The centerpiece of Gettysburg’s newest museum comes with a trigger warning. That’s because the immersive exhibit “Caught in the Crossfire” imagines what it might have been like for one family in this small Pennsylvania town in July 1863 as the American Civil War raged outside their windows.
The sounds of gunfire, cannons, and shouting are nearly deafening as floors shake and lights flash. Museum visitors overhear the family, who have hidden in their cellar, as they become increasingly panicked. And then comes a loud pounding on the front door as a soldier demands entry.
The reenactment leaves some visitors shaken, and most others emotionally moved. Civil War documentarian Ken Burns called it “a visceral experience.“
The neighboring National Military Park focuses on troop movements and casualties during the three-day conflict (at least 45,000 killed or injured, making Gettysburg the bloodiest battlefield in the United States). But the Beyond the Battle Museum, which opened April 15 next to the battlefield, uncovers the stories of the townspeople who lived there: those who fed the soldiers, nursed the wounded, buried the dead—and lived with the trauma of war for the rest of their lives.
Although other national parks and monuments are beginning to uncover the hidden figures at their sites, the Beyond the Battle museum is one of the leaders in this work. “There are probably very few battlefields where there is a museum that you’d have the majority of the storytelling from the perspective of women,” says executive director Andrew Dalton. “I would say that is definitely unique to our museum.”
Presenting the perspectives of women and Black and Indigenous people isn’t just about having a more inclusive and comprehensive history of the place, but also reaching a broader audience that reflects changing American demographics. That also means engaging visitors not just with static artifacts but with state-of-the-art technology, such as the 360-degree, you-are-there “Crossfire” exhibit.
Here’s what else to know about the new $12 million museum, and why the story of Gettysburg is still relevant today.
A big small town
Gettysburg, about 80 miles north of Washington, D.C., is “one of the most famous small towns in the world,” says Dalton. The brutal fighting in and around the hills outside of town and in its streets from July 1-3, 1863, which led to a decisive Union victory over the Confederate army, was a turning point of the Civil War. Then in November of that year, President Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the most celebrated speeches in American history during the dedication ceremony of the national military cemetery here.
One of the artifacts on display at the museum is a program from that ceremony, scribbled with notes; a local business had used it as scrap paper. Also on display is a photo of Martha Devan, a Black woman whose family home on the slopes of Cemetery Hill had been almost entirely destroyed by artillery fire during the battle. Days after Lincoln’s address, her brothers enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops.
Visitors learn the story of Sallie Myers, a local schoolteacher who helped tend to the wounded after the battle, including one fatally injured soldier whose younger brother she later married. Teenager Tillie Pierce also helped care for the wounded and eventually wrote about her experiences in a memoir published in 1889, one of the most well-known eyewitness civilian accounts of the battle. One of the county’s Black residents, Basil Biggs helped supervise the mostly Black burial crews charged with the gruesome task of exhuming the bodies of the Union dead from their temporary graves and reburying them at the national cemetery.
One of the objects on display that Dalton finds most compelling is a letter written a couple days after the battle by a 10-year-old girl to her father who was away serving in the Union Army. It’s a blend of the mundane (her baby sister is learning to walk) and the heartbreaking (a man had shown up at their door offering the kids money to go house to house looking for his son who was missing from the battle).
“If there’s any letter that represents the purpose of this museum, I think it’s that one, because you’re thinking about children caught in the middle of war and how they process it and live with it,” Dalton says.
Learning from history
Some 3 million people visit Adams County annually, most of them drawn by Gettysburg (pop. 7,400). Redbrick buildings line its quaint streets, housing bed-and-breakfasts, art galleries, and bars, as well as museums that further expand the local story.
It’s a story that the Beyond the Battle museum’s creators say has global significance. “The American Civil War dwarfs a lot of similar events around the world in its level of horror,” says Jeff Shaara, author of the bestselling Gods and Generals, who wrote the script for “Caught in the Crossfire.” “This is a uniquely American horror that shows we’re not immune. We share some of the same disasters and same horrifying events that have plagued most countries in the world.”
By focusing on everyday people in an everyday town, says filmmaker and local Jake Boritt, who created the short films within the museum, they are drawing parallels with the contemporary struggles for democracy and human freedom ongoing throughout the world. “These things are not over. I think there’s a lot of lessons to be learned.”
What to Know
Shriver House Museum: A restored 1860 house now tells the story of the Shriver family who lived here during the Battle of Gettysburg, and whose house was overtaken at one point by Confederate soldiers. Admission: $11.95.
Jennie Wade House: Costumed guides lead tours of the home of Jennie Wade, the only civilian killed during the battle. Admission: $15.
Children of Gettysburg 1863: Very hands-on experience geared to families that centers the stories of children. Admission: $9.95, kids up to 12 years old free.
A version of this story appears in the July 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.