public.

The e-book should be available in mid-January with hopes for a print edition to come out later in 2014. The project is being underwritten by a number of local companies.

Mr. Kraus said more information on the book project will be available shortly on the museum website, www.soldiersandsailorshall.or.

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.


First Published December 26, 2013 12:06 AM

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