Civil War living-history site sought

May 23, 1993|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

GETTYSBURG — GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- In the dim light of a rustic tavern, Bill Clark and other Civil War re-enactors drink Guinness Stout, debate obscure history books and battlefield tactics and dream of bringing to life that era of national strife.

For Mr. Clark and about 20 others, the dream has become more than talk. They have formed a nonprofit corporation and are negotiating to buy about 200 acres south of Gettysburg -- a short drive from the Maryland line -- to create a living-history museum of the Civil War.

They are applying for state and federal grants, seeking donations and planning fund-raisers to garner the $8 million to $10 million cost of the project. They envision creating permanent Union and Confederate military camps and an 1860s-era farm and village.

Through "Under Two Flags -- A Civil War Living Museum at Gettysburg," these enthusiasts hope to portray life on both sides of the conflict. They want visitors to step back in time, hear the sounds, smell the aromas and see the surroundings.

"You can go to Gettysburg and learn a tremendous amount, but you can't see living history unless you go on the Fourth of July, Remembrance Day or some other holiday," said Glenn Sitterly, curator of American history for Nassau County, N.Y., museums. "You have to go to different parts of the country to get bits and pieces of the Civil War. It's a crime."

Mr. Clark and others have nurtured their vision for months.

'We need interpretation'

Often, they discuss the project here at the Farnsworth House, where actors portraying Unionists and Confederates in the film "The Killer Angels" hung out after the day's shooting last summer and where the ghosts of rebel sharpshooters are said to haunt the attic of the 183-year-old house.

"The idea for this came about when we realized that visitors coming to Gettysburg enjoy talking to men in uniform and ladies in period clothes," said Mr. Clark, who moved to Gettysburg two years ago after retiring from a New Hampshire electronics firm.

"Whenever one of these folks are around, they draw a crowd," he said.

Visitors to Gettysburg -- there are about 1.5 million each year -- now can tour several museums that depict military and other aspects of the Civil War and the three-day battle, in which more than 50,000 Confederate and Union soldiers were killed in July 1863.

"This is something that should have been done 10 years ago," said Speros Marinos, vice president of the Battlefield Military Museum in Gettysburg and a member of Mr. Clark's group. "You can only go so long with the same attractions here. In the age we live in, it is not good enough to have static displays and mannequins. We need interpretation."

At Gettysburg National Military Park, military encampments and a variety of living-history programs, including portrayals of civilians, are performed throughout the summer, said Jim Roach, chief of interpretation and visitors services.

Tim Smith, a licensed battlefield guide, said most tourists who come to see the battlefield know little about mid-19th century warfare. They know nothing about Civil War soldiers, about firing a rifle or about how far cannons can fire, he said.

"A lot of people want to know where the re-enactors are," he said.

They'll find re-enactors year-round at "Under Two Flags." Plans call for Union and Confederate military camps, where visitors can witness tactical demonstrations, mail call, pay call, color ceremonies, medical and basic artillery training.

And visitors will be able to wander through a re-created 1860s working farm and village, where they can chat with civilians and laborers in period dress. A dry goods store, print shop, bakery, and school are being considered for the village.

"We need something here on a permanent basis. People will see how soldiers lived, what houses looked like and what life was like for people in the 1860s," Mr. Clark said.

He said the museum will serve as a permanent site for the study of military and civilian life during the Civil War. A library, video production facility, visitors center, bookstore, gift shop, and a store selling re-enactor items are part of the scenario.

No corn husk dolls

Living history programs are a great way to teach the public about the Civil War, said John Michael Gibney, an adjunct professor of living history at Eastern Michigan University.

He said living history programs have been successful at such places as Williamsburg in Virginia, Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts and Greenfield Village in Michigan. "Under Two Flags" will be the only museum focused on the Civil War.

"People seem so enthralled with the Civil War right now," said Mr. Gibney, who is a re-enactor and a frequent visitor to Gettysburg. "Every park seems to have the same sort of corn husk doll thing, where people make corn husk dolls. People don't want the same thing over and over. This really is an opportunity to show some fantastic things in a permanent setting."

Mr. Gibney said a permanent living-history program of the Civil War would allow people to learn about other aspects of the conflict, including the anti-slavery movement, sharpshooters and Zouaves, Union soldiers who patterned their colorful uniforms after the Algerian infantry.

Mr. Clark said "Under Two Flags" could open on a small scale as early as 1994.

The first phase will likely feature several structures, including a farmhouse and barn, and cost about $3 million.

Other phases of the project could be completed in 1996 and 1998.

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