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New exhibit in Harrisburg museum extols state's Civil War role

| Saturday, April 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Library of Congress
The traveling exhibit will include items from Gettysburg, including a musket given to John L. Burns, who at 69 took up arms at Gettysburg to defend the North.
A display of presentation swords is included in the State Museum of Pennsylvania's 'Objects of Valor' exhibition, showcasing Civil War artifacts collected over the past 150 years.
Veteran reunion momentos are part of the State Museum of Pennsylvania's new 'Objects of Valor' exhibition, showcasing Civil War artifacts collected over the past 150 years.
State Museum of Pennsylvania workers set up the 'Objects of Valor' exhibition, showcasing Civil War artifacts collected over the past 150 years.
Brandon Sundberg (left) and Braeden Howard, conservators with B.R. Howard and Associates in Carlisle, set up a rifle in a display case in the State Museum of Pennsylvania's 'Objects of Valor' exhibition.

In anticipation of this summer's 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the state museum in Harrisburg is opening a new exhibit that focuses on Pennsylvania's role in the Civil War.

The centerpiece of the exhibit, which opens on Friday evening with a free reception, is the famed painting by Pennsylvania artist Peter F. Rothermel titled “Battle of Gettysburg: Pickett's Charge,” which first was displayed in 1870 at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.

While the 16- by 32-foot painting has been on view at the museum since 1965, the new exhibit will showcase it against period-style draperies and display cases made of dark mahogany.

“ ‘Pickett's Charge' will be surrounded by four other Rothermel paintings in a display that evokes the original setting in which the artist's works would have been displayed,”said Howard Pollman, director of external affairs for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

“Rothermel could not have imagined a sterile environment and LED lighting, so there is definitely some benefit to taking into account the surroundings in which paintings or artifacts are displayed,” said Michael Kraus, the curator at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.

Kraus has a degree in fine arts and is a painter.

The exhibit will feature artifacts from the museum's collection that have not been on public view for decades, including a chair from Union Gen. George Gordon Meade's headquarters in Gettysburg and a musket used by John L. Burns, a 69-year-old Gettysburg resident who joined Union troops in the fight.

“He became quite a celebrity after the war,” Pollman said. “People loved the idea of this old guy who just grabs his musket and joins the fight.”

Some artifacts belonged to Western Pennsylvania soldiers, including:

• The dress uniform, saddle and pistol of Union Gen. John Geary, a native of Mt. Pleasant, Westmoreland County, and governor of Pennsylvania.

• A presentation cane owned by Col. Orpheus S. Woodward, who commanded the 83rd “Erie Regiment.”

• A carved musket owned by Pvt. John Rivers of Butler County.

• A presentation sword owned by Col. Hugh McNeil, commander of the 42nd Pennsylvania “Bucktails” regiment.

• The badge worn by Pittsburgh native Cpl. Edward Stewart, who enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first official black military units.

Gettysburg is less than 40 miles from Harrisburg. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had sought to capture Gettysburg, but after Union forces under Meade crossed the Potomac, he reversed course.

“There will be a lot of people going to Gettysburg this year for the anniversary who might not even realize that there is so much more to Pennsylvania's role in the Civil War,” Pollman said. “There's multiple stories to be told, and we've tried to include some of them along with items that soldiers kept because they had meaning, such as Pvt. George Linn's ‘kepi' (cap), who continued to wear it after it was pieced by a bullet.”

Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412 -320-7987 or

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