The Civil War Seen Whole

May 17, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

HAGERSTOWN -- Think of Civil War destinations in Maryland, and places like Antietam, South Mountain and Monocacy spring to mind. A group of history buffs here hopes to add Hagerstown to that list.

The history buffs want to build the first national museum of the Civil War -- the whole war, not just a battle or two -- in this Western Maryland city. They envision a Smithsonian Institution-caliber museum that would tell visitors about the military maneuvers, turmoil, causes and effects of the entire four-year conflict.

"We're not talking about dead history -- about exhibits of bullets and buckles," says Jo Ann Frobouck, a Sharpsburg resident and member of the Antietam National Battlefield Advisory Committee, the group that is spearheading the museum effort.

"We envision a living-history museum. We want to let people know about battles and strategies, but also about slavery and the Underground Railroad and the role played by women."

Several small museums across the country focus on regional and military aspects of the Civil War, but none is dedicated to the entire conflict, in which more than 600,000 people died.

Battlefields provide visitors with an understanding of military strategies at particular battles, but not of the entire war.

"That's always been one of our concerns," says Susan Moore, superintendent at Antietam National Battlefield. "There really is no singular place to get an overview of the war. Each battlefield is dedicated to that battle. We need to have an overview of the entire Civil War. There's a whole range of issues to look at."

Those issues, says Ed Itnyre, one of the museum's supporters, include problems that veterans, widows and orphans had after the war, how freed slaves adjusted, the plight of landowners caught up in battles, and the healing and rebuilding.

"We want to emphasize the broad scope of the war," says Mr. Itnyre, an Antietam committee member who lives in Rohrersville.

He said no money has been raised yet and that no feasibility study been conducted. But Mr. Itnyre and others are convinced such a museum could be successful. They point to the popularity of Ken Burns' acclaimed Civil War television series and the fact that 24 million people visited battlefields and other Civil War sites last year.

"I think there are enough people with questions and searching for answers about the Civil War that would support a museum," said Mark Stephens, program coordinator for the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites. "If they do it well, there's a real need for it. It would fit in well with the other Civil War sites in the area."

Hagerstown is an ideal location for the museum, backers of the idea say, because of its access to Interstates 81 and 70 and its proximity to many Civil War sites in Maryland and elsewhere, including Antietam, Gettysburg, Harpers Ferry and several Virginia battlefields.

"It's a pretty likely place," Mr. Stephens says. "Maryland was a border state, a slave state that stayed in the Union. That area is close to Civil War battlefields and populated areas. Anything within two hours of Washington would do well."

Washington County commissioners and Hagerstown officials, with an eye to tourism and economic benefits, have endorsed the proposal.

"There's no question that a national Civil War museum that had the sponsorship of the Smithsonian would have a dramatic impact on the local economy," says Dick Roulette, president of ++ the Washington County commissioners. "To put that museum in Hagerstown would have a real significant addition to the community."

Mr. Roulette says federal, state and other institutional dollars would be required to build such a museum.

Mr. Itnyre says museum supporters have had preliminary discussions with the Smithsonian but have received no commitment.

Mary Combs, a Smithsonian spokeswoman, says the museum can provide technical and other support, including books and materials, to groups considering establishing museums. In addition, she said, Smithsonian officials will visit museum sites to offer advice.

But the Smithsonian does not offer financial assistance, she said, and for a museum to become part of the Smithsonian would require congressional approval.

"It is not easy; it's a prolonged process creating a new Smithsonian museum. Everybody in Congress has to agree that it's a proper thing for the institution to take on, and there has to be funding to carry on the work," Ms. Combs says.

Andrea Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development, says it would be difficult to gauge the impact of such a museum without knowing the full scope of the project.

"It's an exciting idea, but we will have to wait until a little farther along to know the impact," she says. "There's a lot of interest in the Civil War right now. I think it would be a big draw."

The museum would do much to console a community still reeling from losing out last year to Frederick, half an hour east by interstate highway, as the site of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. Scheduled to open in 1995, that museum is expected to attract about 100,000 visitors a year.

"I think we learned a lot of things from that," Ms. Frobouck says. "That we really have to move on these things and go the next step and not procrastinate. The time is now, or otherwise someone else is going to do it."

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