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The newly opened Seminary Ridge Museum has a unique story to tell, and tells it in elegant, educational and occasionally gruesome ways. Located in the restored Schmucker Hall at Gettysburg’s iconic Lutheran Theological Seminary, the museum opened on July 1 during the 150th commemoration of the battle. From this same building’s cupola, Union cavalry commander John Buford spotted the advancing Confederates on July 1, 1863. The museum interprets the events of that fateful day, when battle raged over the ridges west of the town. Exhibits also chronicle the building’s conversion to a field hospital, and the role of faith in the fight. It’s a lot to cover, but the museum succeeds, thanks to excellent organization over its four floors.

Interpretive panels include large maps of troop movements, with timelines. I particularly enjoyed a 360- degree panorama of archival photos showing what Buford would have seen from aloft. Visitors may opt to buy a ticket that includes museum admission and also access to the cupola, to see the present-day view.

The museum’s most beautiful elements are large-scale murals by noted artist and Gettysburg resident Dale Gallon. Also on view is an enlarged version of Eastman Johnson’s A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves, painted in 1862.

Even more stunning are the whole rooms filled with mannequins depicting bloodied soldiers convalescing in the newly converted hospital, which treated about 600 soldiers. In life-sized dioramas (one of which shows an amputation), we get a realistic view of the battle’s messy aftermath—especially affecting coupled with the audio commentary (“I lay on the floor in my blood for two days,” for example.) Some forewarning would have been helpful; the children under 8 in my group were visibly disturbed.

Elsewhere, however, the museum does an excellent job of appealing to children. A continuing thread follows the lives of Lydia and Hugh Ziegler, youngsters who lived at the Seminary during the battle. Young visitors can write a letter to an imagined soldier or fill out their names on certificates, joining a regiment of U.S. Colored Troops. Kids and adults are invited to try on Union kepis and sack coats or heft a soldier’s heavy backpack.

Like exhibits in some of the other recently curated Civil War museums, one display effectively ties the conflict’s legacy to the 20th-century’s Civil Rights movement and the election of America’s first African-American president. It’s another way the Seminary Ridge Museum proves its worth among all the voices telling the ongoing story of the Civil War.


Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.