Alexander Heritage Newton's own words tell you what his war was like: the wrenching decision whether to enlist, the hardships that would make you think "the very forces of hell had been let loose," the bombs and bullets, the sight of comrades blown apart.

Newton was a sergeant in Company E of the 29th Connecticut Infantry during the Civil War. The letters he and 13 other soldiers left behind provide the narrative for visitors to the new National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, located at the Pamplin Park Civil War Site in Dinwiddie County.

The words of these men, read by actors and played on compact discs handed out to visitors, allow them to experience the war through a soldier's eyes.

What makes this museum different is its focus: ordinary foot soldiers, not the heroes of the blue or the gray. References to Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the other big names of the war are intentionally scant.

"There are lots of museums that deal with specific engagements or that tell the story of certain individuals . . . but there's no museum that focuses on 98 percent of the men who fought in this war," said A. Wilson Greene, executive director of the privately owned Pamplin Park.

"These were real people who cared about their families, had futures to plan and did not want to be martyrs. The stories of these Americans under great stress at a critical time in history are very instructive today."

The gritty and brutal war these soldiers knew comes alive through a variety of interactive displays. A computer game illustrates the struggle Newton and the others had just packing their knapsacks before marching off to battle. Stuff in your Bible? No. Makes the pack too heavy, the game reveals.

The "Trial by Fire" display transports the visitor into battle, with fear and confusion all around. Bullets seem to whiz past, and the ground shakes from artillery fire.

There is a graphic reenactment of a soldier's leg being amputated in a field hospital. Throughout the exhibit area are lifelike mannequins and realistic effects, such as a concrete floor designed to look like mud, with imprints of boots, horses--and even a bear.

The $16 million museum, which opened two weeks ago, is nestled among the remains of breastworks and trenches where Confederates dug in as Union troops closed in on Richmond in the final months of the war in 1865.

Visitors taking the tour select one of the 13 soldiers as their present-day guide. Then, outfitted with a portable CD player, they take in the exhibits at their own pace.

The soldiers represent a mix--old and young, rich and poor, black and white, Reb and Yank. Researchers pieced together their life stories, located their portraits and scripted narratives about their war experiences.

Among the first to take the tour was Robin Reed, executive director of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. "The story of the common soldier has not been told," Reed said. "The more Civil War attractions in Virginia, the better for all of us."