Seminary Ridge Museum takes visitors back to 1st day of Gettysburg
GETTYSBURG — The dark brown floor creaks in places, its boards rough-hewn but worn smooth by more than 100 years of shuffling feet, some clad in students' sneakers, others in the worn shoe leather of Civil War soldiers.
The Seminary Ridge Museum opens inside Schmucker Hall on the Lutheran Theological Seminary campus at Gettysburg on Monday, 150 years to the day after it played a pivotal role in the opening day of the battle.
From its famous cupola, Brig. Gen. John Buford watched the Confederates arrive. Later that day, Confederates watched from the cupola as Union soldiers fortified hills on the other side of town.
The soft, white glow of modern lighting highlights the building's architecture and its exhibits. Walls and doorways rarely meet at right angles, and transoms appear rhomboid, testaments to the building's construction in 1832. Museum executives preserved those imperfections deliberately to remind visitors that they are not just walking between historical items — they are walking through one.
“The building itself is our largest artifact,” said Barbara Franco, executive director of the museum.
The effect is immersive in a way few museums can be.
Each floor is devoted to a theme.
The second floor explores the role of religion in the Civil War, including biblical justifications for and against slavery. Though religion played a prominent role in the war, “there weren't any museums anywhere that focus on religion,” Franco said.
“I don't know of a civil war that doesn't have religion in it,” Franco said. “Around a political or economic issue, you can find compromise; it becomes very difficult to compromise about belief.”
The third floor features a sometimes grisly homage to the building's role as a hospital during and for months after the battle. Mannequins recreate room-sized scenes from surgery to convalescence. An amputation scene fills one room, where blood pools on the floor and an elongated red handprint stains the doorway, as if from a staggering, wounded soldier grasping for support.
The scenes are set back from doorways to give visitors a few seconds to determine whether to shield them from children.
The fourth floor follows the first day of battle, when Union control of the ridge and building at sunrise gave way, by sunset, to the Confederates.
Ten new paintings of the day's fighting by local artist Dale Gallon fill the rooms, taking visitors through the morning, afternoon and evening of July 1, 1863. He included Schmucker Hall in each one, as a point of reference to help show how the Confederates pushed the Union line off Seminary Ridge and onto the high ground on the other side of Gettysburg — what would become the high-water mark of the Confederacy.
Metal posts suspend wall-sized paintings a few inches from the historic building's walls. This shrinks the room's size, but the vivid, life-sized outdoor scenes create an illusion of the walls' not being there.
“Small rooms become much broader vistas,” Franco said during a recent tour.
The exhibit includes one room devoted to a mock-up of the cupola surrounded by wall-sized reprints of antique photos that recreate the panoramic view as it was in the 1880s, the earliest that such photos were available.
Getting into the cupola costs $20, in addition to the $9 general admission fee, and requires a climb through the attic up a steep staircase. But few, if any, places in Gettysburg offer a better view of the terrain that determined so much of the battle.
It is the view of generals.
Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or email@example.com.