A new Civil War museum salutes the common soldier

History: They had their fears, their stories, their reasons for fighting. Now, visitors to Petersburg, Va., do also.

September 06, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

PETERSBURG, Va. -- The millionaires wanted a world-class Civil War museum, no easy task in this storied part of the old Confederacy.

Museums and national parks are all around Petersburg. Several more are up the interstate in Richmond. Then there's Appomattox to the west. You can't drive 10 miles in this part of Virginia without ending up on another Lee Highway or another battlefield.

The Civil War museum has been done, perhaps to excess. But the Pamplin family, founders of Georgia-Pacific, wanted a new one on the historic land they owned outside of Petersburg. All they needed was a collection of artifacts and a fresh idea.

That turned out to be the story of the 3 million farm boys, runaway slaves, immigrants and baby-faced teen-agers who fought and died on the Civil War's 10,000 battlefields.

Those soldiers never got top billing in museums, until now.

"You're not going to Washington or Atlanta or any other place and find this concept," says A. Wilson Greene, director of the newly opened $10 million National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.

His is not an idle boast. The museum at Pamplin Historical Park honors the ordinary soldiers, the grunts and dogfaces of the 19th century.

Don't look for generals, politicians or line officers. They already have their museums.

Shared experience

In a sense, Pamplin is the perfect place for testament to the Civil War soldier. The Union army broke the siege of Petersburg here on April 2, 1865. A week later, Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. The war's end started here.

That this is a different type of Civil War museum is apparent at first sight. No Confederate battle flag snaps in the breeze, nor does one from the old Union. There is only today's flag. The two soldiers cast in bronze near the entrance have no markings to tell if they are Yankees or Rebels. They're just soldiers around a campfire.

Shared experience is the focus of the state-of-the-art exhibit titled "Duty Called Me Here: The Common Experience of the Civil War Soldier."

"We're not going to ask you to remember a date," says Greene. "We are just going to ask you to step back and put yourself in the shoes of your ancestors."

A Civil War soldier faced a one-in-15 chance of being killed, a one-in-eight chance of being wounded, a one-in-13 chance of being captured and a one-in-seven chance of dying while a prisoner-of-war.

They came from throughout the country and are represented here by 13 whose stories are part of the museum's audio tour. Their experiences give the museum a rich complexity. Every Southerner was not a slave owner; every Northerner was not an abolitionist.

Arthur Bergeron, the museum's historian, sifted through hundreds of letters and photographs to find these soldiers. They had to represent specific geographic areas, different motivations and experiences. And they had to have left behind pictures and words.

"Not just quotes, but quotes that fit the themes of the exhibits," says Bergeron.

A human dimension

The soldiers include a planter's son and a printer, several students and a 13-year-old drummer boy.

"I think people can identify with a common soldier more than with a general," says Henry Kidd, a renowned Civil War artist and museum visitor. "A general is someone you can look up to and idolize. But a common soldier? There's something there that is universal."

Ken Burns, whose epic documentary on the Civil War brought renewed interest to this piece of American history, knew this. The stories of Elisha Hunt Rhodes and Sam Watkins, two scrappy soldiers who just did their jobs, gave his series a human dimension.

"Every man there had his own reasons for being there, if he was a volunteer," says Kidd. "Even being conscripted you had to reconcile with yourself your own reasons for being there."

You might be fighting to preserve the Union. You might be fighting to defend your state from invasion. You might be fighting for freedom. That's what brought Alexander Newton, a 24-year-old freedman from North Carolina, into the war in 1863. He vowed to fight "until the sound of clinking slave chains shall be heard no more in the length and breadth of this fair and goodly land."

"My soul was on fire for the question, slavery or no slavery, to be forever settled, and that as soon as possible," he says.

Listening to the stories, the similarities of experience and hardship become clear. Valerius Cincinnatus Giles, a 19-year-old farmer from Austin, Texas, speaks of marching 155 miles in 12 days. And it rained 11 of those days. Newton tells of collapsing and falling asleep after a long day's march.

An army on the move stretched out for miles and took days to reach its destination. A soldier in the rear might march through clouds of choking dust kicked up by lead units miles ahead. There were only dirt roads then, dusty in dry weather, muddy and practically impassable when wet. Few today can imagine that life, says Bergeron.

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