Central Pennsylvania’s Civil War Trails
By Renée S. Gordon
Just as Pennsylvania played a definitive role in the founding of our nation so too would it prove pivotal in the War Between the States. When the Civil War began both sides believed that it would last only a few months and the country would then return to a new "normal." Four years later the war would end with a death toll exceeding 620,000 and a nation that was forever altered Pennsylvanians were involved in every event from Lincoln's election to his assassination.
Philadelphia's wartime role, with the notable exception of Gettysburg, is more widely understood than that of the cities and towns of Central Pennsylvania. The area was rich with natural resources, home to a number of factories, a railway hub and was the breadbasket of the region, all things that made control important to both the North and the South.
Archeological evidence indicates the occupation of the Harrisburg area, a Susquehanna River crossing point, began around 3000 BC by Native Americans. John Smith, in 1608, made first contact in the region with indigenous people as he sailed from Virginia. Subsequent colonists were only passing through and it is not until 1710 that the first nonnative settled there. John Harris built a trading post and established a ferry service there and he and his son encouraged colonization.
When the area was named the county seat John Harris' son agreed to sell land for its founding only if it was named Harrisburg in memory of his father. In response to a view of Philadelphia as elitist, and because of the river and transportation systems, Harrisburg was deemed the state's capital in 1812 and was incorporated as a city in 1860. www.visithersheyharrisburg.org
The best place to begin a tour of Central Pennsylvania's Civil War sites is with a visit to Harrisburg's National Civil War Museum. The museum provides an excellent overview of the war in general and regional participation in particular. The museum 's goal is to present an unbiased view of the war through state-of-the-art exhibits, more than 24,000 artifacts, videos and the individual narratives of ten characters from all strata of society who lived through the experience.
Self-guided tours begin on the second level with "The Winds of War" and proceed chronologically. The gallery explores the issues and incidents that sparked the war and culminates with Lincoln's election. The second gallery, "American Slavery: The Peculiar Institution, 1850-1860," is superbly mounted. Visitors attend a slave auction adjacent to a slave pen and two males in the pen engage in a discussion of their fate that brings the enslaved's point of view into stark reality. Cases in the area display artifacts including a cat-o-nine-tails with metal spurs on the tips.
The tour proceeds through "First Shots" on Fort Sumter to "Why Men Fought." Highlights of these displays are an original flag from Fort Sumter, an interactive signal flag exhibit, McClellan's saddle, and a harrowing diorama of medical practices including the only known surviving ambulance wagon, a gem of the collection.
A life-sized showcase depicting men in Camp Curtin is relevant to understanding Harrisburg's importance. The camp, named after PA's then governor, functioned as the largest Union Army mustering center with more than a quarter million men rotating through the camp. www.campcurtin.org
The first floor features a timeline of the latter years of the conflict and a video relates the course of individual battles. Unique items on this level are Lee's Bible and J.E.B. Stuart's saber. The newest exhibit, "Meet Mr. Lincoln," is an outstanding virtual interview with Lincoln and other important wartime characters. Individuals appear on the screen, visitors select from a long list of questions and they are answered in a live interview format. The tour ends with a film clip of the 75th anniversary reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg.
The museum has an observation deck that provides one of the city's premier views and a gift shop that is a Civil War buff's delight. A series of Sesquicentennial events are planned and information is available on the web. www.nationalcivilwarmuseum.org
Philadelphia's 37-ft. statue of William Penn on City Hall is the largest sculpture atop a building in the world, and it is impressive, but I also found a whimsical majesty in Janet de Coux's 18-ft. bronze sculpture of a youthful Penn. Her 3,800-lb. Penn stands in the vaulted Memorial Hall on the first floor of the four-story State Museum of Harrisburg. Placed here at the museum's opening in 1965, the statue is surrounded by documents and a mural on the founding of PA.
The Civil War Gallery is located on the second floor and the displays include a special exhibit on "Men of Color- To Arms! To Arms!" Featured are a rare USCT regimental flag, documents, photographs and artifacts. More than 8600 African Americans enlisted from PA and many were trained in Philadelphia's 1863 Camp William Penn. Approximately 427,286 Pennsylvania's fought for the Union.
Adjacent to this gallery is the one displaying Peter Rothermel's massive painting The Battle of Gettysburg: Pickett's Charge. The 16-ft. high, 32-ft. wide, painting was commissioned in 1866 by the PA Legislature. Four smaller works, depicting scenes from battles in which Pennsylvanians fought, are located nearby.
If you have time the museum is filled with exhibits that attest to PA's history. One should not miss the planetarium or the full-scale Native American village. www.statemuseumpa.org
The 1816 Wesley Union AME Zion Church purchased a parcel of land in 1817 for the burial of the city's blacks and named it the Lincoln Cemetery in 1827. Parishioners worked with the Underground Railroad. Several important graves are within the cemetery, most notably that of Thomas Morris Chester. Chester was the only black war correspondent working for a major newspaper, 'The Philadelphia Press." His dispatches concerning the fall of Richmond were written on the desk of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
The Harrisburg Hilton is ideally situated for this leg of the tour. It is accessible to all the sites and those in the area. The hotel offers superior service, hospitality and a menu of amenities. Check the web for specials and packages. www1.hilton.com
Bricco Restaurant is a must while you are in town. It is a joint venture between Harrisburg Hotel Corporation and Olewine School of Culinary Arts. The menu primarily consists of agricultural products from PA supplemented with European foods. www.briccopa.com
Robert E. Lee planned to invade the North via Harrisburg in 1863. His plan was disrupted and he turned his army toward a city 36-miles away and it was Gettysburg that would prove to be the turning point of the Civil War. We are headed in that direction to explore that battle and surrounding events.
Hunterstown, four-miles northeast of Gettysburg, was the scene of a relatively small but significant engagement on July 2, 1863, at the height of the Battle of Gettysburg. It has come to be known as the North Cavalry Field. Union Brigadier Generals E. Farnsworth and George A. Custer were in search of the left rear of the Confederate forces. CSA Brig. General Wade Hampton moved into place on the Hunterstown Road to block any Union efforts to maneuver behind Lee's lines. Custer and Hampton met at 4 PM and the fight continued until 11 PM thanks to Custer's plan to trap them on the road. The battle was strategically important because it prevented the Confederates from taking a position behind Union lines.
Custer's horse fell on him during the fight. The course of history was altered when Norville Churchill freed him and saw him to safety. A memorial dedicated to Custer is on the main road. www.hunterstown1863.com
A number of structures have survived and a tour of Hunterstown is like stepping into the 1860s. The Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Grass Hotel was constructed in the 1700s and served as Kilpatrick's headquarters for the duration of the battle. Custer received his orders here and the door remains battle scarred. Nearby the 17th-century Conewago Presbyterian Church functioned as a Confederate hospital during the Civil War.
Tate Farm, Barn and Blacksmith Shop have numerous claims to historic status. George Washington stopped here in 1794 on his way home from Pittsburgh to have his horse shod and in 1863 it was at the center of the battle. Oral history has it that the farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad and legends point to the fact that there was a tunnel that ran from the farm to the Grass Hotel.
The Cross and Bluebird Tea Room and Gift Shop are located at the Historic Tate Farm. Visitors can sample teas and purchase one-of-a-kind tea service items.
Pennsylvania has created a series of thematic trails designed to facilitate shopping, dining, lodging, recreation and historic travel. Information is available online. Read up on them and be ready for our visits next week to Chambersburg and Gettysburg. www.visitpa.com
I wish you smooth and scholarly travels!
TIP: One of the best resources for information on the American Civil War is www.mycivilwar.com
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