Newest Gettysburg museum places visitors on the battlefield

Located in the former Schmucker Hall at the Lutheran Theological Seminary, the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum opened officially on July 1, 2013. Visitors can tour the galleries spread across all four floors and, for an additional fee, climb into the cupola, which replaced the original cupola used by Gen. John Buford as an observation post 150 years ago. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Gettysburg’s newest museum takes visitors to the battle — and onto the battlefield, because men fought and died around this historic building on July 1, 1863.

Located in the former Schmucker Hall at the Lutheran Theological Seminary, the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum opened exactly 150 years later, on July 1, 2013. Famous in Civil War lore, Schmucker Hall was a four-story brick building surmounted by a wooden cupola. Federal cavalry genius John Buford climbed into the cupola during the battle between his troopers and Confederate infantrymen, and Robert E. Lee allegedly viewed Union positions from this vantage point later during the Battle of Gettysburg.

The Adams County Historical Society, which formerly operated a museum inside Schmucker Hall, has allied with the Lutheran seminary and the Seminary Ridge Historic Preservation Association to open the new $13.3 million museum. Not affiliated with the National Park Service, the museum has remained open during the partial government shutdown.

Crowds packed the museum in early July. When Susan and I visited Gettysburg on a blistering mid-July Monday, far fewer people were visiting the battlefield.

The theme of the fourth-floor exhibits at the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum is “Gettysburg, July 1, 1863.” The different gallery exhibits follow a chronological timeline of the fighting that ultimately engulfed the actual museum building. (Brian Swartz Photo)

When visiting the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum, use the parking lot behind it; another parking lot lies across Seminary Ridge (the actual street name). The main entrance faces the rear lot and opens into the museum’s first floor, which was the building’s cellar 150 years ago.

For general admission, ticket prices are:

• $9 per adult (ages 13-64), $7 per senior (age 65 and older) and youth (ages 6-12), and free for children ages 5 and younger and for active-duty military personnel who display their IDs.

Prices for the combination general admission-cupola tour are:

• $29 per adult and $27 per senior. Visitors must be at least 13 to tour the cupola.

To each ticket’s price add a 10-percent Pennsylvania tax.

A full museum tour begins by taking the elevator to the fourth floor and its excellent overview of “Gettysburg, July 1, 1863.” On all four floors, visitors turn right after emerging from the elevator; on the fourth floor, visitors immediately gaze into the gallery exhibit titled “We Have Come to Stay.”

Spend time on this floor to learn unfamiliar details about the first day’s action at Gettysburg.

While a wounded Union soldier reads his Bible inside the third-floor exhibit titled “The Nurses,” a Catholic Daughter of Charity ministers to another wounded soldier. Of all the exhibits inside the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum, the third floor’s “Caring for the Wounded” is the most powerful. (Brian Swartz Photo)

The third floor focuses on “Caring for the Wounded.” Blending wartime photography and realistic mannequins in various settings (such as an operating room and a hospital ward), the gallery exhibits detail the medical care provided for Gettysburg’s pitiful wounded.

Look for the wounded Maine soldier depicted in a wartime photograph. The 16th Maine Infantry Regiment was wiped out less than a half mile from Schmucker Hall on July 1, 1863; look for a few 16th Maine-affiliated names in the printed information in “The Nurses” exhibit.

Of particular emotional impact on the third floor is “The Wounded” exhibit, where bloodied and mangled Union boys await a doctor’s attention.

The second floor focuses on “Faith and Freedom in America”; gallery exhibits include such titles as “The Seminarians,” “African Americans,” and “The Last Full Measure of Devotion.”

Located on the first floor are another gallery exhibit, the museum shop, and the restrooms.

Looking west from the cupola atop the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum, visitors can see McPherson’s Woods (left, bordering the field) and distant South Mountain. John Buford gazed west across this terrain on July 1, 1863. (Brian Swartz Photo)

And then there’s the cupola. While not the actual “Cupola” (a lightning strike nailed that historic architectural feature about 50 years after the battle), it’s the replacement for the cupola where John Buford stood on that far away day — and it’s worth the additional $20 spent on an admission ticket.

Cupola tours begin each half hour; visitors gather in the fourth-floor corridor next to the stairs that access the attic. Unlike the rest of the museum, the cupola is not handicap-accessible.

On this extraordinarily hot day, I experienced the greatest thrill imaginable at the museum: being the only person present during the 2 p.m. tour. The guide answered my rapid-fire questions and patiently waited while I took multiple photos.

He pointed out specific buildings at Gettysburg College and elsewhere that Buford would have seen to the east as he “glassed” the terrain while watching for John Reynolds and Union infantry. Views extended across portions of the July 1 battlefield and included East Cemetery Hill.

Gettysburg town has grown considerably since 1863; so have the local trees, which obscure some battlefield features when in leaf. The guide told me that after leaf fall, the Round Tops are visible to the south.

Scattered along the approximately 1-mile walking trail built in conjunction with the conversion of Schmucker Hall to the Seminary Ridge Museum are information markers that detail what happened at particular points on July 1, 1863. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Visitors who have the time should walk along the new, museum-affiliated trail that winds across the seminary grounds east and west of Seminary Ridge (the road). Historical markers denote events taking place at particular sites; west of the road, visitors also enjoy good views of such landmarks as McPherson’s Woods and the Unfinished Railroad Cut (identified by its Park Service bridge).

The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily, but actual days of operation vary with the season.

For more information, log onto seminaryridgemuseum.org. Follow the museum on Facebook and Twitter.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.