KENOSHA, Wis. — It starts — and ends — with a statue.
The statue — a replica of one found in Kenosha's Green Ridge Cemetery — is the first image you encounter when entering "The Fiery Trial," the Civil War Museum's permanent exhibit.
As Doug Dammann, the museum's education curator points out, it's a statue like those found in towns, cities and parks all across the Upper Midwest.
"You may drive by a statue like that 365 days a year and never once stop to take a look at it," he says.
"My hope is, after (museum visitors) learn the story of the Upper Middle West in the Civil War, the monument will have more meaning. And they will take a second to look at it and understand the role the Upper Middle West played," Dammann says.
As the path through the exhibit continues, visitors encounter an Upper Midwest town in 1850. The sights and sounds as well as the ubiquitous "Western Independent" newspaper-like information placards, show a country in crisis, Kenosha News reported.
Here we learn about the abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad, talk of secession and growing unease in the country.
As the path continues, it's 1860. Abraham Lincoln has been elected president. Seven southern states have seceded from the Union. And Fort Sumter is attacked.
War is declared.
"There was tons of excitement to get involved," Dammann says. "As war is declared, men are eager to sign up. This was going to be the big event of a generation, and they didn't want to left behind: 'If there was going to be one big battle, how can I miss it?'"
"People assume that because there were no battlefields here, the war had no effect," Dammann says.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Dammann notes that 1.1 million men — nearly half of the Union army — hail from the Upper Middle West.
Dammann says troop enlistment was apportioned according to a state's population, with Wisconsin sending 91,000 men while Illinois sent 250,00.
But besides manpower, the Upper Midwest also supplied food and natural resources to fuel the war effort.
"For those three reasons, the Upper Midwest was very, very important," Dammann says.
At this point, the exhibit takes its signature turn. Instead of chronologies of battles, examinations of tactics and profiles of generals, the exhibit concentrates on the personal stories of how the war is affecting the people of the Midwest — both the men who enlist as well as those on the homefront.
The point is driven home by the railroad car exhibit. Visitors are encouraged to sit next to one of "passengers" — lifelike mannequins which dot the entire exhibit. Each triggers an audio recording where visitors hear the passenger's story.
There's a woman traveling to become a nurse for the army. (Female nurses were unheard of until the Civil War.) Another man wants to be a chaplain; a freed slave hopes to become a barber.
"The war affected everyone, whether you shouldered a musket or not," Dammann says. "With this train, we see a wide cross-section — men, women, free slave, army officer. What were they going to do? How were their lives changed? When you sit next to them, you get a sense and what they are going to do."
Insider tip: Some of those same passengers show up again at the end of the exhibit, and you learn how the war changed them and the country.
From here, the exhibit examines the life of a soldier.
One display shows a soldier's knapsack and all the things he had to carry in it.
Another shows musical instruments and how they were key to troop communication.
There are displays on food prep, foraging, camp life and life at the battlefront.
One of the more popular displays is on medical care during the war.
"We can all make value judgments about medicine; everyone has experienced a doctor's office," Dammann says.
Dammann says of the 620,000 men who died in the war, two-thirds died from disease, including diarrhea and dysentery.
"They (doctors) didn't know about germs. Infection was part of the healing process," he says.
He also dispels a myth about operations: 90 percent took place with the patient anesthetized, often with chloroform.
It's here that we also learn about the role women played in the war effort, with many becoming nurses.
"Women's roles changed drastically during the war," he says, noting that women had to take care of farms and businesses while their husbands were gone.
"Rosie the Riveter is not the first time women stepped outside their roles," Dammann says.
It all leads to the 360-degree gallery that showcases "Seeing the Elephant," a 10-minute movie that follows soldiers through a battle.
"'Seeing the elephant is a term veteran soldiers used to describe battle," Dammann said. "Imagine trying to describe an elephant to someone who has never seen one. If you've never been in battle, how would you describe it?"
The movie is shown every hour on the hour and can be viewed at any point during a visit, as there are four entry points to the theater.
As the war concludes, the exhibit shifts to a riverboat, where we again see a cross-section of people — men returning home from the war, a woman in mourning, a preacher.
From there, it's back to the small town seen in the beginning of the exhibit, but things have changed. The streets are now paved; buildings sport cream city brick.
But questions linger.
Soldiers are returning home, some with debilitating injuries. How can they support their families?
On a larger scale, many ask a bigger question: Can the Union survive?
"Even today, the Civil War is being looked at and studied to see how it influenced American culture," Dammann says.
And then we're back at the statue.
"Now (visitors) know the depth of the story, making the statue worth a second look," Dammann said.
An AP Member Exchange shared by Kenosha News.