Levi Gassett enlisted in the Northborough Minutemen at age 28 in April 1775. He answered the alarm on April 19 for Lexington and Concord, and would serve through the summer and fall in the American colonists’ siege of Boston. While on Dorchester Heights, an area of Boston on high ground with views of the harbor, Gassett took time to personalize his powder horn. He inscribed the date, the name Dorchester, made reference to the war and engraved pictures of trees and soldiers, leaving a short and very personal record of his service. His powder horn is now one of hundreds of artifacts on display at the National Museum of the United States Army that reveal intriguing stories of what it means to be an American soldier.
The powder horn of Levi Gassett
Every soldier has a story is more than just a slogan here. Telling the stories of American soldiers, such as Sergeant Gassett, is the purpose, the reason, the rationale for this museum. It is a hallmark of how the museum goes about its mission, spread through eleven galleries over three floors.
The Army currently operates many museums in various locations on Army facilities around the world. Indeed, preserving its history has been an Army mission since 1814 when Congress passed a law directing both the Army and the Navy to “provide for the collection and preservation of flags, standards and colours…”.
A casting of a Buffalo Soldier, a sergeant from the 9th United States Cavalry Regiment. The faces and the hands for the castings were made from the likenesses of modern day US Army soldiers.
But this museum, sitting south of Washington, DC on Fort Belvoir, Virginia, is unique. While other Army museums preserve and convey the history of particular units, branches, posts or portions of the Army, this is the first museum to take a whole-of-Army approach and comprehensively tell some of the stories of the 30 million men and women who have donned the uniform of the U.S. Army, while also recognizing their service and sacrifices.
Upon entering the museum, the black granite Campaign Wall dominates the gleaming white two-story entrance hall. Along the wall are listed the 191 separate campaigns that the U.S. Army has participated in since 1775. Across the ceiling are rows of colored glass panels depicting campaign ribbons represented on the Campaign Wall. Across the floor is a 21-foot wide inlaid seal of the U.S. Army.
A Civil War-era snare drum used to keep cadence as soldiers marched and relay commands.
From the Entrance Hall a corridor leads to the first floor galleries, where seven-foot tall steel pylons begin telling soldier stories. The pylons are all inscribed with a soldier’s name, portrait, and a brief account of their service in their own words. They represent all types of soldiers from all walks of life throughout the Army’s history. They greet the visitor, almost like an honor guard in formation, presenting themselves for inspection.
The corridor opens up to the Army Concourse which provides access to the seven first-floor galleries. Six of the seven are referred to as the Fighting for the Nation* galleries. These galleries describe how the Army has evolved through the experiences of individual soldiers, expanding to fight major conflicts, adapting new technologies and responding to or sometimes leading changes found across America. The seventh gallery is entitled The Army and Society, which illustrates the interactions between the Army and the broader American civilian population and its culture.
To complete the galleries, museum planners, curators, and designers scoured through the 580,000 available artifacts from the Army’s 247+ year history and selected approximately 1,400, which were then integrated with authentically detailed reproductions, maps, dioramas, life-like cast figures and other vestiges of Army life to produce some very eye-catching multi-media displays.
The artifacts are not just weapons and uniforms, although there are many of those, but other objects such as musical instruments, mess kits, radios, surgical tools, books and other routine articles that were part of soldier experiences. A display found in most galleries is entitled A Soldier’s Load, which exhibits the gear, weapons and personal items a typical soldier would have used or carried through each conflict. Museum staff will periodically set up displays with reproductions, describing the equipment and allowing visitors to handle the items for themselves.
Cobra King, an M4 Sherman Tank, led the armored column which broke through German lines and relieved the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne, Belgium on December 26, 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge.
Large artifacts, such as restored cannons, tanks, helicopters and jeeps are present as well. Taken in total, the artifacts provide a picture of what life was like for soldiers of all ranks and provide compelling context for the soldiers’ stories.
On the second and third floors are galleries devoted to rotating exhibits. One of these galleries is currently dedicated to the experiences of the Nisei Soldiers, the first generation of Japanese-American soldiers who fought valiantly during World War II. Initially prevented from serving because of their Japanese origins, young Japanese-American men and women responded overwhelmingly once authorized to join the military. In 2010, Congress recognized the contributions of the Nisei, awarding them the Congressional Gold Medal for their outstanding achievements and service to the United States.
The travel bag owned by Sergeant Gary Uchida, a Nisea soldier of the 100th Infantry Battalion. He recorded his travels around Europe and North Africa on the bag.
A unique mixed-use space on the third floor is devoted to a permanent exhibit about the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award. The display examines the Army version of the medal (the Navy and Air Force have their own versions), the history of the decoration and the circumstances under which it is awarded. Adjoining the exhibit space is a large, outdoor garden with a granite wall bearing the names of all the soldiers who have been awarded the Medal. Overlooking the museum’s grounds, the garden is a serene place to consider not only the selflessness and sacrifices of the Medal of Honor awardees, but on all of the many stories told throughout the Museum.
The Experiential Learning Center (ELC) allows visitors of all ages to experience some of the current technical skills required for today’s solders. Visitors in organized groups can then test these skills in a simulated response to a humanitarian crisis. A portion of the ELC especially designed for the younger visitors called Fort Discover explains about Army life by following the adventures of two Army mules, Spartacus and Buckshot.
A diorama of modern day U.S. Army Brigade’s Tactical Operations Center
Additionally, the Museum hosts book talks, battle briefs, field trips and staff rides with authors and other speakers from the military history community. Options for virtual participation in many of these events are also included.
Sitting on a quiet corner of Fort Belvoir, the Museum’s highly reflective steel exterior is meant to represent the Army’s strength and how the Army reflects American society. American society certainly has its controversies, and the Army does too. Descriptions of Mai Lai and Wounded Knee massacres, and what happened there, are depicted at the Museum. Some critics may argue they are not addressed comprehensively enough. However, they are included and invite further discussion among museum visitors as well as through the Museum’s educational program.
Officer’s gauntlets belonging to Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who commanded the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War.
Museums serve many purposes. They inform, entertain, and educate their visitors. The National Museum of the US Army does all these things. It would be hard for even the most casual visitor to leave the museum without even a slightly better understanding of what it means to be an American soldier. But by telling soldiers’ stories and artfully displaying their artifacts, the Museum is also a place for reflection about service and sacrifice. It is a place for connection, to friends or to relatives from the present or past generations. It can also be a place to resolve, to reconcile and to heal.
If you have an interest in military history or have a personal connection to the Army–but especially if you do not–the National Museum of the US Army is well worth a visit.
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Visit the National Museum of the U.S. Army website for more information about the museum and its educational programs.
Are you a current US Army soldier or veteran who would like to share stories about your experiences? The Army Historical Foundation established the Registry of the American Soldier to gather the stories and experiences of the entire Army community. More information is available at armyhistory.org/the-registries.
The National Museum of the United States Army is located on a publicly accessible portion of Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The address is 1775 Liberty Drive, Fort Belvoir, VA 22060. (Please note that not all GPS systems may recognize the address. The Museum’s GPS coordinates are 38.7242806/-77.177874)
If driving from Washington (traveling south)
Follow Interstate 395 South toward Richmond, VA. Merge onto Interstate 95 South. Take exit 166A toward VA-286 South/Fairfax County Parkway. Continue for 2.5 miles and turn left onto Liberty Drive.
If driving from Baltimore, Maryland (traveling south)
Follow MD-295 South, Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Exit onto Interstate 495 South/Interstate 95 South toward Richmond Va./Andrews Air Force Base. Follow signs for Interstate 95 South toward Richmond, VA. Take exit 166A toward VA-286 South/Fairfax County Parkway. Continue for 2.5 miles and turn left onto Liberty Drive.
If driving from Richmond, Virginia (traveling north)
Follow Interstate 95 North toward Washington. Take exit 166A toward VA-286 South/Fairfax County Parkway. Continue for 2.5 miles and turn left onto Liberty Drive.
On weekdays – The Franconia-Springfield Metro Station, on the blue line, is the closest station to the Museum. From Franconia-Springfield Metro Station, take Fairfax County Connector Bus Route 334, which includes a stop at the Museum. Please note: Bus Route 334 is available Monday-Friday only and does not currently operate on the weekends.
On weekends – The Huntington Metro Station, on the yellow line, is the next closest station to the Museum. From Huntington Metro Station, take Fairfax County Connector Bus Route 171, which includes a stop at the Museum. Please note: Bus Route 171 only stops at the Museum on the weekends.
By Bus: The Fairfax Connector bus service travels to the Museum via two different routes:
Route 171 : Weekends ONLY
Route 334: Monday – Friday ONLY
Please check the Fairfax County Website for the most current bus schedules.
The Army Historical Society manages the Museum Café, which offers a selection of grab-and-go items, boxed lunches and grilled entrees along with beverages and other snacks. Museum visitors can order through a quick access app or via the web. Café hours are 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM.
* Fighting for the Nation Galleries
Founding the Nation – Traces the Army’s origins from the earliest Colonial militias, through the formation of the Continental Army and into the War of 1812.
Preserving the Nation – Considers the divided loyalties of Army soldiers and officers in the earliest days of the conflict to how the Army would expand, fight and win the Civil War.
Nation Overseas – Introduces the early clashes of the 20th Century where the Army first deployed beyond the United States and the how the Army prepared for and fought in World War I.
Global War – Examines how the Army would quickly mobilize and fight to win a two front war against fascism.
Cold War – Discusses the wars in Korea, Viet Nam and the defense of Western Europe from the threat of invasion by the Soviet Union.
Changing World – Recounts the end of the Soviet Union, the Persian Gulf War, the attacks of September 11, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.