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Field amputation.
Field amputation.

National Civil War Museum

Field review by the editors.

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

"There's a heck of a lot more to the Civil War than just fighting," said Wayne Motts, CEO of the National Civil War Museum. The museum endeavors to cover not just the four years of carnage, but the ten years before and the many years afterward. One memorable exhibit is a newsreel from the 75th anniversary of Gettysburg, with geriatric, medal-clad veterans from both sides breaking into a dance for the cameras. "Soldiers of Lee, soldiers of Grant," the announcer bellows, "Americans all!"

Fort Sumter.
Fort Sumter.

CEO Wayne used to be a battlefield guide at Gettysburg, which for us prompted the question, "Why is this museum in Harrisburg?" Wayne said that it really didn't matter where the museum was, and that removing it from a battlefield in fact gave it the leeway to cover the entire war -- but the straightforward reason is that Harrisburg's former mayor had a Civil War fixation and access to a city treasury with millions of dollars. Opened in February 2001, it cost $32 million.

The result: a museum with the "world's best" Civil War collection, according to its literature. "I'm like a kid in a candy store!" said Wayne.

The museum, true to its mission, kicks off with a look at pre-war slavery. There's an exact replica of the box in which Henry Brown mailed himself to freedom (You can sit in it for snapshots). There are chains, iron shackles, a ragged pair of pants, and the pen that signed the death warrant of John Brown. A sad scene of a slavery auction is counterpoised with a Rebel soldier firing a mortar: boom! The Civil War has begun!

Ask the President any of 200 questions.
Ask the President any of 200 questions.

What follows are lots of guns, swords, flags, and uniforms, several animated battle maps, life-size dummy dioramas (some quite bloody), and a series of video theaters where you can follow the fates of ten different people trying to live through the war.

The museum's audio is inescapable; no matter where you walk, sensors trigger the disembodied voices of actors pretending to be 19th century people. By the time you reach the actual fighting, the galleries are filled with a ghostly babble of complaining wives, exhausted doctors, dejected soldiers -- as well as rumbling cannons, clanging church bells, whinnying horses, and sad fiddles. If you close your eyes, it really is the madness of war.

Battle scene miniatures.
Battle scene miniatures.

The "Costs of War" gallery has what we were told is the single most memorable exhibit in the museum for kids: a full-size field hospital with a blood-spattered surgeon about to hack off the gangrenous foot of a soldier. "We chose not to sanitize it," said Wayne. "War is a terrible thing." The ghostly voices work overtime in this diorama. "By the side of the table was a pile of feet," says one. "Scores of flies were everywhere," says another. "I am up to my neck in work!" cries a surgeon. "Slaughter, slaughter, slaughter!"

The centerpiece of the museum's Abraham Lincoln gallery is its "Meet Mr. Lincoln" exhibit. Using a touch screen you can pepper an actor portraying the President with over 200 questions, including "What was your favorite food?" and "What size shoe did you wear?" When Abe starts to launch into one of his folksy stories, you can interrupt him by hopping to another question -- something you could never do with a real President. You can even ask questions of crazy Mrs. Lincoln ("Was the President a good father?") and John Wilkes Booth ("Who are you?").

Fallen cannoneer.

The museum, according to Wayne, constantly rotates its abundant supply of relics. We were impressed to see a lock of hair from Stonewall Jackson's horse, a bullet-riddled fence post from Gettysburg, and a chair taken from the captured Confederate White House. A pair of Robert E. Lee's gauntlets carried an accompanying note that he had "tiny hands and feet." A large mural on one wall showed a line of battle-crazed Rebels charging straight at you, faces snarling and guns blazing. "Yaaaaagh! Aaaagh!" cried the voices.

According to the nice woman working in the museum gift shop, some of its most popular items are a collection of baseballs with Civil War battles painted on them. We were impressed with the "Sweet Taste of Liberty" designer chocolates, shaped like Civil War caps and belt buckles. "We had bullets," said the lady. "But they sold out."

National Civil War Museum

One Lincoln Circle, Harrisburg, PA
In Reservoir Park. I-81 exit 69. Drive south on Progress Ave. Turn right onto US Hwy 22/Walnut St. Drive toward downtown, a little over a mile (When US Hwy 22 bears right, stay on Walnut). When you reach the Parkside Cafe, turn left into the park. Drive up the hill to the parking lot and the museum.
M-Sa 10-5, Su 12-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $10.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

PA National Fire MuseumPA National Fire Museum, Harrisburg, PA - 2 mi.
World's Largest BobbleheadWorld's Largest Bobblehead, Paxtonia, PA - 5 mi.
Giant DoughnutGiant Doughnut, Goldsboro, PA - 8 mi.
In the region:
Ephrata Cloister Tour, Ephrata, PA - 36 mi.

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