National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA

National Civil War Museum

On a hill in Reservoir Park in Harrisburg, PA.
On a hill in Reservoir Park in Harrisburg, PA. | Source
The National Civil War Museum facade.
The National Civil War Museum facade. | Source

High on a hill in Harrisburg sits the rather new National Civil War Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. Open 7 days a week, it claims to be the only museum with fair and even-handed representation of all sides of the War Between the States. It sits in Reservoir Park at 100 Concert Drive, Harrisburg, PA 17103
(717) 260-1861.


Getting to the museum proved fairly easy. The museum website provides directions from various starting orientations and gives the term to type into any GPS device in order to arrive at the correct destination. Furthermore, numerous clear signs with the museum logo dot the highway exit ramps and the city streets leading to the museum. Happily, parking is ample and free.

The National Civil war Museum occupies a spacious, majestic brick building with two stories of exhibits. Additionally, there is a lecture hall. The day I visited, a free class on dance steps of the Civil War era was being conducted for any museum guests. Otherwise, I imagine that this space is used for both private and public education and events.

The Content of the Second Floor

Museum visitors are instructed upon arrival that this is a self-guided museum. A map suggests that one start on the second floor and work down. Those second floor galleries are

A House Divided 1850-1860

American Slavery

First Shots 1861

(Here I learned that Fort Sumter existed precariously vulnerable as a federal military property in a seceded state and that it was not even completely constructed. The few “Union” soldiers staffing it were woefully unequipped for an assault.)

Making of Armies

Weapons and Equipment

Campaigns and Battles of 1862

Camp Curtin – the Union military installment in Harrisburg which provided training, mustering, and hospital services

Reasons Men Fought

Civil War Music

Allegedly, there was a Battle Map of 1861-1862 Gallery, but I either did not know how to operate or interact with it, or it was not functional.

Artifacts Galore

Explanation of the expression "bite the bullet" which comes from the use of bullets by patients in surgery.
Explanation of the expression "bite the bullet" which comes from the use of bullets by patients in surgery. | Source
Bullets with teeth marks used specifically for patients to bite during painful medical procedures.
Bullets with teeth marks used specifically for patients to bite during painful medical procedures. | Source

The Content of the First Floor

Gettysburg 1863

Costs of War – death tolls and medical considerations

Women in the War

Naval Contributions

Campaigns and Battles of 1864-1865

Battle Map of 1863-1865 Gallery. Same comments as above.

Lincoln, and Veterans

Civil War Amputation Surgery Display

This is tastefully shown - the realistic amount of blood is not depicted.
This is tastefully shown - the realistic amount of blood is not depicted. | Source

War of Firsts poster

I believe these are firsts for Americans, not the entire world.
I believe these are firsts for Americans, not the entire world. | Source

Kudos for these Features

Posters describing a “First.” In American history which occurred during the Civil War. This was saw the first military chaplains, first ambulance corps, first use of railroads to move troops, first use of railroad cars to mount weapons and fire therefrom, first submarine, first protecting of ships with iron cladding, first use of signal flags, and more. These are eye-catchy and memorable.

There is an interactive Game for children (of all ages) to send flag signals to a receiver screen. It is Civil War Wii.

Ten characters appear on small screens throughout the exhibits, each presenting 2-minute dramatizations of their role and opinions. They include Northerners, Southerners, men, women, rich, working-poor, free blacks, and slaves. As the visitors travel through the museum, succeeding screens update each character’s story from 1860 through post-war. This is VERY well done.

Room for Improvement

NOISE pollution!

As Dr. Suess’s Grinch complained, “One thing I can’t stand is the noise, noise, noise, noise!” So many of the displays within a gallery included audio. At the best they bled into each other, however, usually it was far worse: they competed with each other. Picture a public school cafeteria at lunchtime and you will have a sense of all the sounds being produced. It is a shame because each, on its own, provided valuable information. The museum really needs to find a way to soundproof or isolate these exhibits so that each can be appreciated and clearly heard without competition from its neighbors.

Is it unbiased?

It seemed unbiased to me. However, I am a Pennsylvanian and perhaps could not recognize material offensive to persons with Confederate States ancestry. I thought that credit for any war new technology was given no matter who created it. Myths and facts were discussed. Moments of shared peace were displayed. Flags and uniforms and officers of both sides had their day. I did not sense anything g offensive - which I cannot say about a University of Virginia student guide who long ago described to the campus tour group in which I walked that such-and-such happened during “The War of the Northern Aggression.” You won’t find that attitude at this museum.

Photos and text copyright 2012 Maren E. Morgan

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Comments 5 comments

amerben 4 years ago

Dear Maren, I have been trying to fit a visit to Gettysburg into my busy schedule for a couple of years now and hope to actually do it this year. Another museum your readers might be interested in is in Frederick, MD which is relatively small, but which contains medical exhibits from the Civil War. Thanks for renewing my interest in getting to Gettysburg, especially since it's only about an hour and a half away.

Maren Morgan M-T profile image

Maren Morgan M-T 4 years ago from Pennsylvania Author

Amerben, the Civil War Medicine Museum is a great place. Obviously, the Gettysburg national site will be crammed full of facts and details.

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

I live in the Harrisburg area, and have been in the museum building for a meeting, but have never taken the tour. Your hub is a great encouragement to do so. Thanks!

Maren Morgan M-T profile image

Maren Morgan M-T 3 years ago from Pennsylvania Author often we (definitely me) do not take advantage of the treasures available locally! I hope you can fit in a tour soon. You already know that the parking is pretty good. Thanks for your comment!

amerben 3 years ago

P.S. from Amerben regarding the staffing at Fort Sumpter - the commanders on each side were classmates at West Point and the "Rebel" commander permitted the Union one to leave with his sword and his men by boat north. They were not held as POWs.

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