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4.24.2016

Reliving History at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum & Visitor Center

One of the biggest questions when it comes to visiting Gettysburg is where to start. After we arrived in the area the night before at the Barker House Bed & Breakfast in New Oxford, we began our visit at the relatively new Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center. This center is a world-class interpretive center, something that the area was missing before. The battlefield was always a place of reverence, but I previously felt that it was really lacking something that tied it all together. This facility is an excellent fit for the area. The building is designed to evoke a Pennsylvania round barn and farmhouse. 
The Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center

The journey starts with a fantastic film that gives a terrific overview of the Civil War, and the terrible events that happened at the Battle of Gettysburg. They even brought in Morgan Freeman and Sam Waterston to narrate the film. This film portrayed the events and the war, as they actually happened, without sugarcoating anything. This war was the darkest moment in our nation's history and we still have not fully recovered from it. The film did a tremendous job in setting the tone for our further explorations through the battlefield and full battle zone.
The film sets the tone for comprehending the carnage, despair, and sacrifices that were made for what was right in the Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War. The Cyclorama puts it all together. This stunning display gives you a sense of what the Battle of Gettysburg was like. The painting measures in at 42 feet tall, with a circumference of 377 feet, making it the largest oil painting in North America. The Cyclorama is truly a grand spectacle.

Cycloramas were popular in the Victorian Era. They served as a sort of movie theater in this time period, since motion pictures wouldn't come onto the scene until the late 19th century, and movie theaters were not around until 1905 (when the first was opened in Pittsburgh). Viewings of these cycloramas were accompanied by narrations, displays, and even theatrical acts. They were meant to transport visitors to a certain place in time, usually to moments of a serious nature, including subjects such as battles and the crucifixion. The Gettysburg Cyclorama was originally painted and displayed in Boston. Three other copies were created, with original locations in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn. The Chicago one is in the hands of a private group of investors, the Philadelphia one is known to have been destroyed in a fire, and the Brooklyn version's whereabouts are unknown. The Gettysburg Cyclorama is the only publicly displayed model of this specific exhibition, and is one of only a handful of cycloramas remaining worldwide. It is a masterpiece and a priceless artifact that is still awe-inspiring, even after close to 132 years.
There is a diorama that leads up to the edge of the cyclorama. The edge of the diorama's scenery up to the cyclorama's painting appears to be seamless, almost as if you are actually at the scene. The way this displays the carnage of the battle is sobering and makes the horrors of the battle of Gettysburg really stand out. It is said that when Civil War Veterans stepped into the cycloramas, they felt as if they stepped back out onto the battlefield, where over seven thousand soldiers died and tens of thousands of men were seriously wounded. 
Accompanying the display is a terrific narration and dramatic light display that highlights the sacrifices of the battle and makes the painting really come alive.
The lighting adds different dimensions to the cyclorama.
Parts of action within the painting are highlighted throughout the story. Seen here is one of the battle scenes.
The most important lesson that we can learn from Gettysburg, the Civil War, and from any war in general, is remembering those lost and those that suffered as a direct result of what happened. Sadly, it is so easy to overlook this aspect when we pore over every little detail of war strategy. Through every war in the history of time, the outcome has remained the same: lost loved ones, whether they are parents, siblings, other relatives, friends, and neighbors. That is the true cost of war and violence. It is easy to say that over 8000 lives were lost as a result of those fateful days in July of 1863, but it is another to show the true impression that war leaves upon mankind. The presentation of the cyclorama, the accompanying film, and the museum displays frequently revisit the most important aspect of war.
A series of scenes throughout the cyclorama
Looking back at these photos, I am still in sheer amazement about the cyclorama.
Some posters from the time of the Cyclorama. These posters advertised the Cyclorama attraction. 
A signal cannon from Fort Sumter. This fort is where the first shots were fired by the Confederates to start the war. 
Here are some of the shells.
Here is the regulation Union uniform gear, to give you a good idea of everything that a soldier was supposed to have. Needless to say, this was the ideal gear, not what every soldier was able to have in the middle of war time. Things were difficult for the soldiers. 
I am not a gun aficionado, but it is important to remember that someone once stood at the end of the barrels of those guns, bracing themselves for the worst. It is important to think about the sacrifices made for positively evolving our nation. At the end of the barrels of these guns, at the end of all of the carnage, all of the suffering, and all of the families permanently damaged from this awful moment in our history, came a union in which human rights were advanced. The eventual result of this fighting was the end of forced servitude in this nation, one of the worst things our nation has ever done.
Here are two models of soldiers in their full uniform, Confederate on the left, and Union on the right. It is chilling to look at all of these relics, but this aspect of our history needs to be examined, so we can look at the ramifications of our actions. It all boils down to the fact that generations of families were held in chains and forced to work. It all boils down to young men that were sons, fathers, brothers, uncles, friends, and/or neighbors, anywhere from roughly 620,000 to 750,000 of them, over two percent of the nation's entire population at that time. These staggering numbers do not even take into account the total number of civilians that died by the time the Civil War was finished. Estimates say that roughly 50,000 innocent civilians died within the war. Tens of thousands more slaves were shot by Confederate soldiers and they also died from diseases that ran rampant during and after the war. As far as freedom for the ex-slaves went, the nation took baby steps, with the abuses of sharecropping, rampant discrimination, disgusting murders, and segregation that would last for nearly another century. As I said before, these were downright awful times within our nation.

Neither military bothered to take decent records of the dead within their ranks. Little effort for identification, little emphasis on notifying surviving family members....nothing. Half of the men that died in battles were buried with no identification. Folks lived out the rest of their lives after the war, not knowing if their loved ones had survived and were living somewhere. 
A drum that one of the drummer boys would play while heading into battle. 
One of the many spectacular relics at the museum, the good old red, white, and blue. 
A recruiting poster in German
Something about this display really moved me. It shows the humanity of the soldiers, something that is so often overlooked. It is hard to think of any other young man that would be of military age that would not play games like this to pass the time. It makes the soldiers so relatable. Objects like this create a connection with the soldiers as human beings, as opposed to just viewing them as military strategies, killing tools, and more. 
A copy of the most important thing to come out of this war, the Emancipation Proclamation.
Some of what you could expect to see in the battlefield
Perhaps the most morbid part of all of the displays. Here is some of the cutting edge medical equipment of the day. Without an understanding of antibiotics, the answer was to amputate limbs. Here are some of the implements for surgery, and I will leave the rest to your imagination. 
This quote "Ye advocates of war, come here and look, and answer what compensation is there for this carnival of death," sums all of this up.
President Lincoln wrote these notes. It was amazing to be in the presence of something that he personally handled.

This telegraph put the news out on the wire that General Lee had surrendered, the first step towards healing that this nation would take, a process that still has not been completed, over 151 years later.
I wonder what reconstruction would have looked like if Lincoln had not been assassinated. We know that while the slaves were technically freed, they were still treated horribly as sharecroppers and in brutal industrial and service jobs. We know that this was a time of promise that the nation fell flat upon. The slaves were promised the world with ideas like "Forty Acres and a Mule" and a chance for ownership of the land they were forced to cultivate. Instead, they ended up in close the same situation they were in during physically forced enslavement, if not in worse situations. The fight for freedom carries on to this day, with legalized segregation not getting abolished until nearly a century later with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. You have to wonder what would have occurred had Lincoln been able to carry on his leadership through the beginnings of reconstruction. 
A small portion of the exhibit is dedicated to the history of Gettysburg as an auto touring destination. The creation of infrastructure to tour this sacred ground was created by the hard working men of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a New Deal program from the Great Depression era that was dispatched by President Franklin Roosevelt. The CCC was responsible for creating infrastructure in areas for citizens to take part in recreational activities. This program put young men to work and quite a bit of the work they did is still intact, more than 80 years since much of the work was completed. During the Great Depression, a time of desperate economic need for millions of Americans, the CCC put young men to work that otherwise had almost no chance of obtaining gainful employment. These young men went on and created the framework for many of the state and national parks, forests, military parks, historical sites, and community parks that we enjoy to this day. The bulk of these parks would certainly not exist today if it were not for the CCC.

Of all of the work camps that were located across this nation, the camp at Gettysburg was symbolically special. The camp was the first to be commanded by a black officer, a man named Frederick Lyman Slade of Washington, DC. He would be one of the first black men to be put in charge of anything government related. Eventually the entire leadership of the camp would be black. This move was said to be an experiment and the result of it was the beauty of what we see in the Gettysburg National Military Park.

The importance of the black leadership of this CCC camp is something of special significance, especially considering the fact that it would still take the better part of three decades for the 1964 Civil Rights Act to be enacted. The next step would be in World War II, where these young men and the next generation of young black men were given the chance to prove that not only were they as good as anyone else at any skill, but that they could be better than anyone else, as proven with heroes such as the Tuskegee Airmen. The progress seen in the CCC camp at Gettysburg was a huge incremental step in the fight for equality. I would love to see some attention paid to this within the museum as this moment at the CCC camp and step towards equality would not have occurred if it were not for the results of the hard fought efforts during the Civil War.
When you visit Gettysburg, be sure to start your visit at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center, where you will see some spectacular artifacts, the breathtaking cyclorama, and the excellent film that ties everything together that exists throughout the Gettysburg area.

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