If there was one thing Virginia needed, it was another Civil War museum. The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier near Petersburg gives a stirring new perspective to the conflict that killed more Americans than all our wars before and since.
The nonprofit museum, built entirely with private funds, is the capstone of Pamplin Historical Park, built by a father and son on their old Dinwiddie County family farm -- which happens to be the place where Grant's troops broke through the defenses of Richmond, leading to the fall of the Confederate capital and Lee's retreat to Appomattox.
But this $10 million high-tech museum isn't about Grant and Lee and all those other generals. It's about the millions of ordinary soldiers, northern and southern, who by patriotism, principle, draft, opportunism or chance found themselves serving under arms in a noble and horrible contest to determine once and for all whether the United States was to be whole and wholly free.
So firm is the museum's focus on "other ranks" that majors and above are virtually ignored. Lieutenants and captains are included because in most units they were elected from and by the enlisted men. On the museum's entrance plaza stands a bronze sculpture by Ron Tunison that sets the tone. Instead of the usual grand man on horseback, it shows two weary foot soldiers taking a break on the line of march.
Union? Confederate? Tunison doesn't say and the museum staff doesn't care; they're symbolic of both sides. The two figures also illustrate the fact that many units in the field dressed so similarly -- or were so bedraggled and dusty -- that they could be told apart only by their flags; devotion to one's battle banner was a matter of self-preservation as much as sentiment.
The park's owners, Robert B. Pamplin Sr. and Jr., have spent $30 million so far on the 363-acre complex, which includes an antebellum farm house used as a Yankee headquarters, a subsidiary museum devoted to how and where the fatal April 2, 1865, Union breakthrough came, and the battlefield itself, one of the best preserved in the country. The Pamplins expect to spend that much again and more on a 12-year, three-stage expansion of the main museum from 25,500 square feet to 70,000 square feet, including a library that's intended to be a leading center of Civil War research.
Pamplin Park is rich in symbolism of the New South. It was built by an old southern family that endured defeat and Reconstruction yet became so thoroughly reconciled that there is no hint of Lost Cause bitterness in them -- and not the least leaning toward the southern side in their museum. There was a time, and it wasn't all that long ago, when proposing to make a tourist attraction of the site of the decisive Union breakthrough would have stirred outrage from one end of the Old Dominion to the other.
But that was then and this is now. The younger Pamplin says the whole point of the project is "to help the people of today, especially the young people, to realize what the Civil War soldier went through, and understand the duty, discipline and devotion that made it possible for the troops to endure so much. Then we can ask of them, as we've asked of ourselves, `Have you loved your country enough to give it something of yourself?'" As for himself, Pamplin, whose family is one of America's 400 richest, says, "I measure my wealth by how much I can give away, not how much I can keep."
The Pamplin fortune was founded by Robert Sr., who built a southern sawmill operation into the Georgia-Pacific timber barony, then after retirement founded with his son the R.B. Pamplin Corp., a Fortune 400 company that donates 10 percent of its pre-tax profits to charity, plus countless humongous grants to educational and cultural institutions. Robert Jr. is an ordained minister who holds eight academic degrees, has written a dozen biographical and inspirational books, and collects Asian and Native American art. This recitation could go on for several pages; the Pamplins may well be the least-known of this country's grand-scale philanthropists. That may change if they succeed in their ambition of making Pamplin Historical Park one of Virginia's top five attractions, along with Mount Vernon and Williamsburg.
Every Civil War artifact in the museum, from lice combs to minie balls that met and fused in mid-air, was authenticated and purchased by William C. Lazenby, the park's director of museums. The fact that Civil War items of provable provenance and in good condition are still on the market is testimony to the fantastic volume of munitions and equipment produced to supply the armies. Lazenby, a Toronto native with a master's in museum studies, also oversaw the installation of all the exhibit sections.
The Pamplins' charge to the museum staff was to "build us a world-class institution," says executive director A. Wilson Greene. Toward that end, every jot and tittle of each display and statement in the museum has been produced or vetted by staff historian Arthur W. Bergeron Jr., author of several Civil War biographies, former curator of the Port Hudson Civil War battlefield and longtime chief of interpretive services for the Louisiana Office of State Parks.
Visitors to the new museum are issued semi-automatic CD players that switch themselves from track to track as one progresses through seven galleries with more than 1,000 period artifacts plus reproductions. The CD players also are programmed to provide commentary from a "soldier comrade," one of 13 real soldiers whose war experiences are related in first-person excerpts from their letters and diaries.
I chose George Job Huntley, a 20-year-old farmer who served as a musician with the 34th North Carolina Infantry; he was as close as I could come to my great-grandfather, John Sadoc Smiley, a 17-year-old fifer with the 39th North Carolina. Their paths diverged early on; Huntley fought in the East with the Army of Northern Virginia, Smiley with the western Army of Tennessee. Huntley rose to 3d lieutenant but fell at Gettysburg. Great-granddaddy survived and came home to preach peace and progress and sire a dozen children, hundreds of whose descendants still gather in his name each second Sunday in July at Cold Spring Baptist Church in Swain County.
Gallery 1 sets the stage with an outline of the political and economic strains between the agrarian South, largely dependent upon slave labor, and the rapidly industrializing free-labor North. The commentary reminds us frankly that most Northerners accepted southern slavery and only opposed its expansion into the new western states.
Gallery 2 holds life-size dioramas of a training camp, whose horizons are expanded through wall murals by Keith Rocco. There's a Sibley tent with homely articles such as a lice comb and looking glass, and great stacks of crates and barrels of the food, arms and equipment that so amazed new recruits it tended to dominate their early letters home.
Interactive video stations invite visitors to pack a haversack for the march. A salty old cybersergeant conducts the exercise and mocks you if your choices of extra clothing, food and such niceties as a razor and mirror or a Bible amount to more than 16 pounds. That seemed strange to this Vietnam-era draftee, who in basic training was issued a 40-pound pack, a 10-pound rifle and a heavy steel helmet and was invited to waltz the whole shooting match 22 miles through ankle-deep Georgia clay in a driving rainstorm. Were we that much bigger and stronger than the average Civil War soldier?
Historian Lazenby says the 16-pound limit on extras was set "rather arbitrarily" to bring the full load of the soldier to 50 pounds, including the thick woolen uniform worn year- round, boots, blanket, canteen, 60-round cartridge box and bayonet. That's more than a third of the body weight of the average Civil War soldier, and about as much as a raw recruit could be expected to schlep any considerable distance, he says. As the soldiers grew into march-hardened and battle-wise veterans, each would adjust his load to suit himself.
Gallery 3 gets us on the march. A large, painstakingly detailed diorama gives an idea of how long and cumbersome is even a modest column of marching men, and the detailed organization and planning that is needed to get troops from here to there. But the neat ranks depicted give no real sense of the sweat, fatigue and confusion that so often marked the line of march, and little of the devastation that so often attended the passage of armies even through friendly territory.
Gallery 4 takes us to "see the elephant," the term soldiers on both sides used to describe one's first battle. The visitor advances through woods to the edge of an open field, where unseen cannon are thundering and rear-projection screens show ranks of the enemy loading and firing in volleys. The floor shakes with the rumbling of the guns, and puffs of compressed air simulate bullets whistling by. This gallery, meant to be the high point of the tour, needs work. The woods are unconvincing, the enemy unmenacing, the firing unscary. There's so little sense of the reeking, shrieking cacaphony of combat that the effect is amusing rather than unsettling.
Gallery 5, dealing with the soldier's fate, is far more effective. There were four possible outcomes of battle for a given man: death, wounding (which generally just meant a more lingering, painful death), capture, or survival, which may have involved desertion.
This gallery may be a little strong for those who ignore or romanticize war. There are those familiar Gettysburg and Antietam pictures of dead men, arrayed in ranks for the last time. There are pictures of wounded and hideously mutilated men. And there's a video that almost too authentically simulates a leg amputation at a field hospital, including the chucking of the severed member out a window.
Gallery 6 is a relief and a restorative. It reminds us that even during a furious campaign, most men spent most of their time hurrying up and waiting, searching for something to eat or drink or a quiet corner to sleep in. And from late fall to early spring the armies generally stayed in winter camp, where the most warlike activity was snowball fights that sometimes involved whole divisions in set-piece battles. In a chapel tent a video preacher unceasingly thunders fire and brimstone, an echo of the religious revival that swept all of the armies at various times. (Great-granddaddy Smiley came home to found the Tennessee River Baptist Association, and vowing to study war no more.)
Gallery 7 deals with the hard choices that faced soldiers as the war dragged on. Short-term volunteers could choose to leg it on home or reenlist; long-service veteran units often elected en masse to sign up "for the duration." Bounty men often decamped and then signed up for another term, and another bounty, under another name, in another unit. Many a homesick soldier took "French leave," as did Great-granddaddy; his mother fattened him up and sent him back to the war.
The museum, designed by E. Verner Johnson and Associates of Boston, covers a lot of ground in 9,000 square feet, which is the amount of exhibit space in the first phase of the project. The rest of the space in the building is given over to offices, a light and airy cafeteria and a bookstore that offers everything from standard kiddie tourist schlock (including lead-free replica bullets) to computer battle and history games and several hundred books on the war, its warriors and the women they left behind (quite a few of whom donned uniforms and fought and died while passing as men).
The museum is unique in presenting an underview of the war as seen by "ordinary" soldiers, if such a term can be applied to the men who fought for so long and endured so much and died in such numbers. The breakthrough battle is examined in an entirely separate center and in walking tours of the battlefield and its replicated encampment. The soldiers' museum emphasizes that "the war of the brothers" was just that; most of the combatants in this wholesale national bloodletting could have been -- and often were -- friends and neighbors. It's not about how the war was fought so much as it is about who fought it, and why. Instead of the usual colorful mosaic of the "grand struggle" we get a searching look into the hearts and minds of the fathers, brothers and sons who served in it.
This nontraditional approach to the central event in American history takes some getting used to, at least for those of us tutored in the great-men-directing-great-events school of history. The experience is moving and thought-provoking, and seems likely to appeal to youngsters who find the conventional Civil War museum iconography boring. The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier breaks ground that needs breaking; it will be a delight to watch it grow.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE CIVIL WAR SOLDIER -- About 125 miles south of Washington at Pamplin Historical Park, 6125 Boydton Plank Road, Petersburg. From I-95 south near Petersburg take I-85 south to U.S. 1 south one mile and watch for park on left. Toll-free: 877/726-7546. Web site: www.pamplinpark.org. Open 9 to 6 daily. Admission (includes entire 363-acre park) is $10 for adults, $9 seniors (62 and older), $5 children 6 to 11. Wheelchair accessible.
CAPTION: Troop and supply columns cross and clash in a superbly detailed panorama at the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.
CAPTION: The new museum's main entrance.
CAPTION: Musicians played a crucial role in battle and in camp.
CAPTION: This life-size diorama depicts a suave Zouave trimming a couple of country recruits in a training camp poker game.