Thundering cannon fire and staccato rifle shots, mingled with the shrieks and cries of advancing and wounded soldiers, shattered the peaceful grounds of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.
Gettysburg's new Seminary Ridge Museum and its gripping Civil War content now occupies the seminary building that became engulfed in the first day's fighting.
The grand opening is July 1 — exactly 150 years after the bloodiest three-day battle of the Civil War erupted not far from its doors. It is a key event in the 10-day, 150th Gettysburg Commemoration that is expected to draw thousands of visitors to the town and its National Military Park and Visitor Center.
Previously called Schmucker Hall, the museum's building was a hilltop landmark before the Civil War began and could be seen for miles. From the top of its famous cupola (you've seen it if you watched the movie "Gettysburg") to its ground-floor orientation film, the new museum is a fitting flagship attraction for the battle's 150th observance.
It also offers an extreme Civil War experience — visitors can climb the steep, narrow and winding stairs to the cupola. Those limber enough and lucky enough to secure timed tickets for the cupola climb will stand where Union Gen. John Buford watched the Confederate advance on the town and plotted his strategy.
A preview of the museum revealed an extraordinary place that uses ordinary people — soldiers and citizens — to tell the stories of tumultuous times. Their recollections and writings, printed on museum walls and heard in recordings that play in the hallways, can be heartwarming, horrifying or haunting.
"The museum building is our biggest artifact. Based on the roles it played in the battle, it told us the stories we should tell," says Barbara Franco, museum executive director.
But it whispers, too. "After hours, when the voices are turned off in the exhibits, I hear plenty of creaks and other noises. I believe the building still contains the energy of people who have passed through it," Franco says.
Even the museum's walls and floors have talked. During renovations to the brick, Federal-style building constructed on Seminary Ridge in 1832, work crews discovered an envelope of letters to a Civil War soldier beneath the floorboards, a sarsaparilla bottle and old shoes in its walls.
The museum focuses on the pivotal first day of the Battle of Gettysburg on McPherson Ridge and Seminary Ridge on the fourth floor; Schmucker Hall's use as a field hospital for 600 soldiers on the third floor and the moral, civic and spiritual debates shaping the era on the second floor.
The first floor contains an orientation film, museum shop, ticket counter and restrooms. The museum's main entrance is accessed from the Spring Street parking lot at the rear of the building.
Although you'll find some of this information at other Gettysburg locations, the new museum isn't competing with other attractions. "Our stories are not as well-covered by the National Military Museum and other locations. They're also unique because of our perspective that keeps the building in focus," Franco says.
Besides the introductory video, additional short videos set the tone for each of the three other floors' themes.
The second floor explores slavery, Biblical arguments for and against slavery, Adams County's population of free blacks and the Underground Railroad, and also includes some mind-stretching, touch-screen exercises giving visitors a taste of problems Americans faced.
Take Samuel Simon Schmucker, founder of the seminary and an outspoken abolitionist. What was he to do when he inherited slaves that belonged to his second wife's family? Among other problems presented: How could a Quaker help the Northern cause without fighting? Should a young black resident of Gettysburg join the Army and fight or should he flee?
Noted Civil War artist Dale Gallon created 10 oil paintings to help tell the museum's story on the battle's first day, from the "Rebels are in Cashtown" (showing the panic in downtown Gettysburg when residents realized trouble was headed their way) and "Buford's Boys" (Union soldiers fighting on McPherson's Ridge) to the "Withdrawal of the 151st Pennsylvania" (after holding off several Confederate advances, the men retreated and re-formed on Cemetery Hill) and "Days End, July 1" (with Confederates in possession of the seminary and its surrounding property).
Additional room-size displays, with life-like, full-size figures, graphically convey the pain and suffering endured by soldiers waiting for treatment and recovering with the help of nurses and orderlies. There's also a riveting scene of a doctor with a raised saw preparing to amputate a soldier's leg. "Blood" is smeared on floors and walls and forms pools beside soldiers' wounds.
Lt. Col. George F. McFarland is shown in his bed, recovering from bullet wounds to both legs and the amputation of one leg. His wife and children are gathered at his bedside. But McFarland didn't make it to the field hospital on his own. As Union troops gave up the hilltop position, McFarland writes, "One of my boys carried me in the north end of the Theological Seminary, while the Confederates came in the South End."
Even then, he wasn't totally out of danger. On July 3, he narrowly averted death when an artillery shell penetrated the wall of his room and passed directly over his head. The 151st Pennsylvania officer was the last patient to leave the hospital on Sept. 16.
Franco says the museum has the names of nearly 400 of the 600 soldiers cared for in Schmucker Hall.