National Civil War Museum (Pennsylvania)

https://www.nationalcivilwarmuseum.org

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the National Civil War Museum. Its location in the middle of Pennsylvania makes it an easy addition to any trip through the state.


History

Founded in 2001, the National Civil War Museum is located in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Now a Smithsonian affiliate, the museum’s exhibits are designed to tell the whole story of the Civil War with equal emphasis to both sides. The museum is located in the city’s Reservoir Park and has a commanding view of the valley below. 

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital, served as an important supply, logistics, and training center for the Union Army during the Civil War. It also was the location of Camp Curtain, the largest Union camp of the war. It was a target of the Confederate Army during the Gettysburg campaign but was never under serious threat. The Gettysburg battlefield lies just 40 miles to the southwest, which makes this museum a great addition to any Civil War enthusiast’s trip to the battlefield. 


Visit

The National Civil War Museum is a stunning museum with an important story.

Be sure to pause at the statue, Moment of Mercy, at the entrance and hear the faint sounds of music. 

You’ll begin the tour on the second floor of the museum at the exhibit, A House Divided: 1850-1860. Watch the looping video depicting different perspectives of citizens before the war.

The second exhibit, American Slavery: The Peculiar Institution, 1850-1860, contains a very moving and horrific depiction of a slave market. Be sure to talk to your children beforehand about this terrible occurrence. 

The exhibits will wind you through the museum, telling the story of both the northern and southern armies, from the first shots of the war through the unimaginable casualties of battle.

The exhibits range from videos to pictures to physical artifacts. The museum has catalogued over 4,000 artifacts and 21,000 archival documents!

Children will be interested in the different uniforms and weapons on display. They’ll also like seeing the various games and activities the soldiers played while in camp. 

One of my favorite exhibits was the Civil War Music exhibit where you could hear recordings of songs, inspirational spirituals, and bugle calls. At each exhibit, the museum does a great job of personalizing the war and giving the names of real people and events. It helps to bring home what can sometimes seem like an impersonal event to us 160 years later. 

After this exhibit, you’ll move downstairs to learn about the last two years of the war, from the Gettysburg campaign to the surrender at Appomattox. 

Note the Costs of War exhibit depicts Civil War medicine and can have some gruesome pictures. Walk quickly through it with young children. 

My favorite exhibit was the Women in the War exhibit. I love hearing how real women survived the war through battles, starvation, and illness. 

My children’s favorite exhibit was the interactive Meet Mr. Lincoln exhibit in the last gallery where you can “interact” with several historical figures, including President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, and Elizabeth Keckly. You can “ask” them questions about the war and their actions. 

Don’t miss the fun gift shop before you leave the museum! And be sure to visit the “Walk of Valor” directly outside the museum. It lists each state and the number of casualties it suffered.

The Civil War was one of the most important times in our nation’s history. Visiting the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA is a great way to learn more about it, especially when combined with a trip to the hallowed ground in Gettysburg. Make plans to visit it in the fall when the weather in central Pennsylvania is perfect!


Helpful hints:

  • Cost: $14/adults; $12/kids 6-18; free/under 6
  • Recommended: ages 10 and up
  • Tour time: 1-2 hours
  • Gift shop located onsite
  • Transportation: The museum is accessible by car only. Important: Be sure to use these directions from the museum. Do not go by Google Maps – I learned this the hard way! 
  • Dining options nearby: The museum does not have a cafe and there are no nearby restaurants. We drove 10 minutes to find restaurants along I-81 on Valley Road, including a Cracker Barrel and Harvest Seasonal Grill
  • Hotel options: We didn’t stay in Harrisburg but its tourism site lists many hotels. I recommend making this museum part of a bigger trip, staying in either Gettysburg or Hershey, PA.
  • Nearby attractions: State Museum of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Capitol, Hersheypark, Indian Echo Caverns, and Gettysburg National Military Park

Books to Read:

Check out my Civil War reading list on my Bookshop.org site (affiliate link).

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