ABRAHAM LINCOLN BICENTENNIAL: A Nation Honors the Civil War President
By Ed Wetschler
James Hayney will impersonate Abraham Lincoln at the National Civil War Museum on February 14, 2009, to honor the 16th president's birthday bicentennial. By the time you read this, of course, you may have missed the show. No matter. Hayney is good, very good, but Lincoln, the greatest president in American history, was better.
Not everyone will agree with my evaluation of Lincoln. In fact, not everyone agrees with my admiration of the North's effort to halt secession. But the curators of the National Civil War Museum seem to understand that. Despite their high regard for Lincoln — and their powerful portrayal of slavery's horrors — this institution shows equal respect to both the Blue and the Gray. A controversial, almost postmodern approach, you could say, yet it reminds me of a little something Lincoln said just before he died: "With malice toward none, charity for all, let us bind up the nation's wounds."
The National Civil War Museum is not as peculiar an institution as slavery, but it is peculiar. Consider: a "national" museum with no Federal affiliation. Plus, a location in off-the-radar-screen Harrisburg, PA. Granted, that's just 40 miles from Gettysburg, but ten years ago you might have wondered, Would people travel that 40 miles? Or would the museum be one of those places nobody knows about?
(Photo by Jim Shafer)
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. Harrisburg Mayor Stephen R. Reed reminded everyone who would listen that his city was home to the Union Army's largest camp, and he wangled funds, a lot of funds, from corporations, individuals, and the state. Reed also helped the nascent museum acquire 3,500 splendid artifacts (weapons, flags, marching drums ) and 20,000 documents and photographs. A sprawling new building went up on a hilltop, curators were hired to design galleries that would bring history alive, and the National Civil War Museum opened in 2001 as the country's largest Civil War museum. But it's not just large; it's good.
No Hollywood Endings
You needn't be a history buff (and it needn't be a bicentennial year) to feel the impact of the War Between the States. And this museum makes sure you get it from the moment you enter the first gallery, devoted to the reasons for the conflict. The first thing you see is videos of actors portraying typical Civil War-era Americans.
Uh-oh, historical re-enactments. But unlike the plodding films I had to use when I was a young history teacher, these videos are so well acted and scripted from archived diaries and letters that you really care about these people. For example, three brothers from Kentucky talk about their loyalties: One will join the rebels; another, the Union; and the third will flee the conflict. You'll catch up with them later, in galleries that cover the actual war and its aftermath. Don't count on Hollywood endings.
(Photo by Jim Shafer)
In a gallery on slavery, mannequins form a slave auction tableau. Another uh-oh; I mean, what is this, Madame Tussaud's? But the combination of unusually well-crafted mannequins and artifacts (the cat-o-nine-tails looks especially nasty) renders the unimaginable imaginable. In one room a hyper-realistic figure of a slave stares back at you through holding-cell bars in an auction pen. His is a face you'll not forget.
One Death Per Second
Subsequent galleries track the war chronologically, from the Fort Sumter incident (1861) to Appomattox. At Shiloh, as historian James Robertson Jr. explains in a video, more than 23,000 troops died. That many died at Antietam, too–in just one day. Robertson taps his hands for emphasis, "Imagine one man going down every second for six hours." Maps show troop movements, sometimes heading in heroic but disastrous directions.
(Photo by Jim Shafer)
Cases contain rifles, pistols that seem too big and heavy to hold steady, swords, uniforms, bugles, and terrifying medical instruments. All-too-realistic mannequins re-create a surgery in a field hospital; it's another scene you'll not soon forget.
Posters display quotes, such as this one, from a Union officer at Shiloh: "Fill your canteens, boys! Some of you will be in hell before night." This Lincoln idolator is touched by General Robert E. Lee's lamentation over J.E.B. Stuart's death: "I can scarcely think of him without weeping."
The last gallery reminds us that the Civil War ushered in a lot of phenomena we might not associate with it, including modern weaponry, our national currency, the mass production of clothing in standard sizes, even income taxes. More importantly, it abolished slavery and saved the Union. The conflict also triggered decades of resentments–but then, a film clip shows a 20th century reunion of Civil War veterans dressed in blue and gray. They seem to have forgiven each other. For this bipartisan museum, that is the ultimate message, and in the end, that was Lincoln's fervent wish as well.
Not surprisingly, organizations all across the nation are celebrating this bicentennial. The New-York Historical Society, for one, is hosting an exhibition called Great Lincoln Documents. Hard to imagine a better way to honor a president who wrote his own speeches, and wrote them spectacularly well. Guest speakers will appear throughout 2009, and in October N-YHS unveils the exhibition Lincoln and New York. For bicentennial events at other museums, libraries, battlefields, etc., visit Lincoln Bicentennial. And remember, even this is an incomplete list.
The National Civil War Museum (One Lincoln Circle in Reservoir Park, Harrisburg, PA l 866-258-1861. Admission is $8 for adults and $6 for students (free on Feb. 14)). Harrisburg, 40 miles from Gettysburg and other Civil War sites. (One of the primary reasons the Confederate Army kept invading Pennsylvania was to take out the training camp and railroad junction at Harrisburg.) The museum is also an easy 45 miles from Maryland, which boasts sites like Antietam. Visit the Civil War Traveler for more information.
In Harrisburg, book one of the four rooms at the Milestone Inn, a Tudor Revival mansion at 701 N. Front St., facing the Susquehanna River. Rates start at $189. For Mediterranean cuisine dine at Bricco, 31 S. 3rd Sreet.