The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At new Gettysburg museum, Ken Burns gets a taste of battle he chronicled

‘Combat’ thunders outside as Civil War filmmaker huddles in a shuttered dining room

Filmmaker Ken Burns takes part in a panel discussion at Adams County Historical Society’s Gettysburg Beyond the Battle Museum during a February preview. The museum opens to the public in April. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
7 min

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Filmmaker Ken Burns sits at a small table in a shuttered dining room built to re-create the evening of July 1, 1863. Two whale oil lamps cast a dim light. The floor boards shake from the sound of artillery outside.

A coffee cup is overturned on the table. Flashes of light from explosions come through the shutters and illuminate the dark.

It is the close of the first day of the Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg, and public television’s renowned student of the war has come to imagine what it was like, not for the soldiers, but for the terrified residents as the conflict raged around them.

The location was the Adams County Historical Society’s new state-of-the-art museum that focuses on the experience of people as bullets flew through homes, buried themselves in mirror frames and bedsteads, and in one case killed a young woman while she was making bread.

Called the Gettysburg Beyond the Battle Museum, it is located at a spot north of town where the Confederate army overran Union forces and stormed into Gettysburg on the first day of the three-day battle.

It is filled with images, accounts and artifacts that show how the people of Gettysburg coped with the horror of the battle and its gruesome aftermath: a bullet-pocked store sign, a coffin maker’s saw, a comb taken from the body of Union soldier before his burial.

It displays a children’s anti-slavery book, torn apart by Southern soldiers as they ransacked a home outside town.

And it includes the immersive “Caught in the Crossfire” room, with a disclaimer at the entrance that warns, “may be disturbing for some visitors.”

There, visitors can get a sense of what it might have been like for a besieged family as artillery shells shrieked overhead, windows shattered and the lamps went out.

Bullets recovered from the battlefield are embedded in the exterior of one wall.

At the end of the four-minute, 30-second immersion, the voice of a rebel soldier announces, “Your Yankees have done run off. … This is our house now.”

Burns, wearing a sport coat, jeans and sneakers, rose from the table during his visit last month, and said, "I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this.”

"It’s just a visceral experience,” he said.

The $12 million, 25,000-square-foot museum and history center on Biglerville road opens to the public on April 15. It also displays items reflecting the history of the town and artifacts from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered Nov. 19, 1863.

Admission is $15.

It was funded with the help of Burns, whose blockbuster 1990 documentary, “The Civil War,” captivated viewers and set public TV audience records.

Support also came from novelist Jeff Shaara, actor Stephen Lang and Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who with his wife, Mamie, lived on a farm nearby after his presidency, the museum said.

The battle was a Union victory, and a turning point in the war and the nation’s history — helping to preserve the Union and free millions of African Americans from enslavement.

Yet it left behind the bodies of thousands of dead soldiers, numerous destroyed buildings, and farm fields littered with unexploded ordnance and other debris of combat.

The town was traumatized.

Sallie Myers, a 21-year-old schoolteacher who hid in a basement, recalled in diary entries and reminiscences:

The noise above our heads, the rattle of musketry, the screeching of shells and the unearthly yells, added to the terror and cries of the women and children, were enough to shake the stoutest heart. Never were there more fervent prayers borne heavenward.

Seminary student Martin Luther Culler remembered in a newspaper article years later:

We could hear the ‘Union Cheer’ and the ‘Rebel Yell’ out on the bloody field, while the shells shrieked and moaned, flying over our heads, and … the terrific cannonading which caused the house to shake, while ever and anon we heard [bullets] crashing through the doors and windows above us.

Andrew Dalton, executive director of the museum and the county historical society, said of the crossfire immersion: “We wanted to make it really authentic. … We really felt like we shouldn’t water it down. These people deserve to have their story re-created as close to how we think it actually was."

Gettysburg is the county seat of Adams County.

“A lot of the audio, almost all of it, is real,” he said. “We went out to a firing range in Virginia and captured the real sounds. So when you hear a bullet going through glass, it’s actually the sound of a Civil War bullet going through glass.”

He said live rounds had been fired from cannons and rifles, the sounds recorded as they discharged and struck glass, metal and wood.

“There’s never been a museum that really talks abut the civilian experience … especially the recovery effort after the battle," he said.

The population of the town was 2,400. There were about 7,000 dead bodies to be buried.

Farmer John Forney found 79 dead Confederates on his land, according to historian Drew Gilpin Faust. Fifty more were counted on the farm of George Rose, and some were photographed.

Barnyards and orchards became cemeteries. Historians say the smell of the battlefield could be detected from afar. Residents carried around bottles of peppermint oil and pennyroyal to mask the stench.

Elsewhere, homes and churches became hospitals. Twenty-two thousand men had been wounded.

Sallie Myers went to a church to help.

“The groans of the suffering and dying were heartrending,” she recalled in a quote displayed in the museum. “I knelt beside the first man near the door and asked what I could do. ‘Nothing,’ he replied. ‘I am going to die.’ I went outside the church and cried.”

One man, Absalom Shetter, hanged himself in an orchard after the Confederates looted his farm of grain and livestock, according to a local paper.

A blacksmith named Ephraim Wisler was stunned by the explosion of an artillery shell and died five weeks after the battle, Timothy H. Smith, the historical society’s director of education, reported.

Others were killed handling rifles or unexploded artillery shells found on the battlefield. Many such items were gathered, often by children, for their parents to sell to tourists. (Last month, an old artillery shell was found on the battlefield by an archaeologist, and destroyed by Army experts.)

After 15-year-old Allen Frazier was killed when an unexploded shell picked up by a visitor blew up near him, the Gettysburg Star and Banner pleaded:

“Will the people never become sensible to the danger they incur by handling these shells? We have boys, and grown up men who still persist in this rash work of opening shells, not only at the risk of their own lives, but of those of their neighbors.”

As the days after the battle passed, many dead Southern soldiers were buried in trenches with little ceremony. “Buried 42 rebels in one grave and 31 rebs in another,” a Union soldier wrote after the battle, according to historian Gregory A. Coco.

But a local doctor, J.W.C. O’Neal, who was originally from Fairfax, Va., and treated the wounded from both sides, began documenting where some Southerners were buried, so families could take them home.

The museum has a makeshift medical notebook he used, which listed the dead under the preprinted heading, “Obstetric Record.”

A North Carolina woman whose son had been killed on July 1, later wrote to thank O’Neal for his work: “Only a mother who has lost a son in that awful battle can … appreciate fully such goodness as you have shown.”