HARRISBURG, Pa. - It was only 40 miles from here, across the Susquehanna River and down the road, that the climactic and bloody battle of Gettysburg took place 138 years ago.
When Gen. Robert E. Lee brought his Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania, Harrisburg was his objective, but Gettysburg and retreat were his fate.
This city of 51,000 never saw battle (although skirmishes occurred within three miles of town), but its enticing presence induced a horrific turn in the war, a point that becomes clear at the newly opened National Civil War Museum here.
Billed as the first museum in the country devoted to covering the entire war from the multiple perspectives of Union and Confederacy, black and white, general and private, soldier, politician, and plain, suffering citizen, the red-brick, $16.2 million facility sits high atop a hilltop in Reservoir Park, overlooking the city and the great serpentine river to the west.
Its opening this week represents a new inclusiveness and scope for Civil War museums, which have tended to focus on a single battle or perspective.
The National Civil War Museum is also an important milestone for the city of Harrisburg, struggling to regain broad economic vitality, and for the state of Pennsylvania, which bankrolled construction as part of an effort to build statewide tourism on the back of the region's cultural institutions and resources.
The state completely funded construction of the two-story, 65,000-square-foot building, full of lifelike mannequins, fiber-optic maps, digital video displays, and sound-and-light gadgetry of all kinds.
The city has sunk about $17 million into acquiring a broad collection of documents and artifacts (about 12,000) that features memorabilia associated with President Abraham Lincoln (his stovepipe hatbox from the 1860 presidential campaign, for instance); Lt. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (his bloody glove from the night his own troops shot him at Chancellorsville, Va.); Lee (his last battle map); and many others. The museum also contains artifacts of slave life - clothing, shackles, tools - as well as items illustrating the life of common soldiers - diaries, letters, uniforms, weapons.
"The governor has made a commitment and remains committed to our quality-of-life infrastructure," said Steve Aaron, a spokesman for Gov. Tom Ridge. "He is making sure these places have the money to grow and to modernize. And he is also committed to funding new places, like the National Civil War Museum."
Over the last six years, Ridge has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into the state's cultural institutions - including nearly $110 million for Philadelphia projects alone.
The Harrisburg area has received about $113 million in state support for such places as the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, the State Farm Show complex, the new Hershey Arena, and the Gettysburg Historic Pathways plan.
Ridge's most recent budget proposed $80 million in renovations for the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, plus $20 million for renovating historic sites around the state.
"I think there's a recognition that Pennsylvania has a growing tourist industry and that creating attractions and supporting communities trying to develop the tourist industry is something the state has an interest in," said Brent D. Glass, executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which runs the State Museum and several other facilities. "One of the principal reasons people come to Pennsylvania is history, and the survival of historic sites and clusters of museums is critical to that."
In Harrisburg, longtime Mayor Steven R. Reed - who conceived the idea for the museum a decade ago - has focused a considerable portion of development efforts on building a tourism industry where there was none only a few years ago. He has also coaxed a firefighters museum into existence, a sports hall of fame is forthcoming, and plans for a national African- American history museum were just announced.
"We have a thriving tourism industry now," Reed said in a recent interview. "Ten years ago our naysayers would have found that laughable. They are not laughing now."
The Civil War museum is one of the keys, in Reed's view, to the future vitality of the area's tourism.
More than 1.7 million people visit Gettysburg National Historical Park every year, and proponents of the Harrisburg museum hope to pick up at least some who are either passing through the city in transit to the battlefield or who can't get enough of the War Between the States and are willing to drive for 45 minutes - not an easy proposition.
According to George Hicks, the museum's executive director, about 85,000 visitors are expected during its first year. "That's what our business plan is based on and I'll bet you we have 150,000," Hicks said during a recent interview in his new museum office.