Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Glimpse into Civil War era's leaders

When he wore that slouch hat and blue frock coat 150 years ago, Union Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade faced a crucial choice that could affect the outcome of the Civil War: Fight or flee?

A visitor reflected in empty cases to house exhibit at Gettysburg National Military Park Museum. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
A visitor reflected in empty cases to house exhibit at Gettysburg National Military Park Museum. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)Read more

When he wore that slouch hat and blue frock coat 150 years ago, Union Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade faced a crucial choice that could affect the outcome of the Civil War: Fight or flee?

Across an open field at Gettysburg, the Confederate Army under its legendary commander, Robert E. Lee, was preparing a final all-out attack that would become known as Pickett's Charge.

Meade stayed put and won the battle on July 3, 1863 - and now, his wool felt hat, with two bullet holes from earlier fighting at Fredericksburg, Va., and the coat with the major general's shoulder straps are part of an exhibit, "Treasures of the Civil War," at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center.

Set to open June 16, the exhibit offers a rare glimpse into the professional and personal sides of the war's greatest leaders - and most of the artifacts come from the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia, which has been seeking a new home in the city.

The display comes as preparations are under way for two major reenactments of the epic battle that raged over July 1, 2, and 3, 1863. The largest re-creation, from July 4 to 7, is expected to draw up to 15,000 reenactors and as many as 80,000 spectators. The other, June 27 to 30, anticipates 8,000 reenactors and thousands of spectators.

Among the exhibit artifacts from Philadelphia are artist Leonard Wells Volk's plaster cast of President Abraham Lincoln's face, and the ornate Tiffany gold-and-silver sword and scabbard given by the men of the Army of Tennessee to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant following the victory at Vicksburg, Miss., in July 1863.

"This is one of the more significant collections assembled," said Andrew Coldren, curatorial consultant for the Civil War Museum. The artifacts come "from the all-stars of the war; they're priceless, one-in-a-million materials that you'd rarely see in one place."

About 80 percent of the historic objects - not including documents - come from Philadelphia, which played a key role during the war as the arsenal of the Union.

"Our collection forms the core of the exhibit," said Sharon Smith, president of the Civil War Museum. Over time, she said, "it will be seen by millions in the context of this important battle and in recognition of the importance of the war."

For history buffs, the relics in the Gettysburg exhibit are the closest they'll ever come to military, political, and social leaders such as Meade, Lee, Lincoln, Grant, Jefferson Davis, John Reynolds, George Pickett, Alexander Webb, William Tecumseh Sherman, George Armstrong Custer, John Mosby, Frederick Douglass, and Clara Barton.

The exhibit "is an assemblage of artifacts associated with famous people who played a part in the social, political, and military efforts on both sides in the Civil War," said Greg Goodell, museum services supervisor for the National Park Service, who is overseeing the exhibit in cooperation with the Gettysburg Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization that operates the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center.

"We want people to take away a sense of what leaders were feeling and thinking," he said, "and the process by which decisions were made."

The 94 exhibit items come from collections across the country, and many have never been shown at Gettysburg, said officials of the Gettysburg Foundation. About a third of the artifacts have some association with the battle.

"I hope people appreciate the importance of physical artifacts to history and that these survived and give us a connection to the past," said Coldren, who is also the historian and administrative curator of the Salem County (N.J.) Historical Society. "You'd have to work hard to see as much really incredible material as you will see in this exhibit."

Many of the items were donated by former Union officers who, in 1888, founded an institution now known as the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia. Some of the memorabilia was provided by their family members over the years until a house was bought in 1922 in the 1800 block of Pine Street to display the collection.

The founding veterans had hoped "for a bigger and better place, but were unable to get the funding," said Coldren, the Philadelphia museum's former curator. "We're carrying on the effort to find a permanent home in Philadelphia.

"This is an obligation handed down by the officers themselves," he said. "The artifacts are the physical manifestation of their memory."

Officials had hoped to have a new home some time during the Civil War's sesquicentennial, but nothing has been announced.

The museum moved from Pine Street in 2008, intending to reopen at the historic First Bank of the United States building, near Independence Hall, in 2011. But from $8 million to $10 million in capital funding for the move was cut by Gov. Ed Rendell's administration because of budget concerns.

Museum officials sought funding from the legislature, but with so many competing interests, their pleas didn't receive the needed support and the collection was moved to Gettysburg, where it has been maintained by the park service and the Gettysburg Foundation.

Some items also have been displayed at the African American Museum and the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

At the Gettysburg exhibit, the Grant presentation sword may draw stares with its silver grip decorated with the image of Athena, the goddess of war. Its base has "1776" engraved on one side and "1863" on the other.

The Lincoln face mask that will be displayed exists because the commander-in-chief was busy with the war and did not have time to pose for a more traditional sculpture.

Also from the Philadelphia museum: the saddle that Reynolds, a Union general, was sitting on when he was shot and killed at Gettysburg, as well as a wooden plaque veterans once used to mark the spot where the general fell; the guidon used by Custer, a Union general, at the battle; Grant's lieutenant general's shoulder straps and silver cigar case; the pen Lincoln used to sign Grant's commission; Sherman's gold sash; and Davis' ornate dressing gown.

From Gettysburg National Military Park comes a distinctive spur from Pickett, a Confederate general who typically wore his long, perfumed ringlets and immaculate tailored uniforms with a double row of gold buttons, and the Chasseur-style wool and leather kepi of Reynolds.

The exhibit will include a photograph of Lee and his horse, Traveller, as well as a lock of Lee's hair and the horse's mane. They're on loan from Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial overseen by the park service.

"You always want to communicate to visitors the significance and popularity - good or bad - that these leaders had at the time," said Goodell. "We look at movie stars, musicians, and popular people in the same way our ancestors in the 19th century looked at the political, social, and military leaders.

"We try to draw the connection between the past and present," he said, "and hope the stories we tell about these objects and interpretative texts will convey that idea."

Museum Visit

The exhibit runs fromJune 16 through 2015 at the Gettysburg Military Park Museum and Visitor Center, 1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg.

The fee is included in the standard museum/film/Cyclorama painting admission, which is $12.50 for adults and $8.50 for youths ages 6 through 12.

A ticket for only the exhibit can be purchased for $8 for adults and $6 for youths.EndText

at 856-779-3833 or