Museum Visit

An artist’s conception of the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, by William Quantrill and his men in August 1863. (Library of Congress.)

The other day I got to hold William Quantrill’s Colt revolver.

I was at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with Kyle Weaver, my editor at Stackpole Books. The museum’s new CEO, Wayne Motts, took us into the museum’s storage facility to show us the artifacts there. He was pointing out all sorts of cool stuff when he opened an old wooden box. The Colt was nestled inside its velvet confines. “Look at this,” Wayne said, and he pulled out an envelope tucked into a side pocket. Inside was a letter from the Colt company, verifying that this Colt was the gun purchased by Quantrill. Apparently the notorious rebel guerilla had dropped it when he and his band were sacking Lawrence, Kansas, in August 1863 and a young resident dashed out from hiding to pluck it from the dusty street.

Wayne had me pull on a pair of cotton gloves and he let me hold the gun. Now, I’m no fan of William Quantrill, who I consider to be a genuine bad guy, but I do like close encounters with history.

I first met Wayne several years ago when he was director of the Adams County Historical Society, with his office in Schmucker Hall at the former Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. The building itself (currently being restored and refurbished to reopen as a museum in time for the battle’s 150th anniversary) has its own close connections with history. John Buford climbed into the cupola to survey the advancing Confederate forces on July 1 and John Reynolds met him there when he arrived in the advance of the I Corps later that day. I had gone down to interview Wayne for the book I was working on, Pennsylvania Civil War Trails. I had been listening to a taped Gettysburg tour on my way down without realizing that the narrator was Wayne Motts! (I had to laugh just the other day when I was walking down Sykes Avenue on Little Round Top. A motorist parking there opened the door of his car, and the voice I heard coming out of his speakers was Wayne’s.)

The National Civil War Musuem in Harrisburg.

I also wrote about the National Civil War Museum in Pennsylvania Civil War Trails. It’s a beautiful institution with a fabulous collection. For the book I interviewed Harrisburg’s then-mayor, Stephen Reed, who had founded the museum, using city funds to buy a huge collection of artifacts. The museum opened in February 2001. Now, with Harrisburg teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, some people look askance at Reed’s brainchild. (He also bought up a lot of Western artifacts for a planned museum of the west, but that was one museum too many and it never advanced beyond some initial planning. Some of the artifacts have been auctioned off and more will be at some point in the future.) Because of the museum’s origins, the National Civil War Museum gets buffeted about my local and state politics (and current economics) but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s well worth visiting.

Wayne is a man of seemingly inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm so I was very pleased to hear about his appointment to the museum’s top job. I hope Wayne can raise its public profile. In fact, we talked about some things the museum could do for Searching for Meade once the book comes out in February. Once those plans firm up I’ll announce them on this blog.

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