Cover Story

Reliving the Civil War Experience

by Audrey Hingley, Contributing Writer

 

Visitors to Pamplin Historical Park in Petersburg are 

Reliving the Civil War Experience

There’s certainly no shortage of Civil War history in Virginia. But if you think The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier at Pamplin Historical Park, south of Richmond near Petersburg, is just “another Civil War thing,” think again.

There’s a different take here: The site emphasizes the soldier’s experience, both Union and Confederate, in the war that killed more Americans (624,511) than any war before or since. Life in the antebellum south (including slavery and the war’s impact on civilians) and the critical Union “breakthrough” battle against Confederate defenses on April 2, 1865, which led to the surrender of Petersburg and Richmond and the final Confederate surrender at Appomattox a week later, are also featured.

What began in 1991 as an effort by Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr., a wealthy Oregon businessman and philanthropist, to preserve ancestral land and a threatened battlefield has evolved into a 422-acre, privately funded $17 million historical attraction. The result is a unique blend of real history with modern-day technology that brings the era to life.

 

Particularly moving is one of the newest outdoor exhibits, The Field Quarter, a name commonly given to the living quarters of plantation field slaves and their families. The Field Quarter is the latest addition to Tudor Hall, a restored 1812 plantation house. The site includes reconstructed slave cabins, outbuildings, a chicken coop, and garden. At its center is a moving film, “Slavery in America: Viewpoints of the 1850s,” shown in one of the reconstructed cabins. The video features fictional characters who give their opinions about slavery via vignette monologues; a sign warns that the language is “frank” (the n-word is used).

 

One character, “Sally Johnson,” a plantation cook, is portrayed by Richmond actress Kweli Leapart. “Johnson” begins her monologue by saying that she receives good treatment, noting that “Massa Tom don’t let no one beat us … he say we worth too much to be hittin.” Later she talks about Tassy, a slave who has run from another plantation after being beaten, and “is either free or dead.” In the end, the upbeat face she has put on gives way to a striking poignancy as she says quietly, “You wants to know the truth? Don’t a day go by dat I don’t wish to be with Tassy.” 

Leapart, who played “Sukey” in the CBS-TV miniseries “Sally Hemmings: An American Scandal,” says, “Slaves had survival skills. I do honor to them, I hope, by portraying them. I want people to take away the human spirit that Miss Sally Johnson shared with us — and all the Sally Johnsons like her.”

She adds, “I don’t think anyone should visit Pamplin Park to be entertained. I think they should go there to learn.”

In that, Leapart and executive director A. Wilson Greene agree. Greene has described the park as “classrooms that exist both with and without walls … teachers are staff interpreters and guides.” That philosophy makes it ideal for school groups, who comprise nearly half the park’s visitors.

 

Andy Talkov, director of programming and cultural resources, educates visitors at the park’s military encampment, showing visitors what soldiers commonly did in camp, a place where they spent more time than on the battlefield. Thomas Leach of Canton, Ohio, who says he served in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, saw a pamphlet in a hotel while in Petersburg and decided to check out the park. He’s just arrived, and listens intently as Talkov tells a story about a “Union guy so hungry that he finds a bone, brushes off the maggots, and eats it.”

 

“We use period clothing to help portray soldiers’ lives. Usually we ask kids if they are ready to be a soldier and they say ‘heck yeah!’ The (soldier) fantasy persists with every war. Then we tell them real soldiers spent a lot of time maintaining earthworks, they lived outside all the time,” Talkov says. “By the end (of the presentation) they’re wondering if they really want to be a soldier.” 

Actress Kweli Leapart as "Sally Johnson."

A scenic trail leads to real Confederate earthworks; additionally, the park has 60 yards of classic fortifications built to scale using textured synthetic materials like fiberglass logs and concrete “dirt.” In the summer, a reproduction cannon is fired in artillery demonstrations. 

 

There’s also the Banks House, where Union Gen. Ulysses Grant headquartered for several days in 1865. To the rear of the circa-1840 restored house, portions of which date to the 1700s, is an original kitchen/slave quarter that is one of the few in the southeast open to the public. Two downstairs rooms served as the farm laundry and kitchen, while the upstairs lofts were living quarters.

 

But the centerpiece is the 25,000-square-foot National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, with galleries that trace soldiers’ lives. At “Pack Your Knapsack,” an interactive video exhibit, an onscreen sergeant scolds me when my chosen knapsack ends up weighing 22 pounds (why did I choose a heavy skillet for cooking?). The video image tells me I really need a tin cup, extra socks, and a blanket. In another video kiosk, I’m transfixed by the recreated images of a field hospital, where injured men have their legs amputated and thrown into a grisly pile outside a window.

 

“One of our many teaching points is that the Civil War was not fun,” explains A. Wilson Greene. “It involved an incredible amount of suffering and sacrifice. One example of that was the type of medical procedure that thousands of young Americans had to endure. To sanitize the experience is exactly what we don’t do here.”

Visitors choose one of 13 “comrade soldiers,” real soldiers whose pictures hang in a permanent exhibit, to guide them through the museum via individual CD headset players. The audio tour includes stops where visitors hear the actual words of their “comrade,” as read by actors from letters and diaries. Typical is Elisha Stockwell, Jr., a 15-year-old Wisconsin farmer who enlisted in the Union Army, who says, “I thought what a foolish boy I was to run away and get into such a mess as I was in … I would have been glad to have seen my father coming after me.” Enlistee Alexander Heritage Newton, a 24-year-old free black, explains, “My bosom burned with the fire of patriotism for the salvation of my country and the freedom of my people.”

The tour winds its way through state-of-the-art galleries with giant murals, mannequins, and life-size dioramas that realistically depict training camps and men lining up for a hospital tent exam. You can even sit in a chapel complete with a video-screen preacher delivering a sermon of the type that swept the camps. In “Trial By Fire,” the ground literally shakes under your feet as you walk through a simulated battleground, complete with gunfire and a commander shouting orders (which may be too intense for younger children). Blake Lawson, a fifth-grader from Midlothian, Virginia, a second-time visitor to the park, admits the area “made me scared,” adding that he enjoyed seeing the “real tools and what people ate with.” He discovered the park on a school trip, and had wanted to return, his parents explain.

 

The National Museum

of the Civil War Soldier

at Pamplin Historical Park

 

6125 Boydton Plank Road,

Petersburg, VA 23803

Toll Free: 1-877-PAMPLIN or (804) 861-2408

Web Site: www.pamplinpark.org

 

Open daily year-round (except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s)

Hours: Memorial Day-Labor Day, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

(Open until 6 p.m. June 13-August 29)

 

Admission: $13.50 for adults, $12 for seniors,

$7 for ages 6-11, 5 and under free. Group discounts available for groups

that include 10 or more people.

By the end of the tour, which intersperses technology-savvy recreations with an artifact collection that includes authentic guns, uniforms, and flags, visitors learn the real-life fate of their “comrade” (mine was wounded, but survived). Individualizing the war makes it very real indeed.

In the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on America, I wonder, did people really want to visit a war site?

“Our visitation dropped for a four- or five-week period, people were just not traveling,” Greene admits. “Then we began to rebound and by November, there was no negative impact. Some visitors told us that after September 11 they wanted to visit places in America that were important. I don’t know of any historic site that glorifies war. When people come here, they will experience life in Civil War America, not just the battlefield, but the life of civilians as well as those who went off and joined the army.”

Future plans for the park include a theatre for both live drama and films, an outdoor ampitheatre, and livestock and agriculture for Tudor Hall to make it more of a living, breathing operation. There’s also a planned Civil War Adventure Camp, where groups like the Boy Scouts could stay for overnight educational events.

“We don’t tell people how to think … we present history, and let people draw their own conclusions,” Greene says.

Although over a hundred years have passed, one conclusion hasn’t changed: War is brutal and hard to understand. Or as voiced by 11-year-old Blake Lawson: “Brother fighting against brother … I think that’s weird.”

 

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