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Recording an uncivil war that strained the Midwest
By Mike Michaelson | Midwest Travel

The Civil War Museum, above, opens in Kenosha, Wis., on June 14.

 

COURTESY OF TIMM BUNDIES

The collection includes musical instruments, left, uniforms, murals, dioramas and interactive exhibits.

 

COURTESY OF TIMM BUNDIES

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Published: 5/24/2008 12:02 PM

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Civil War history is phenomenally popular, so much so that it is estimated that for every day since the conflict ended at Appomattox in 1865, there has been a book written about it.

Next month, Civil War buffs -- and anyone with an interest in this wrenching conflict -- will find that Kenosha, Wis., has become a magnetic destination. On June 14, the newly built Civil War Museum opens along Kenosha's lakefront. It chronicles the personal stories and contributions of men and women of the Upper Midwest: Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana and Michigan.

It's easy to see why a Civil War Museum would be sited in Pennsylvania, Virginia or Georgia, where major battles took place. But why Wisconsin?

Although far from the front line, Wisconsin and its five neighbors played a vital role. They provided 500,000 troops, as well as supplies, ammunition, weapons, food and uniforms.

Life at home was dramatically altered as men and boys went off to war. Different goods were produced to supply the war.

The human consequences of the war were equally staggering, with the return of wounded soldiers, the loss of life and the lost innocence of a nation. Some soldiers did not return, others returned changed. Life was different. Families moved west to find new opportunities. The nation moved into the industrial age.

It is a story uniquely told by this new museum, drawing from letters that reveal the personal experience of soldiers, nurses and chaplains, and using state-of-the-art museum technology featuring life-size dioramas and engaging interactive exhibits. You'll "board a train" and ride along with a soldier, a free black man, a newspaper reporter or others and learn their personal stories. Digital technology puts you in the midst of a Civil War battle. You'll also learn about everyday life between combat, details about food preparation, medical care, the mail system, recreation and music.

As war ends, you'll leave the battle area by steamship. Some of the people that were on the train will be returning home. Learn how life has changed. As you arrive home, news of Lincoln's assassination is announced and the town must adjust to this personal and national loss.

A circular room containing the Veteran's Gallery transcends the museum's vivid portrait of the Civil War as it introduces veterans of other wars. Civil War soldiers sit around a companionable campfire as fiber optic stars fill the night sky. Set back from the campfire are figures from other wars sharing coffee and K-rations. Visitors move among these sculptures discovering quotes from them and realizing that a moment of rest with comrades establishes a connection between citizen soldiers from all wars. Around the gallery perimeter are displays of artifacts and memorabilia from each war.

One particularly poignant story is that of Caroline Quarlls, who journeyed to freedom on the Underground Railroad, traveling to Canada, pursued by slave catchers. She learned to read and write and her story is told by an actor who portrays her reminiscing about her journey in letters to Lyman Goodnow, who helped her escape. Those letters are part of the museum's collection.

Artwork also is a keeper of history. Among the museum's collection is a lithograph that depicts the Battle of Gettysburg, another portrays a scene from the epic naval battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack, the first recorded clash of two armored ships.

At times, you might feel such a compelling sense of time and place that it seems as though you're actually "Seeing the Elephant," soldier slang for joining a battle. (Its origins might date back to the defeat by Alexander the Great of the elephant-mounted army of King Porus.)

Those who visit the museum on opening weekend will find a host of free family activities on both Saturday and Sunday, as "A Salute to Freedom" glimpses life in the 1860s. Greeted by re-enactors in period costume, you'll listen to musical performances by the Regimental Volunteer Band and to a professional storyteller sharing Civil War-era stories.

Canon smoke curls skyward as the First Illinois Light Artillery Battalion and the Second Kentucky Cavalry, Company D, demonstrate firepower and conduct musket drills. Watch demonstrations of making women's clothing and tatting (creating delicate lacework). Take a picture with President Abraham Lincoln and encourage youngsters to replicate his signature stovepipe hat, play games from the era and join marching drills.

A real dollar-stretcher is a ride on one of five handsomely restored electric streetcars that travel a two-mile route along Kenosha's Lake Michigan lakefront. Cost is 25 cents to ride cars painted in the colors streetcars wore in Chicago (green), Cincinnati (yellow and green), Pittsburgh (red and cream), Toronto (maroon and cream) and Kenosha (orange). All five cars, circa 1951, once ran on the streets of Toronto.

Within steps of the rumbling, clanking streetcars is the Kenosha Public Museum (opened in 2001), next-door neighbor of the Civil War Museum, devoted to natural history and fine and decorative arts.

In a city well endowed with one-of-a-kind museums, you'll also find the Kenosha History Center. Popular with auto buffs is a gallery that salutes local production of the Rambler. It was a big seller for American Motors Corp., produced at the plant that was a longtime mainstay of local economy. The plant ceased production in 1987. Adjoining the museum is the historic 1855 Southport Light Station and keeper's dwelling.

General admission to the History Center is free, as it is to another budget-stretcher, the Dinosaur Discovery Museum. Its larger-than-life occupants include Stan, the resident Tyrannosaurus rex, who stands a menacing 40 feet tall.

If you go

Information: Kenosha Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, (800) 654-7309, www.kenoshacvb.com; Wisconsin Department of Tourism, (800) 432-8747, www.travelwisconsin.com.

Mileage: Kenosha is about 57 miles north of Chicago.

MikeMichaelson is a travel writer based in Chicago and the author of the guidebook "Chicago's Best-Kept Secrets."