National Museum of the Civil War Soldier


First Sergeant
Feb 20, 2005
Evansville, Indiana
First-Person Look At Civil War Strife

TWENTY-FIVE minutes on the Interstate is all that separates Petersburg, Va., from Richmond, the old Confederate capital to its north. Driving, the distance passes in about the time it takes for a supersized cup of coffee to cool off, or a set of oldies to play on the car radio. It takes a real effort of historical imagination to understand that 140 years ago, the Union army spent 10 extraordinarily weary and deadly months trying to make this same 23-mile journey, and that tens of thousands of Confederates fell trying to stop them.
Petersburg was the vital railroad center that linked Richmond to the rest of the Confederacy -- capture it and Grant's army would starve Lee out. The 10 months the armies spent facing each other in a grim war of attrition was not only the longest siege in American history but also introduced a style of trench warfare that presaged the nightmares of Flanders in World War I.

Petersburg was a battle of entrenchments, dugouts, snipers, mud, dust, boredom and disease: few generals won glory there, and many lost their reputations. Petersburg was a battle of the common soldier, the individual fighting man, the blue and gray grunt. It culminated on April 2, 1865, when the Union's Sixth Corps, attacking up a swampy ravine, pierced the Confederate line, leading to the evacuation of Richmond that night and to Lee's surrender at Appomattox a week later.

It's historically fitting, then, that Petersburg should be the setting for an evocative museum dedicated to conveying the ''ordinary'' experiences of the three million Americans who served as soldiers, on both sides, in the Civil War. The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, opened in 1999, forms the showcase of the 10-year-old, 422-acre Pamplin Historical Park, which includes what are among the best-preserved earthwork fortifications and entrenchments from the Civil War.

The museum takes an imaginative, multilayered approach to commemorating these soldiers. It starts with the architecture. The main building, with its dignified white stone, fortress-shaped rectangularity and watchtowerlike dome, suggests that the memory of the Civil War soldier enshrined and honored within is lovingly protected as well.

The feeling of quiet reverence is maintained through the park. On my visit, getting there early as the recreated Civil War camp outside the museum came slowly alive with activity -- soldier "guides" cooking on their campfires, talking softly with each other outside their white canvas tents -- I found myself asking them questions in a quiet voice, not wanting to disturb the overall hush.

The heart of the museum is a series of galleries called ''Duty Called Me; the Common Soldier's Experience in the American Civil War.'' At the entrance, visitors are asked to select a ''comrade'' from a picture gallery of 13 soldiers from the various states, North and South. After choosing one, you're given an MP3 player that guides you through paintings, photos and recreations of a training camp, field hospitals, winter bivouacs and a simulated battlefield, all the while following your soldier's experience within this larger canvas.

I looked at the pictures carefully. Moved by something wistful and innocent in his expression, I chose Pvt. Charles Brandegee from Berlin, Conn., who enlisted as a 16-year-old in the Fifth New York Infantry, the famous Duryee's Zouaves.

At the first listening station, I heard him boasting proudly of his marching abilities in a letter home to his mother, then at a later stop, heard him growling impatiently for battle, then -- deep now in the heart of the exhibit -- heard of his being captured in the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia, sent to a prison at the infamous Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Ga., then another in South Carolina. When he finally made it back to New York again, he was a skeletal 90 pounds.

Individualizing stories in this way is the key to the museum's success: giving the visitor an intimate, insider's understanding of what it was like to be a soldier, from the tedium of camp life through the dangers of combat to the horrors of what passed for hospitals. And often it's the plainest, simplest of the displays that brings the reality of the experience home:

Poker chips made by flattening coins with a hammer. A folding mirror with a ''lice comb'' attached. A soldier's underwear with his name lovingly embroidered by his mother. And a pocket-sized New Testament with a bullet wedged halfway through the pages -- it saved the life of Pvt. Richard W. Best of the Third North Carolina Infantry at the Battle of Antietam.

The MP3 player allows you to focus on various aspects of soldier life, including music, photography, leisure time and army discipline. The ''Trial by Fire'' gallery replicates the sounds and sights of battle, giving you a good idea of what it was like to be a Confederate defender peering through the earthworks at a charging Union column, feeling the little puffs of air blow past your head from their errant shots.

The multimedia, high-tech approach blends nicely with the more traditional, glass-cased exhibits; it is also striking how evenly balanced the presentation is between North and South. The museum makes it clear that soldiers from both sides were caught up in the same tragedy.

As fascinating as it is, ''Duty Called Me'' is only one layer of the story being told. A constant series of lectures, tours and demonstrations take place both in the courtyard outside the main building, and in the recreated military camp a short walk away: The nine steps in loading a musket; the how and why of building earthen fortifications, complete with sharpened logs called abatis; how to make (and eat!) hardtack. Knowledgeable experts and Civil War interpreters present these and other demonstrations, as well as leading tours of the surviving Confederate works.

To one side of the military camp is the circa-1812 Tudor Hall, which has been restored to demonstrate what plantation life was like in the antebellum South, as well as its wartime use by Confederate officers. This surprisingly simple white frame building was once the home of the Boisseaus, ancestors of the Pamplin family, the philanthropists who have been the driving force behind the continuing growth of the museum since its opening.

Next to the recreated encampment is the Battlefield Center -- a striking cubist jumble of a building that is meant to suggest and compliment the old fortifications that flank it. Inside is a surround-sound dramatization of the breakthrough battle of April 2, 1865. In a glass display case outside the auditorium are the uniform and Medal of Honor of Capt. Charles Gould, the Union officer from Vermont who was the first man over the Confederate line; a picture of him shows an astonishingly young-looking man with an ugly scar across his cheek from a sword thrust suffered only a few yards from where you're standing -- a wound he survived, to eventually return to Vermont.

For me, the most evocative part of the Pamplin Historical Park are the old fortifications themselves, over three-quarters of a mile worth, linked by three level trails of varying length, all of which have explanatory audio or visual stations. The earthworks are remarkably well preserved; there are even shallow scoops in the forest where the Confederate pickets dug hastily for cover as the Union army advanced.

Standing on the edge of the open field, staring toward the earthworks 200 yards away, it's not difficult to imagine what it was like being a Union soldier of the Sixth Corps getting ready to charge; a few minutes later, standing behind the fortifications and peering out at the same field from the opposite direction, it's equally easy to imagine what the badly outnumbered Confederate defenders felt as they prepared to receive that charge: nervousness, uncertainty, fear and the beginnings of the courage and determination needed to fight them off.

Walk along these fortifications, take the time to learn something about the story of what happened here, use the museum to understand who these men were, and the past comes alive with a piercing immediacy that shakes you, and shakes you hard.

For so many, it was the last battle

The Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, (877) 726-7546 and, are three miles south of Petersburg, Va., off Exit 63A of I-85. They are open daily, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Aug. 15, then 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. Admission is $13.50, or $12 for ages 62 and up, and $7.50 for children 6 to 11. The Hardtack and Coffee Cafe offers snacks and light meals; the museum store stocks an excellent selection of Civil War books.

Visitors interested in learning more about the long siege can visit the Petersburg National Battlefield, a short distance east of Petersburg on State Route 36. Admission is $5 a car, good for seven days. A visitors center and a driving tour give you an understanding of what the fighting was like. Information: (804) 732-3531;


Feb 20, 2005
The write-up is not quite accurate. Petersburg is among the last sieges of the war. Yorktown, Vicksburg, Port Hudson preceded it. The Siege of Sebastopol preceded. The Siege of Charleston & Yorktown in the Revolution preceded it.

Still, the museum is situated on historic grounds that includes the bivouac of McGowan's Brigade of South Carolinians. The restored house was his HQ.