Gettysburg artifacts bring Civil War to life

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- It is just an old glass Mason jar with a metal lid, holding some brown peach pits. But the foot-high vessel, with the date 1858 in the glass, has enormous historical significance.

The pits are from peaches that were put into the jar in mid-1863 by the Sherfy family, who preserved the few pieces of fruit that remained after Union and Confederate forces fought early July 1863 in their peach orchard, a famous battle site in Gettysburg.

"The family canned 12 jars of peaches, all that was left on the trees in their orchard, which had been torn apart by artillery fire from both sides," National Park Service museum director Paul Shevchuk said Wednesday during a tour of a warehouse in Gettysburg National Military Park that holds 1.5 million artifacts from the Civil War.

Half of the items in the warehouse are letters, photos, maps, historical research papers and other documents that easily can be stored in boxes and crates in a 7,000-square-foot storage room beneath the park's museum and visitor center.

But several hundred thousand other artifacts are items such as bullets, musket balls, shell fragments, flags, bayonets, holsters, handguns, rifles, swords, belts, uniforms from both armies, buttons of brass and bone, pieces of farm equipment from the nearby countryside and even arrowheads from when Native Americans ruled this area.

The collection is the largest of Civil War memorabilia owned by the National Park Service, said Mr. Shevchuk, whose job is to take care of and add to it.

Upstairs in the museum, only about 1,300 artifacts at a time are put on public display; items are rotated every three years or so. Much of the clothing can be on display only for a few months at a time, he said, because light and heat discolor and destroy the fabric.

The storage vault is kept at a constant 70 degrees and 50 percent humidity to prevent any more damage beyond what was done to the uniforms in the 1960s and 70s, when they were constantly on display before officials realized they were being damaged.

One discolored garment is the officer's coat worn by Confederate Gen. James J. Pettigrew of North Carolina, which Mr. Shevchuk showed to visitors Wednesday. With its stars along the collar, brass buttons and embroidered sleeves, its original grayish-butternut wool has faded due to exposure to light.

He also displayed a handsome dark-blue coat worn by Union Capt. Thomas Fox of Massachusetts, who was shot in the foot during the Gettysburg fighting and died July 21, 1863. The coat was long and would have reached below the captain's knees.

Mr. Shevchuk also displayed two thick boxes of letters written by Lt. Joshua Garsed to his family. The lieutenant was 21 when he was killed in the Gettysburg battle.

His family kept his many letters, written from different battlefields, for years, before turning them over to the park service 20 years ago. In the collection is the letter a chaplain wrote to the family saying the lieutenant had been killed. "The family wanted Joshua to be remembered," Mr. Shevchuk said.

Every one of the thousands of written documents and photos is sealed in clear plastic for protection.

Before the current visitor center opened in 2008, the thousands of documents were kept in 14 locations around the Gettysburg area and not nearly as well protected from temperature, humidity or ultraviolet light. The old storage areas didn't even have fire sprinkler systems.

The new museum and visitor center cost $103 million and contains spaces for public gatherings, a 360-degree cyclorama painting depicting Pickett's Charge on July 3, 1863, plus a movie theater and display space. Some officials wanted to have a larger display space, Mr. Shevchuk said, but a tour of the center now takes about three hours and having a larger display space would take even longer.

The items at the museum were first collected by the Rosensteel family of Gettysburg, starting just two days after the battle ended and continuing for decades. The family put some items on display and set up a small museum and ice cream parlor. "They were pioneers in the Gettysburg tourism industry," Mr. Shevchuk said.

The U.S. War Department ran the national park here in the early 20th century, but the National Park Service took over in the 1930s, gradually obtaining the collections of the Rosensteels and other locals.

The 1 million items in the warehouse have come from private families and museums, descendants of soldiers who found things in their homes, contributions of historical societies around the nation, and from other national parks.

Usually, the donations are free, but occasionally items are purchased using funds from the Gettysburg Foundation, which partners with the park service to operate the park. One such purchase was to obtain items that belonged to Union Gen. John Reynolds, the commander who was killed by a Confederate bullet on the morning of the battle's first day, July 1. His hat, waist sash, sword, belt, handkerchiefs, metal badge and a small portrait of him were bought from a private collector.

Mr. Shevchuk said it's difficult to put a price on such things, but the hat alone went for $250,000. He said he knows of a uniform coat of another brigadier general worth $300,000, but it is in private hands.

The park service has a black "slouch hat" that was worn by Union Gen. Abner Doubleday and has a hole in the back where a shell fragment struck him.

It also has a black-and-white striped silk dress smuggled from Paris in 1863 to Mrs. Archibald Gracie, wife of a Confederate officer, but she never wore it because her husband died shortly after she got the dress.

The only items that can't be displayed, under a 30-year-old federal law, are human bones from the battle. They used to be displayed occasionally decades ago but have been buried in a vault in the National Military Cemetery at Gettysburg.

One item in the storehouse is a 4-foot-high bronze bust of President Abraham Lincoln, who delivered his famous Gettysburg Address in November 1863. It used to be displayed at the old cyclorama building, but that was torn down earlier this year. The bust of Lincoln could be back on display at the new visitor center in the future.

Mr. Shevchuk said he knows many more Civil War artifacts are still in private hands around the nation. Sometimes, owners put them on display briefly at Civil War conventions and meetings. He is always glad when owners decide to donate the items to the park service because, aside from occasional funding from the Gettysburg Foundation, the park service can't afford to buy them.

mobilehome - state - civilwar - gettysburgstories

Tom Barnes: or 717-623-1238.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?