The State Museum Commemorates the Civil War
After its unveiling in Philadelphia in December 1870, Rothermel's Battle of Gettysburg: Pickett's Charge was hailed by many as a masterpiece and a testimony to the horrors of war. Others criticized the painting for its depiction of death and violence, and for opening old wounds between the North and South. PHMC The State Museum of Pennsylvania/photo by christy white


This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXIX, Number 2 - Spring 2013

Commemorations of the American Civil War are nearly as old as the conflict itself. Little more than six years after the war ended General George Gordon Meade of Philadelphia spoke to Union army veterans at a reunion in Boston. "Comrades of the Army of the Potomac," he began, "the first thing I shall do, which we ought to do . . . is to return our thanks to the Great Being who, in His infinite mercy, has allowed us to be here, to enjoy the pleasures of this meeting, who has blessed us and spared us through all the dangers of war." And so began the many observances that enabled Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line to begin the healing process of re-examination, reflection, reconciliation, and remembrance that would eventually lead to reunification.

In 1886 Union veterans from Philadelphia welcomed survivors of Confederate Major General George E. Pickett's division to a reunion at Gettysburg on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the war. Both Northern and Southern veterans encamped at Gettysburg in observance of the battle's fiftieth anniversary in 1913. Veterans from forty-six of the forty-eight states participated and of the 53,407 former soldiers attending, 8,750 had fought for the Confederacy. (One of the most iconic images in American history is the photograph of Union and Confederate veterans, their arms extended over a low privet hedge separating them, shaking hands.) For the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave a speech at the hallowed ground in Adams County on July 4, 1938, before 1,359 Federal and 486 Confederate attendees of the 8,000 living veterans. (An estimated twenty-five saw action at Gettysburg.) Roosevelt's address preceded the unveiling of the Eternal Peace Light Memorial. The centennial of the Civil War in 1963 enthralled Americans everywhere as communities large and small hosted parades, reenactments, fairs, and festivals; state governments erected historical markers; and the federal government issued commemorative postage stamps.

Kepi worn by Private George W. Linn of the 107th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry phmc The State Museum of Pennsylvania/photo by Don giles

To commemorate the sesquicentennial of the epic four-year struggle, states have planned numerous activities and events beginning in 2011 and ending in 2015, and the Keystone State is at the forefront. Convened by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), Pennsylvania Civil War 150 (PA CW 150) is a statewide partnership of major historical organizations and cultural institutions serving as the Commonwealth's official committee to market activities and events at the regional and local levels and to bring quality programming to the observance.

As part of the initiative, The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, PHMC's flagship destination along the Pennsylvania Trails of History, will open an extensively refurbished gallery on Saturday, April 20, that highlights the Commonwealth's efforts to preserve Pennsylvania's Civil War legacy through original objects and artifacts drawn from the museum's permanent collections.

Objects of Valor: Commemorating the Civil War in Pennsylvania retains Peter Frederick Rothermel's legendary narrative painting Battle of Gettysburg: Pickett's Charge as the gallery's centerpiece. Measuring sixteen feet high by thirty-two feet wide, the seminal work of art is the largest Civil War scene painted on a single canvas. It has been in nearly continuous display at the museum since the present building opened in 1965. Rothermel's depiction of the Union forces' successful repulse of Confederate General George E. Pickett's charge on the final day of battle, July 3, 1863 - "the high water mark of the Confederacy" - offers an opportunity to re-discover this masterpiece and appreciate its role in visualizing and memorializing the war for millions of viewers, past and present, who have seen it during its 142 years of display, beginning with its debut at the Academy of Music, Philadelphia, in December 1870. Battle of Gettysburg is accompanied by four smaller paintings by Rothermel: Charge of the Louisiana Tigers and Repulse, Battle of the First Day and Death of Reynolds, Repulse of General Johnson's Division by General Geary's White Star Division, July 3, Pennsylvania Reserves at Plum Run, all painted circa 1871–1872, and Charge of Pennsylvania Reserves in Plum Run, July 2 commissioned for the Adjutant General's Office in 1881. This segment of the exhibit includes artifacts related to the artist's meticulous research such as studies preceding the completed painting, a drum carried into battle (and in 1881 included in Battle of Gettysburg), a letter written by General Winfield Scott Hancock describing what he wore during Pickett's Charge, and an invitation to the artwork's unveiling in Philadelphia in 1870, accompanied by a program from the event.

The upgraded exhibition space will feature a new design evoking the original setting in which the Rothermel paintings were once displayed. The installation of new interpretive panels, cases, and interactive components will offer extensive information about the paintings, their creation, and their history.

Regimental flag of the Second United States Colored Troops phmc The State Museum of Pennsylvania/photo by Don giles

Not long after the war ended in 1865 the Commonwealth began acquiring objects associated with Pennsylvania's contributions to the Union cause. Some of these articles were official or ceremonial  - such as the flags carried by state-organized regiments - while others, known at the time as relics, acquired significance because of their relationship to particularly significant events, such as the Battle of Gettysburg and the burning of Chambersburg, Franklin County, by Confederates. Objects of Valor features a number of relics including a chair from General George Gordon Meade's temporary headquarters at Gettysburg; medals commemorating the return of Civil War flags of Pennsylvania regiments at Independence Hall on July 4, 1866; a collection of battlefield artifacts acquired in 1877 by the Commonwealth from Joel Danner, proprietor of a private museum in Gettysburg; and a musket used by John L. Burns, a fearless, sixty-nine-year-old Gettysburg resident who joined Union troops to fight Confederate forces, which later catapulted him to celebrity status as the "Old Hero of Gettysburg."

Many veterans saved a wide range of objects as souvenirs and mementos of their service on behalf of the Keystone State to the Union during the war. Items, such as regimental colors, held obvious significance, but more common articles acquired importance because they were carried into battle, survived the war, and told intimate, personal stories. Some veterans donated their most cherished "objects of valor"; many were passed down through families and donated to The State Museum decades later. Private George W. Linn of the 107th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry wore his kepi even after it was pierced by a bullet during the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia, in mid-June 1864. He kept the cap as a souvenir for a half-century before giving it to the museum in 1915.

After the end of the war veterans organized fraternal societies that strove to memorialize the wartime experiences of members. Local chapters or posts of the most prominent, The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), sponsored commemorative activities and events, parades, reunions, and the erection of memorials and monuments - and the preservation of objects and artifacts. GAR members proudly wore commemorative clothing, accessories, ribbons, and badges affiliated with their local posts, and the exhibition includes a selection of ribbons, a kepi worn by Thomas P. Morgan a member of the 187th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and the Lieutenant Stephen C. Potts GAR Post No. 62 in Altoona, Blair County. As their ranks dwindled, GAR members looked to their sons to remember their legacy through a new organization formed in 1881, Sons of the Union Veterans of the United States of America. After its last member died in 1956, the GAR ceased to exist but the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, its successor, continues to pay tribute to the soldiers who served during the war.

A ribbon that veterans of the 130th Pennsylvania Volunteers wore to their 1891 reunion at Sharpsburg, Maryland phmc The State Museum of Pennsylvania/photo by Don giles

The wartime service of ranking officers, including General (and later Governor) John White Geary, was usually accorded commemoration on a scale far beyond the reach of the ordinary soldier. The museum safeguards clothing, equipment, and objects associated with Geary, including badges, a uniform and accoutrements, and a portrait. Pottsville, Schuylkill County, businessman Joseph S. Patterson commissioned J. M. Boundy to paint General John White Geary at Gettysburg during the subject's 1866 gubernatorial campaign.

Objects of Valor addresses Gettysburg and the subsequent reunions and remembrances. On view are ribbons worn by veterans attending regimental reunions in the decades after the war, postwar postcard views of Gettysburg, and a broadside promoting the 1890 reunion of General (and also later Governor) John F. Hartranft's Division of the Ninth Army Corps in Harrisburg. The exhibit explores the contributions of the United States Colored Troops and women to the Union's war efforts. Their contributions have largely been overlooked, but museums have recently begun to document, interpret, and memorialize the service of these groups through the objects they saved as mementos of valor, service, and solidarity.

The museum's collection of inscribed, emblazoned, and engraved Civil War objects is represented by a sword presented in 1862 to Colonel Hugh McNeil, commander of the 42nd Pennsylvania Bucktails by the Raftsmen Guards and a pair of Colt revolvers presented by his staff to General Joseph Knipe of Mount Joy, Lancaster County, after he led the Seventh Cavalry Division to a decisive victory in the Nashville Campaign of 1864.

The State Museum's outstanding collection of Civil War presentation swords - one of the best of its kind in the United States - will be represented by several striking examples. More so than any other object, presentation swords attest to the effort of prominent officers to memorialize their participation in the war or served as tributes to their commanders by soldiers. Often citizens of officers' hometowns presented such keepsakes. Included will be swords presented to George C. Wynkoop and C. C. McCormick, both of the Seventh Pennsylvania Cavalry, Alfred M. Halberstadt of the Twentieth Pennsylvania Cavalry, and J. Ard Matthews of the 128th Pennsylvania Volunteers.

Objects of Valor: Commemorating the Civil War in Pennsylvania will remain on view indefinitely. To learn more about the exhibit, as well as activities and events at the museum, write: The State Museum of Pennsylvania, 300 North St., Harrisburg, PA 17120–0024; telephone (717) 787-4980; or visit http://statemuseumpa.org/. There is an admission fee.

Soldiers of the 128th Pennsylvania Volunteers presented a sword and scabbard to Colonel J. Ard Matthews at Stafford Court House, Virginia, on March 15, 1863. phmc The State Museum of Pennsylvania/photo by Don giles