Monday, January 15, 2024

New Beyond the Battle Museum in Gettysburg Brings History Alive

In a darkened parlor, the thundering ka-boom of cannons and the whizzing of bullets spark imaginations.

Floorboards shake, as the occasional bullet strikes the side of the home and anxious voices in muffled tones discuss the horror of what’s happening outside. A dog whimpers, terror-stricken by the chaos. Some visitors get a lump in their throat brought about by the realness and the gravity of the immersive experience titled Caught in the Crossfire.

Children point to holes in residences. (Photo courtesy: Beyond the Battlefield Museum)

The exhibit is part of the Beyond the Battlefield Museum in Gettysburg and has been voted as one of the top 10 new museums in the country by USA Today. It uses cutting-edge technology to allow patrons to see, hear and feel what civilians experienced during the bloody Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.

Ken Burns, the well-known documentarian who created the miniseries, The Civil War, and who visited the museum in February, described Caught in the Crossfire as “visceral.” “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this,” he said.

Historian and author Garry Adelman echoed that sentiment. “I got chills and a little bit emotional at the same time,” he said--a sentiment that is echoed time and again by visitors, who often have to choke back tears as they imagine the emotional toll taken on the area's residents.

The 25,000-square-foot history center, located on Biglerville Road on the edge of the Gettysburg Battlefield, opened in April 2023, as part of the Adams County Historical Society. In 2020, the society launched a successful, $12 million campaign to construct a new, permanent home, which includes the museum.

The museum itself contains more than 1,000 artifacts and 12 interactive exhibits, including the accounts of eyewitnesses and their experiences before and after the Civil War.

To begin the tour, guests are transported back to the Jurassic era to view rock formations, along with a meteorite and dinosaur tracks, before moving on to learn about Native Americans and the lives of local indigenous people. The exhibit that follows describes life on the frontier, and guests are led to a recreation of Gettys Tavern, founded by settler Samuel Gettys, to eavesdrop on conversations taking place there in the late 18th century.

Dinosaur footprints and arrowheads reflect the early years in the area. 

Arrowheads tell the story of a prior era in the area.

The exhibits that follow are designed to educate young and old alike about well-known figures with ties to the Gettysburg area, such as National Anthem lyricist Francis Scott Key and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. This museum, though, is truly unique in that it tells the stories of regular folks like Sarah Broadhead, whose diary helped raise funds for wounded soldiers, and Joseph Broadhead, who, blind in one eye, joined local men to fell trees to thwart Confederate advances.

A recreation of a tavern that existed during the war. (Courtesy: Beyond the Battlefield Museum)

Diaries are part of the exhibit.

Then there’s the story of Basil Biggs, an African American who served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and later took on the unpleasant task of overseeing the disinterment and relocation of about 3,000 Union soldiers from the battlefield to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, now known as the Gettysburg National Cemetery. For the families who wanted their soldier’s remains returned, Biggs was responsible for taking them to the local train station for transportation.

Basil Biggs had the unpleasant task of moving soldiers' remains.

Visitors will also learn about individuals like Meg Palm, Kitty Payne and others who lived during the era.

Meg Palm escaped an abduction.

Sarah Broadhead 1863 diary was printed to help wounded soldiers.

Joseph Broadhead was responsible for felling trees during the war to block Confederate advances.

At the end of the tour, guests can visit the gift shop to pick up a reasonably priced book, or other items as a memento, before taking the elevator upstairs to view the event center which overlooks the battlefield. 
A community meeting space overlooks the battlefield.

Adjacent to the community center is a research room that is chockablock with old tomes containing property deeds, maps, records of wills, Adams County ephemera and more.

“The destination is a spectacular evocation of not only the Battle of Gettysburg, but, more importantly, the people and the place. It’s a beautifully told story," Burns said.

To learn more about Beyond the Battle Museum, which is located at 625 Biglerville Rd., Gettysburg, visit the website at