You may never have heard of the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum of Philadelphia, but not because it hasn’t been around for a while. It was founded in 1888, by members of a veterans group called the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, and it’s the oldest Civil War museum in the nation. It has resided since 1922 in a brick row house on Pine Street. For most of that time it was simply the Civil War Library and Museum; in 2003 it added “Underground Railroad” to its name.
Philadelphia, with a large free black population and active abolitionist organizations, was an important hub along that surreptitious and informal network of escape routes from slavery. Adding that to the Museum’s title was a decision to broaden both the appeal of the institution and the story it tells. And further changes are on the way. Harris Baum, the museum’s chairman, says that by 2009 the entire collection — 3,000 artifacts, 7,000 books, and thousands of photographs and documents — will move into a building leased from National Park Service, closer to Independence Mall. The emphasis in the new location, Baum says, will be on “what it was like to be a citizen — maybe not even a citizen, but just a person — in Philadelphia during the Civil War.”
Visitors should hope the move won’t alter the museum?’s unique personality. It’s a row house-size cabinet of curiosities, a throwback to the way museums used to be. The stairs and wooden floors creak with age. There are paintings everywhere, portraits and lots of Civil War escutcheons, a once-fashionable way to emblazon your war record in a colorful coat-of-arms. An armory of Civil War weapons occupies the top floor. One level below, a glass case in the Confederate Room holds President Jefferson Davis’ dressing gown, a brightly colored garment that may have been responsible for the stories that he was captured disguised as a woman. (One contemporary cartoon on display shows him fleeing in a dress, with the caption, “Don’t provoke him. He might hurt you.”)
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