Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood — away from My Old Kentucky Home, the bourbon distilleries and downtown shopping district — is the impressive Civil War Museum of the Western Theater; the cornerstone of Bardstown, Kentucky’s Museum Row.
Ranked one of the top four Civil War museums in the nation – along with the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Confederate Memorial Hall in New Orleans and the Atlanta History Center — this is a destination for anyone wanting to better understand what brought about the war and to be able to follow its progression from 1861 through 1865. It remains the deadliest war in American history resulting in the deaths of an estimated 750,000 soldiers and an undetermined number of civilians.
The museum was created to commemorate the people who fought and died on both sides in America’s darkest era. Opened in 1980, the museum outlines the war’s course in areas west of Virginia — Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Texas.
Immediately upon entering the museum, you are thrust into the pre-war years and on into the story of the Western Theater, explained by exhibiting the belongings of long-dead heroes of the Union and the Confederacy.
Each display case focuses on either an individual or wartime scenario. One poignant display is a military surgeon’s smock, spattered with bloodstains amidst a collection of period medical instruments.
Examples of some of the artifacts the museum showcases include the flag of the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry, the presentation sword of Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, and a silver flask presented to Confederate General John C. Breckinridge a few days after he joined the Confederate Army.
Among others, the display includes a one-pounder smoothbore cannon made at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia. Used in the field by Mosby’s raiders, the gun could be taken apart and transported on horseback. Also on display is a 12 lb. mountain Howitzer, belonging to Eli Lilly’s 18th Indiana artillery.
The Civil War Museum of the Western Theater is part of a large complex that features Old Bardstown Village, Women of the Civil War Museum, War Memorial of Mid America and Wildlife Museum. It was established in 1996 by Dr. Henry Spalding.
Consisting of nine 150-to 200-year-old cabins, Old Bardstown Village also has a mill, wheelwright shop, forge, still house and covered bridge. Visitors can walk through the village, visit the cabins and feel see what life was like in 18th century Bardstown.
One of the most interesting artifacts at the War Memorial of Mid America is the battle flag of the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry captured at New Lisbon, Ohio, during Confederate General John Hunt Morgan’s raid into the northern heartland. After Morgan and his raiders surrendered, they were jailed in an Ohio prison as criminals rather than prisoners of war.
Bardstown itself was the site of a Civil War battle. Fought on Oct. 4, 1862, the Battle of Bardstown was a turning point for the 8th Texas Cavalry and its leader Colonel John Wharton. The decisive victory for the 8th, the engagement was soon overshadowed by the Perryville battle which took place four days later.
As a companion piece, the Women of the Civil War Museum houses the story of women’s involvement in the war effort. The first of its kind, the women’s museum pays tribute to the women who nursed wounded soldiers, spied on enemy troops and even masqueraded as soldiers.
If you go:
Where to eat:
On the east side of the square is Circa Restaurant tucked into the town’s oldest stone house, built around 1780. Menu items include Steak au Poivze, Bourbon Lacquered Short Ribs and Almond Crusted Snapper. 103 E. Stephen Foster Avenue; 502-348-5409; www.restaurant-circa.com.
Kreso’s Family Restaurant & Mozart Café is an upbeat destination specializing in hearty Bosnian food including schnitzel and goulash as well as chicken, steak and pasta specialties. 218 N. Third Street; 502-348-9594; www.kresosrestaurant.com.
For lunch, Hurst Soda Fountain is a good choice. 102 N. Third Street; 502-348-9261.
Where to Stay:
Beautiful Dreamer Bed and Breakfast is located right across the street from My Old Kentucky Home. Hosts Dan and Lynell Ginter offer four beautifully appointed rooms, three with Jacuzzis, and a full breakfast. 440 E. Stephen Foster Avenue; 502-348-4004 or 800-811-8312; www.bdreamerbb.com.
For more information:
Bardstown-Nelson County Tourist & Convention Commission; 502-348-4877 or 800-638-4877; www.visitbardstown.com.