Civil War Soldiers' New High-Tech Home

The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier at Pamplin Historical Park near Petersburg

Civil War Soldiers' New High-Tech Home

A ceremony on Memorial Day weekend announced the opening of a different kind of Civil War museum. Its focus is not on a battle or personality but on the war's common soldiers. The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier at Pamplin Historical Park near Petersburg, Virginia, combines an outstanding artifact collection with a unique, high-tech presentation that is designed to appeal to audiences ranging from serious students of the Civil War to grade school children. Visitors to the museum may also explore the nearby battlefield--where on April 2, 1865, the Union Sixth Corps broke through the Confederate defenses protecting the vital rail link to Petersburg--as well as a perfectly restored and furnished antebellum plantation home.

The site--a 363-acre historical campus--was a philanthropic gift from the Robert B. Pamplin family of Portland, Oregon. Robert B. Pamplin, Sr., was born just a few miles from the park that bears his name. As a young man, he went to work for a Georgia lumber operation that he later transformed into the Georgia-Pacific Corporation. He and his son, Dr. Robert B. Pamplin, Jr., currently manage the R.B. Pamplin Corporation.

Pamplin Park is on the site of the plantation owned by the Pamplins' maternal forebears, the Boisseau family. The acreage had long ago passed out of the family's hands, but the Pamplins later took advantage of an opportunity to purchase portions of the land that included a significant stretch of Confederate earthworks in a beautiful state of preservation along with the Boisseau family home, Tudor Hall, which was constructed in 1812. Shortly after purchasing the property, the family committed itself to developing the site into a world-class facility dedicated to history, heritage, education, and preservation. The result is Pamplin Historical Park and National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.

In a formal statement at the park's opening, Dr. Robert Pamplin spoke of the significance of the facility: "My father taught me early on the importance of heritage, historic preservation, and education. Pamplin Historical Park is built upon these values, and it is my hope that they will help ensure its place as one of the leading historical attractions in Virginia."

Dr. Pamplin is not alone in his enthusiasm for the park. According to James McPherson, who spoke at the opening, "Pamplin Historical Park is the new crown jewel of Civil War destinations in America."

The focal point of the park is the twenty-five-thousand-square-foot National Museum of the Civil War Soldier. The facility features seven galleries that trace the experience of the common soldier during the war. Much like the interpretive methods adopted at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., visitors to the museum are able to customize their experience by selecting a "comrade" from photographs of thirteen actual Civil War soldiers at the gallery entrance. An audio tour leads the visitors through the gallery and tells the story of the common Civil War soldier through the diaries and letters of the visitor's chosen comrade. At the end of the tour, the visitor learns the fate of his or her comrade.

Richard Lewis, director of marketing for Pamplin Historical Park, explained that this presentation makes the experience of the Civil War soldier very personal to the visitor: "You get a real sense of familiarity with your soldier-comrade. You hear his words and get to know his thoughts. At the end, it is very emotional for some people to find out that the soldier who they have just spent an hour getting to know was killed in battle or died of disease. Likewise, there is a sense of relief if you find that your comrade made it home."

The museum galleries are themselves a trip back in time. The floor on which visitors walk appears to be dried mud, full of shoe, hoof, and bare foot prints and wagon ruts. Lifelike mannequins sit playing poker or sleep in a winter hut, and one unfortunate is being punished by having to wear a barrel-shirt marked "thief." A Sibley tent houses a display of original camp items. A six-mule wagon contains crates of new Enfield muskets. A fire-and-brimstone preacher exhorts from a log chapel. A sutler store displays racks of soldiers' necessities and frivolities. In addition, the galleries also feature large displays of original uniforms, weapons, accouterments, band instruments, and surgical gear. Murals painted by respected Civil War artist Keith Rocco surround the displays.

After visiting the museum, guests can explore the rest of Pamplin Park. Tudor Hall was used as the headquarters of Confederate Brig. Gen. Samuel McGowan during the siege of Petersburg. The house has been painstakingly restored and is used to interpret the home's use as both a family residence and as a military headquarters.

Across the park, a smaller museum and interpretive facility, the Battlefield Center, is the gateway to the preserved battlefield. On this site, early on the morning of April 2, 1865, Vermonters from the Union Sixth Corps assaulted the Confederate defensive line, suffering more than one thousand casualties during the intense fighting. Although McGowan's South Carolinians had erected formidable earthworks, they did not have enough men to adequately man them, and the Vermonters were finally able to break through. The Federal breach here effectively ended the nine-month Petersburg campaign and led to the evacuation of the city that evening. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox lay one week away.

Pamplin Historical Park has been open since 1994 on a smaller scale as Pamplin Park Civil War Site. There are plans to further expand features of the museum and park in phases through the year 2011.

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