Civil War News
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Kennesaw Battlefield Park Opens New Museum
By Joe Kirby
January 2003

MARIETTA, Ga. - Civil War enthusiasts in late November got an early Christmas present - or a long overdue one, depending on how you look at it - with the opening of the museum in the visitors' center at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park.

An estimated 300 people braved gusting winds and un-Georgia-like fall temperatures in the upper 30s for the opening festivities, which were held in the center's front plaza and parking lot. After the Nov. 23 ceremony was expedited thanks to the cold, the shivering crowd surged into the center and through the museum.

" This is head and shoulders above anything else I've seen," said Jim Dale, a just-retired Army historian from nearby Fort McPherson who now serves on the board of the Kennesaw Mountain Historical Association after he toured the museum for the first time. "The displays are top-notch."

The ribbon-cutting for the museum was the culmination of a 10-year process that saw the community-based Friends of the Park group raise more than $500,000 and Congress come up with the rest of the funding for the $2.5 million expansion of the visitors' center and replacement of the museum.

Unfortunately, the fundraising and then the planning for and construction of the center and museum turned out to be far more protracted than planned. The old museum was closed in 1997 and its displays put in storage while its former space was converted into the center's spacious new bookstore area.

The long lag between the closure of the old museum and the opening of the new one irked visitors at times and frustrated park officials, but now that all is said and done, it can honestly be said that the wait was worth it.

Though the new museum certainly lacks the scale of the Smithsonian, its exhibits are Smithsonian-caliber in terms of quality and presentation.

Rocky Swann, chairman of the Historical Association, pointed out that many in the crowd were old enough to remember when the "visitors' center" at the park was actually an old, frame farmhouse at the approximate site of the current center, and that the museum occupied just one room of the old house.

It was replaced with a new center in time for the battle's centennial in 1964, but that center had long been outmoded and was overwhelmed by visitors by the early 1990s. In addition to offices and a small library, it featured a small theater showing a filmstrip; a lobby with room for two bookshelves; and an 800-square-foot museum housed in a rectangular room lined with display cases and battle artifacts.

The new visitors' center offers a spacious bookstore, a $400,000 video in the renovated theater, a meeting room and larger restrooms.

The new museum is 1,800 square feet and artfully winds visitors through displays that focus not just on the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, but on the Atlanta Campaign as a whole and on its impact on the 1864 presidential election.

It also includes segments on the causes of the war, its impact on the civilian population in places like nearby Marietta, the roles played by blacks, war industries in Georgia, and on the various aspects of the armies involved, such as their transportation, supply, signaling and equipment.

" I think that what you will see in there is dramatically different than what we had previously," said park historian Willy Ray "Swampy" Johnson. "It tells a broader story. It tells the story of the entire war, with the emphasis on this battle, of course. "We've got good visuals and wonderful artifacts. It will be with us for a while, but it will stand the test of time."

Holdover exhibits from the old museum include a surgeon's kit and the flag of the Cherokee Dragoons. (Two other flags in the park's collection are being conserved and will eventually be put on display.)

New displays include a cloth map of the Kennesaw area that was carried by Confederate Gen. Joe Wheeler, a 12-pdr. Napoleon cannon featured in a famous photograph taken by George Barnard just after Atlanta fell (see related story), and a 64-visage "wall of faces" depicting the famous and unfamous who took part in the Kennesaw battle (including Rebel Gen. Patrick Cleburne, future writer Ambrose Bierce and Arthur MacArthur, father of Gen. Douglas MacArthur).

Exhibits range from photographs of the famous to mundane personal items of the rank-and-file, such as a pair of socks worn by Col. Columbus Sykes of the 43rd Mississippi Infantry. Sykes survived the battle, only to be crushed by a falling tree while sleeping in January 1865.

As visitors enter the museum, they are greeted by an enlargement of an Alfred R. Waud watercolor depicting cannoneers in action during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Next to it is an enlarged quotation from Gen. William T. Sherman dated March 12, 1864: "All that has come
before is mere skirmishing. The War now begins. ..."

As visitors they leave the museum, they pass a 36-star United States flag, meant to symbolize the restored Union.

Said museum curator Retha Stephens, "It's been a long time coming, but it's been a labor of love for so many of us. I'm just thrilled that it's finally happening."

Rocky Swann pointed out that the Kennesaw park is the largest unit of the National Park Service self-contained in a large metropolitan area. "And now, our new museum and visitors' center are commensurate with our area and the events that took place here," he said.

The Kennesaw Mountain park is visited by well over a million people a year and consistently has ranked in the top two or three battlefield parks in the nation each year in terms of visitation in the past decade. It ranked second in 2001, behind only Gettysburg, according to park officials.

Park historian Johnson said his only lament was that park Superintendent John Cissell was unable to attend the opening. "It's almost criminal that he couldn't be here, since it was under his leadership that this was directed." Cissell fell several days prior to the event and fractured several vertebrae.

" The new museum is just so much more comprehensive than the old museum," said Cissell later. "It has so many more artifacts on display and we can change things around occasionally. I just think it will serve the public so much better than the old museum did."

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