What? A Civil war museum in Harrisburg? There was no major battle fought in Harrisburg, what kind of museum would be located in Harrisburg? Those and many more questions filtered through my head as I was looking for places to visit while we spent an overnight trip in Harrisburg, PA. The museum had very good reviews so I put it on the list of possible places to visit while we were in the area. When it came time to choose our destinations, the National Civil War Museum was actually at the top of the list of places to visit, simply because we like history and the Civil war is always a fascinating subject. Admittedly, I was still a bit skeptical about how good this museum was actually going to be but it blew me out of the water! This place was incredible. From the grounds to the building to the displays, the National Civil War Museum is incredible!
The Park at the National Civil War Museum
The museum is located within the Reservoir Park in Harrisburg, PA. In fact, while the museum of course has an actual street address, the website actually advises that if you are using GPS that you type in Reservoir Park. That is exactly what we did and we had no problem! We entered the park through the gates and began to wind up a hill. The roads are well marked at each intersection and there was absolutely no confusion as to how to get to the Museum. This is in an active park with signs for various recreation facilities. We did not explore, we were single mindedly heading to the museum. Around and up we went. We could see the museum building looming above us. It was an impressive building sitting high on the hill. The parking lots are on a lower terrace from the museum proper, with only a short flight of steps to take you to the proper level. There was plenty of parking on the day that we arrived. It was quite hot outside, so we quickly made our way to the museum.
The building is quite impressive. The grounds are well maintained and there is an air of authority as you walk to the entrance way. We pushed open the doors and entered the building and the authority faded away to a feeling of grandeur. The atrium was quite impressive. A grand staircase curled gracefully in the center of the large open space.
To the right we could see a gift shop visible through a windowed wall. We made our way into the gift shop and awaited our turn. The clerk was helpful and in no time at all we had purchased our tickets and been given all the important information about the museum.
The National Civil War Museum Tour
The museum tours are self guided and begin on the second floor and will wind you around the upper level before bringing you to a set of stairs (there is elevator access) to allow you to traverse and explore the lower level of the museum. After a quick stop at the immaculately clean bathrooms, we headed up the stairs to officially begin our visit. The second floor of the building is divided into two parts. The right side of the building appeared to be offices, conference rooms and areas for administration needs. The left side of the building was the actual museum. We quickly pushed through the doors and into the museum rooms. Immediately we step back into time, a time immediately preceding the war and as we walk through the museum we traverse through the many months and years of the war and through to its culmination.
The museum is full of a variety of different things on display. You will encounter many showcases of artifacts from the time period. I was especially intrigued with the hat box that housed Abe Lincoln’s famous top hat. But there were artifacts that I had never seen the likes of before in this museum. There are television monitors scattered around the museum that filmed filmed segments with actors giving us a glimpse into the times before, during and after the war. There are life sized scenes showing aspects of the war. You will move from thing to another with amazement and awe.
My Perception of the National Civil War Museum
As I toured this museum I was particularly intrigued with the content of their artifacts and displays. The museum clearly outlines the war and the quest for freedom through battles. But it did not dwell on the large battles that we all know so well. It talked about some of the smaller battles for sure, but it also focused on the social aspect of the Civil War. By this, it was giving us a glimpse of life during that terrible time in the United States. The level of detail into these various aspects of the social history was amazing. One full room was dedicated to the clothing and accouterments of the soldiers, both North and South. You will see items such as playing cards and intricate bone carvings that are the remnants of the activities that helped the soldiers occupy their time in camp. There are displays that highlight every aspect of camp life for a Civil War Soldier, medicine, food, music, it’s all there for you to peruse.
This museum far exceeded my expectations in every way. The information is presented in a way that is pleasing and easy to understand. The displays are spread out and the area is well managed so that we were never made to feel overcrowded. The website for this museum indicates that a visitor usually spends between two and four hours at the museum. Their estimate was exactly correct as we spent about three to three and a half hours. The National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg is top notch and if the opportunity presents itself, I wouldn’t be adverse to visiting again.
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