New Civil War Museum takes war personally

Think about war as an extreme intrusion that involves family as much as fight. Upheavals emerge close to home and on faraway battlefields. You and your enemy have this in common, no matter who you are or where you live.

The new Civil War Museum in downtown Kenosha takes war personally. Although no battles occurred in the six states (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and Michigan) that the facility targets, this part of the Midwest sent 750,000 soldiers into the Civil War, and 100,000 didn’t leave it alive.

The Kenosha museum is one of two in Wisconsin designated as a Smithsonian Affiliate (the other is the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, Manitowoc). So the Smithsonian Institution is a partner that will assist with programming and exhibit loans.

Other war museums will explain who fought where, the strategies and the consequences. Kenosha’s delves into the mindset of average people. “This story is not told in any museum in the nation,” press materials assert.

“Loneliness, anxiety, a sense of duty – those feelings are the same for all,” says Peggy Gregorski, development coordinator for Kenosha Public Museums. “You are plucked from your community.”

We stand in the dimly lit Veteran’s Memorial Gallery, where life-sized statues of soldiers from the Revolutionary to Gulf wars mingle around campfire at twilight. Surrounding them are ghostly white monoliths, each naming a conflict that has wounded this nation. One slab remains blank, an eerie slot for the future.

Other galleries in the $16.7 million museum zero in on the Civil War, but the overall mission seems more generic. War, regardless of the era or reason for it, alters lives and communities forever.

The Civil War is but one example, and at the heart of the museum is a 15,000 square foot permanent exhibit that will open by Sept. 13. Called “The Fiery Trial,” it probes the social, political and economic responses to this war.

“Was the North for or against slavery,” Doug Dammann, museum curator, asks rhetorically. “It’s a hard question to answer.”

Visitors stand in a re-created Quaker meeting house to learn about the Midwest’s participation in the Underground Railroad, but they also hear emotional conversation between a husband and wife, concerning risks and dangers.

In museum archives are letters written by Caroline Quarrells Watkins, a slave who escaped to Canada because of help obtained in Waukesha.

A tidy town square announces the burning of Fort Sumter in 1861, and the community – a composite of the times – reacts. Torchlight parades of the Wide Awake Party demonstrate support for Abraham Lincoln. Conversations gravitate from wartime debate to response.

A walkway leads to a railway car that is heading to Pennsylvania. Sit next to one or more mannequins, whose voiced tales are full of hope and trepidation. Each of the dozen characters offers a unique war perspective, and some will reappear later, to describe how the war ended for them.

War galleries show soldiers in uniform, standing watch, playing cards, mending clothes, recovering from injuries. Still to come, when the last $1 million is raised, is a 360-degree video projection that places visitors in the middle of a battlefield where soldiers stand shoulder to shoulder.

Uniform styles and weapon variations distinguished troops by military division and state. Most artifacts come from the extensive Frank Palumbo collection that was donated to Carthage College in the 1960s. He was a Chicagoan who was impressed with the campus and its location, on Lake Michigan’s shore.

Enlarged photos of the Civil War era cover walls. Interpretive panels employ a breezy newspaper page format, introducing facts as short stories. Taped recordings describe the impact of war, from the eyes of a child, an injured soldier, a prisoner of war and others.

“There are lots of different levels of learning,” Peggy says. “We recognize that we have many audiences.” They will include Wisconsin’s fifth and eighth graders, whose curriculum includes the Civil War.

“It’s not just a war museum, or a military museum,” Peggy insists. “It’s a hometown perspective.”

The Civil War Museum, 5400 First Ave., Kenosha, already is open daily. Admission is $5 (ages 17 and younger get in free). For more:, 262-653-4141. Admission is free for museum members; they also receive a discount when registering for special events.

A traveling exhibit, “The Maple Leaf,” is in place until Sept. 28. It is about a Union transport ship that was sunk by a Confederate torpedo; contents were recovered in 1984.

Museum events include the Great Lakes Civil War Forum, Sept. 13, registration $35 (includes lectures by historians, guided museum tour, lunch); “Finding Your Civil War Ancestors,” Sept. 21, $15; “Music of the Civil War Soldier,” Sept. 28, $10; and “Secrets of the Collections,” Oct. 22, $10.

Re-enactors lead a History Walk from 1-4 p.m. Oct. 4, and stops in downtown Kenosha will focus on the Civil War involvement. An Oct. 11 Kenosha Symphony Orchestra concert at the museum showcases music from the Civil War era. A display of military vehicles and memorabilia, plus dedication of the museum’s Veteran’s Gallery, occur Nov. 8, on Veterans Heritage Day.

Engraved bricks, in honor of war veterans and soldiers, line a terrace outside of the museum. To purchase a brick or make a contribution to the museum foundation, call 262-653-4428.

Also on this museum campus – offering views of Lake Michigan – is the Kenosha Public Museum, 5500 First Ave.,, 262-653-4140; and the Dinosaur Discovery Museum, 5608 10th Ave.,, 262-653-4450.

Elsewhere: Volunteers in costume will re-enact everyday scenes from the Civil War era – military drills to campaign rallies – during the “Civil War Experience” from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 30-31 at Old World Wisconsin, almost 600 acres in Waukesha County.

The outdoor museum of rural life in the 1870s contains 60-plus historic and ethnic buildings, which are arranged as farmsteads and a village. For more:, 262-594-6300. The state historic site is 1.5 miles south of Eagle, off of Hwy. 67.