Road show highlights Civil War history

BROOKVILLE – John Seitter couldn't believe the conversation – or argument, as he thought it was – he heard at the Jefferson County Fair late last week.

The young girl was adamant – adamant enough that he could hear her sentiments – that Confederate Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart cost Gen. Robert E. Lee – and the Confederacy, in its first and only invasion of the North – the Battle of Gettysburg over those first warm three days of July 1863 in Adams County.

As to whether the flamboyant, red-bearded Stuart – who has been said to have been leading his cavalry on media-enticing joyrides throughout the south-central Pennsylvania countryside instead of performing his duties as Lee's eyes for the whole Confederate army – cursed the gray soldiers at Gettysburg may be up for debate, but Seitter was duly impressed by the girl's knowledge.

“Even some of my students don't know that,” said Seitter, a Rutgers University history professor and project manager for the PA 150 Civil War Road Show, which attracted just under 2,000 visitors to the Jefferson County Fair over only three days since this past Thursday.

“It's been a good turnout, considering the weather,” said Ken Burkett, executive director of the Jefferson County History Center in Brookville.

Seitter – who is also one of the founders of the Philadelphia-based Civil War History Consortium – said the goal of the free, traveling PA 150 exhibit is to tell the story of Pennsylvania's role in the American Civil War, which began 150 year ago this year, when Confederate forces bombarded Fort Sumter, S.C., in April 1861. The first major conflict – the first Battle of Bull Run, which the Union lost, thus dashing any hopes of a quick war over the states in rebellion – was re-enacted this past weekend in Manassas, Va.

Gettysburg was the only battle that Confederate forces waged in the Keystone State, but as the road show illustrates, Pennsylvania's contributions to the Union war effort were vast. Thus, Seitter said the traveling exhibit tells the stories that aren't necessarily in the history books: How Pennsylvania residents responded; how they recalled the war and its aftermath; and about the waiting on the home-front – the stories of families, soldiers in the camps and the trenches, and the soldiers imprisoned, all wondering when the war would end.

While the exhibit is indeed a museum on wheels, it does not confine its visitors to only looking at old pictures on a wall. It's much more than that.

“We don't want to cheapen (the story)” via technology, Seitter said, but thanks to technology, interactive tools allow guests to scroll through anecdotal stories from home and the battle lines. Video and audio illustrate old-time photos with accompanying details; film from the 50th and 75th Union/Confederate show Gettysburg reunions; and music of the period brings the war home.

Also, the road show features unique artifacts from each community it visits, as was the case during its visit in Jefferson County.

Burkett said the Jefferson County Historical Center was among groups that applied to welcome PA 150 in its region. The center's past accomplishments, awards and activities helped secure the road show's visit at the fair.

“We tried to pick a venue that would provide to the widest audience in the county, and the fair seemed to be the logical place,” he said, adding that the center will host a number of exhibits over the course of the 150th commemoration, including bus trips that follow engagements by the 105th Pennsylvania Regiment, which consisted of 900 able-bodied Jefferson County men who saw action, including at Gettysburg in the peach orchard.

One of the first signs that PA 150 was a hit was when a group of students toured it several weeks ago, Seitter said.

“It's interesting to see how people react,” he said. “We had a group of school kids who went after the touch-screens, but then they stepped back and started to read (information on the walls).”

Seitter said he has seen children pulling on the hands of their parents to enter the exhibit, and vice versa. And no one has walked away dissatisfied, he said.

“People just say, 'Thank you for bringing this to us,'” Seitter said.

Seitter said PA 150 brings this important aspect of state and national history to local communities such as those in Jefferson County and elsewhere, because due to the economy or otherwise, residents with free time do not visit public museums.

“We have to drop this on top of – or near – communities, so people can learn about state, local and national history,” he said.

The PA 150 Civil War Road Show has been a project in the works for about six years, Seitter said, and will ideally be brought to at least one location in all of Pennsylvania's 67 counties via efforts by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.