PRIVATE MUSEUMS are public treasures. Most are products of local or individual historical fervor that gives them an immediacy seldom found in public institutions. And if private museums tend to stress or even stretch the facts to fit their agendas, so does the Smithsonian. History is "his story," whoever the narrator may be at the moment; we go to museums to see neat stuff.

The Shenandoah Valley is particularly rich in private museums centered on the Civil War. Many of its towns were torched or traded among the contending armies. The conflict so ravaged the region's pastures, fields and orchards that toward the end of the four-year struggle a Union general could boast that a crow trying to fly over the once-fertile valley would have to carry its own rations. Most Shenandoah communities saw sons come home maimed in mind or body, if they came home at all.

Sectional passions have cooled since the Cause was lost, but not the enduring fascination of the ironies and agonies of the War of the Brothers. Three private museums suggest the range of the valley's historical riches:

The Jefferson County Museum in Charles Town, W. Va., founded in 1965, is the logical place to begin because it holds the mother lode of artifacts relating to John Brown, whose 1859 Harpers Ferry Raid can be fairly described as the opening battle of the Civil War.

The collection includes the .31-caliber revolver Brown carried; his pamphlets proclaiming the abolition of slavery and the establishment of a new national government; the massive iron doors of the Charles Town jail where he was held; pikes and papers presented as evidence at his trial; the freight wagon in which he rode to his execution; bits of the rope Brown was hanged with and parts of the gallows he hung from.

"No other collection touches it," curator John Ingalls says with quiet pride, "not even the national museum at Harpers Ferry. Yet the John Brown memorabilia are only a small part of what we have. We cover the county from pre-Colonial to modern times." The Jefferson County Museum is a wonderful example of straightforward exposition: The labels are so brief as to be laconic, letting the objects speak for themselves.

"Many museums spell out everything," Ingalls says. "Not only what a thing is and where it came from but what it means and how you should think about it. We think our visitors are capable of making up their own minds."

Most of the collection, which includes countless items any major museum would covet, has been donated by local citizens, whose loyalty to the town is intense. Dorothy Lee Moore Donahy, now living in Des Moines, Iowa, decided to give her great-grandfather's 1851 Colt revolver to the museum, but was prevented by some officious official from carrying the antique onto an airplane. Rather than risk sending it in checked luggage, she rode a bus all the way to Charles Town to present the museum with the sidearm carried by Pvt. Albert Lasieu Moore, A Company (Jefferson Guards), 2d Virginia Infantry, Stonewall Brigade.

There's some such story behind nearly every artifact in the museum, from the fabulous old gaslight cash register to the 1819 silk wedding gown, and Ingalls loves to tell them. The density of the museum's display is deceptive; although some 5,000 objects are on view, the single large room seems open and uncluttered. To avoid input overload, take a break for lunch and a stroll around the historic town center, which includes some of the most beautiful old homes in the valley.

The New Market Battlefield Historical Park, founded in 1967 and not to be confused with a neighboring museum of similar name, is a major node in the old-boy network of the Virginia Military Institute, the state's last all-male public college. The self-supporting, nonprofit museum's Hall of Valor is dedicated to the VMI cadets who fought at the Battle of New Market.

The affair was a sideshow to the major campaigns of 1864, with only 13,000 troops engaged and 139 men killed. It was a Pyrrhic victory for the South in that it allowed Shenandoah Valley farmers to get in one more crop, which helped the Confederate armies fight a little longer and suffer a lot more casualties in a war they already had clearly lost.

But the battle was marked by a gallant charge by VMI cadets that has become the foundation myth of an institution that has produced such men as George C. Marshall, the only general ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and George S. Patton, equaled as a battlefield commander perhaps only by Stonewall Jackson (who taught Patton's grandfather at VMI).

The names of the cadets who fell at New Market, some of them beardless boys, still are repeated at VMI roll calls, and the museum's film makes so much of the role of the 257 cadets that one could come away thinking they whupped the Yankees by themselves.

Along with the hero worship the museum presents solid history, including what may be the best series of Civil War maps anywhere, and a simple, clear socio-economic analysis of the North and South demonstrating that the Confederacy was just whistling Dixie from before the beginning.

And while the institution is proud that VMI trained 13 of the 15 regimental commanders who led Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, it's equally proud to point out that among the cadets who survived New Market were 57 future lawyers, 19 engineers, 17 doctors, 14 judges and three college presidents.

The New Market Battlefield Military Museum, founded in 1988, is the pet and plaything of millionaire John Bracken -- at least he was a millionaire before he built a huge Federal-style building reminiscent of Robert E. Lee's Arlington House to house his vast personal collection of militaria.

Bracken runs an essentially one-man show, largely supported by sales from his impressive museum shop, and a helluva show it is. His display cases are crammed with an astonishing variety of more than 2,000 items, such as:

Alexander Hamilton's uniform coat; a plug of still-chewable tobacco produced by slaves in Pittsylvania County, Va., in 1859; a piece of wood from the Marshall House in Alexandria, whose owner shot down Col. Ephraim Ellsworth, a friend of Abraham Lincoln and first Union officer killed in the Civil War; Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard's heavy artillery manual; the sword that broke under Mississippi's Gen. William Barksdale when he fell dying at Gettysburg; Minie balls fused together from in-flight collision; a Sharp's repeating rifle with a coffee grinder built into the stock; counterfeit Confederate money; the first poison gas shell fired by U.S. troops in World War II; Ike Eisenhower's 1915 West Point blanket; a British paratrooper's mini-motorcycle; Nazi Field Marshall Hermann Goering's white dress hat; bullet-punctured Japanese helmets; the cap Adm. Elmo Zumwalt wore during his early days as Chief of Naval Operations . . .

He can document every jot and tittle of such eclectica, Bracken says. His standards for collecting are simple, he says. The item has to be military-related, authentic and, most of all, "there has to be a story with it. The story is what I care about, because wars aren't fought by armies, they're fought by men, and the big picture is only a lot of little pictures."

Bracken mounts all the exhibits himself and writes all the text cards, and if the items in a given display case don't seem to go together very well, hey, it's his museum, his story, history.

And it's terrific. JEFFERSON COUNTY MUSEUM -- Washington and Samuels streets, Charles Town, W. Va. 304/725-8628. Open 10 to 4 Monday through Saturday, April through November. Free. Good wheelchair access. NEW MARKET BATTLEFIELD HISTORICAL PARK -- At the New Market exit of I-81, about a mile past the unrelated New Market Battlefield Military Museum (below). 703/740-3101. Open daily 9 to 5. Admission $4 adults, $1.50 children 7 to 15. NEW MARKET BATTLEFIELD MILITARY MUSEUM -- At the New Market exit of I-81. 703/740-8065. Not related to the New Market Battlefield Historical Park (above). Open 9 to 5 daily from March 15 through Dec. 1. Admission $4 adults, $3.50 seniors and military, $1.50 children 6 to 13, under 6 free. Good wheelchair access.