Every Soldier Has A Story At The National Museum of the US Army

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.

Entrance Hall of the National Museum of the United States Army at Fort Belvoir, Virginia

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.

Electronic map of the General Defense Plan for Western Europe from the Cold War

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.

The National Museum of the United States Army

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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

Route Recon

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)

By Car:

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.

By Metro:

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.

Mess Call

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.


Grant Immemorial

Ulysses S Grant Memorial | Washington DC

The sculpted face of Ulysses S. Grant looks across the National Mall with dispassionate determination. Around him a battle rages. A cavalry unit charges forward, an artillery detail hurries to emplace a cannon, infantry continue their forward march. Yet Grant, in his simple uniform and campaign hat, sits atop his war horse Cincinnati, looking forward, studying the situation and planning several steps ahead.

Such is the image portrayed in Washington, DC’s memorial dedicated to the Civil War General-In-Chief and 18th President of the United States. The memorial is located in Union Square, a plaza located just west of the U.S. Capitol grounds.

The move to commemorate Grant in Washington, DC began in the decade after his death in 1885, spearheaded by surviving veterans of the Union Army of the Tennessee. In 1902, Congress ultimately selected the ambitious designs of sculptor Henry Merwin Shrady and architect Edward Pierce Casey who envisioned a large multifaceted memorial in bronze and stone. 

A native of New York City and a graduate of Columbia University, Shrady took up art while recuperating from typhoid fever. Although Shrady had no formal training as an artist or sculptor, some of his early works earned him much acclaim. He focused on sculpture and studied anatomy very carefully in order to portray realistic figures in his statues. In 1901, he completed a famous equestrian statue of George Washington located in Brooklyn.

Men and horses advance in the statue entitled Calvary Charge, part of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial.

After winning the Grant award, he engaged himself even more thoroughly in researching his subjects. He studied New York City Police Department horses. He examined Grant’s death mask. He observed military drills and exercises. He analyzed Civil War uniforms, weaponry and equipment to enhance the detail in his work. He drew upon his father’s recollections as a physician who attended to Grant in his final year. His architect partner, Edward Casey, was a veteran of the New York National Guard and lent some of his military experience to the project.

Shrady and Casey’s memorial dominates the Union Square area. The centerpiece statue of Grant, reaching 44 feet high, is one of the largest equestrian statues in the world. Two bronze bas-relief sculptures depicting advancing infantry adorn opposite sides of the statue’s pedestal. Four bronze lions on their own pedestals guard Grant’s statue adding a sense of majesty. The statues and pedestals sit upon a terraced marble platform about 240 feet from end to end. At both sides along that platform are additional bronze sculptures depicting the randomness and chaos of combat. 

An artillery detachment races to place a cannon in Henry Shrady’s statue Artillery at the Ulysses S. Grant memorial.

The sculpture known as Artillery presents a team of soldiers and horses racing to position a cannon. The guidon bearer has signaled a turn to the right, yet a bridle on the lead horse has broken and the horse continues to lunge forward. 

At the opposite end of the memorial, the statue entitled Cavalry Charge depicts cavalry troopers on the move.  An officer raises his sword ordering the advance, the buglar sounds the charge, a soldier bears the colors. Yet tragedy is about to strike as a trooper has fallen from his mount and will be trampled. Shrady is said to have portrayed himself as the ill-fated soldier. 

Shrady had worked relentlessly for twenty years on the memorial, undertaking some of the most ambitious and complex sculpting work of the time. He obsessed over every detail of the massive statues, each of which took years to produce and were some of the largest bronze castings of their time. Sadly, Shrady died about two weeks before the final dedication of the statue in April of 1922 commemorating the 100th Anniversary of Grant’s birth.

The face of the fallen trooper in the Cavalry Charge statue, said to be that of the sculptor Henry Shrady. The Grant Memorial project consumed twenty years of Shrady’s life.

Given the interest both Shrady and Grant had in horses, it is not surprising how prominent they are in this memorial. This seems fitting as Grant was an accomplished rider and horseman.

Grant learned to care for and work with horses as a young man growing up in Ohio. His father was a well-connected businessman who secured his eldest son an appointment to West Point. Grant was not especially enthused about attending the military academy, but knew it was likely his best opportunity for a university education. 

Ironically, it was an accident of paperwork at West Point that he got his name Ulysses Simpson Grant. He was born Hiram Ulysses, but his Congressman wrote Ulysses Simpson (his mother’s maiden name) on his appointment documents. When he reported to West Point in 1839, he was told the appointment was for Ulysses Simpson Grant, so he assumed the name, rather than reapplying. 

 He was a capable, but unambitious student who graduated in the middle of his class in 1843.   

Originally thinking he might go on to teach college math, Grant decided on a military career following his service in the Mexican-American War. During the war, Grant was recognized several times for his bravery in combat. He learned some important skills during his service in Mexico, developing a proficiency in military logistics, and witnessing the leadership styles of several commanders, including Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. 

Detail of the two artillerymen riding the wagon in the Artillery statue.

After the war, Grant found aspects of the peacetime Army difficult, especially the separation from his family. Unfortunately, he looked for solace in alcohol and developed a reputation as a problem drinker. That reputation followed him his entire life. He resigned his commission in 1854 and unsuccessfully pursued a string of civilian jobs, ultimately going back to work for his father in Galena, Illinois. 

Following the attack at Fort Sumter in April 1861, Grant was determined to return to military service. He sought and received a commission and the command of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He restored discipline and effectively trained the unit to make it combat ready. A promotion to brigadier general followed in August 1861.  

A bronze bas-relief plaque of marching infantry soldiers on the pedestal of the Grant equestrian statue.

In February 1862, Grant led his troops to successful engagements at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in western Tennessee. His successes gave the Union some badly needed victories. They also gained him the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, because he demanded his enemies surrender without terms. His actions led to his promotion as a Major General of volunteers and he was appointed commander of the Army of the Tennessee.  

In April 1863, Grant’s army was attacked by Confederate forces; the resulting fight at the Battle of Shiloh made plain the painful truth that a long war awaited both sides. The losses were staggering, a combined 23,000 causalities. But Grant’s deft leadership in sustaining the rebel assault and successfully counterattacking led to a Union victory. Grant received criticism for being unprepared for the Confederate attack; some even calling for his removal.  Lincoln famously responded “I can’t spare this man, he fights.”

After Shiloh, Grant and his Army pushed further south from Tennessee, aiming to take the Mississippi River port city of Vicksburg, a vital logistics hub for the Confederacy. Grant would demonstrate strategic prowess in this campaign, coordinating his troop’s movements with the Navy, splitting his forces to fend off a rebel reinforcement, and ultimately accepting the surrender of Vicksburg and its 30,000 Confederate defenders on July 4, 1863 after a 48-day siege.  

In October 1863, Grant was given command of all Union armies in the West. He moved quickly to break a Confederate siege of a Union Army in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His success led Lincoln to appoint Grant to the rank of Lieutenant General (the first officer to hold this rank since George Washington) and as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States in March 1864.

As General-in-Chief, Grant provided Lincoln with a campaign plan for a multiple front operation wherein Federal Armies would pursue the remaining major Confederate formations and degrade the South’s ability to wage war.  

Through the spring of 1864 and into 1865, Grant would accompany General George Meade and the Army of the Potomac, engaging in a brutal campaign which ultimately lead to the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, Virginia on April 9, 1865. 

Ulysses S. Grant at his Cold Harbor, Virginia Headquarters in June 1864.

-Civil War Photographs, 1861-1865, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

After the war, Grant would serve as Secretary of War under President Andrew Johnson. In 1868, he was elected president and served two terms. Unfortunately for President Grant, although he was personally honest and upright, those around him were not and his administrations were tainted by corruption. Still, there were several notable accomplishments during his administration such as the ratification of the 14th Amendment, passage of early civil rights legislation, establishment of the Department of Justice, and the creation of Yellowstone National Park.

Despite the scandals, Grant remained very popular. Like Washington, he chose not to run for a third term. He left office, and embarked on a grand tour of America and the world. His later years proved quite difficult. An unscrupulous investor took advantage of Grant and he lost much of his money in bad investments. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1884. Wanting to leave his wife with sufficient means to support herself, he worked tirelessly up to his death to complete his memoirs.  When the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant was finally published, it was a major success, heralded by critics, historians and the public alike.

Grant died on July 23, 1885 in upstate New York. Over a quarter of a million people viewed his funeral train as it traveled down the Hudson River valley to New York City. Tens of thousands of Union Army veterans accompanied Grant’s casket in a procession sometimes seven miles long. Confederate generals Joseph Johnston and Simon Buckner were among his pall bearers. 

For a time, Grant’s legacy suffered from debatable stories related to his drinking, supposed indifference to losing soldiers in combat and scandalous presidency. Over the past several decades though, historians and scholars have more closely examined Grant’s characteristics as a strategic leader, effective manager, and skilled tactician.

Like Grant’s reputation, his memorial in Washington, DC has also undergone refurbishment over the past few years. In 2011, the Architect of the Capitol accepted responsibility for the memorial from the National Park Service and began to restore the statuary and stonework. Signs of corrosion and weathering were removed, the marble and bronze polished, missing or broken features from the statues, such as swords and chains, were replaced. Eight ornate bronze lamps were also installed around the memorial.  

Portrait Photograph of President Ulysses S. Grant, circa 1870

-Matthew Brady; Library of Congress Prints and Photograph’s Division

At the top of that memorial, as the face of General Grant gazes west, he can see the memorial to his wartime president, Abraham Lincoln. Through the Civil War years, Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln developed a close working relationship. The two were westerners with a common touch and similarly humble origins. Lincoln appreciated Grant’s leadership, his willingness to maintain the offense and his sense of responsibility. Grant wrote: “No general could want better backing for the president was a man of great wisdom and moderation.” Now their memorials bookend our National Mall, a fitting testimonial to the president and his general who fought so hard to preserve the Union.

Route Recon

The Ulysses S. Grant Memorial is located along First Street, NW, just to the west of the U.S. Capitol building. The best way to get to the memorial (and the Capitol) is by taking Metro.

Three Metro stops are within walking distance of the memorial and the Capitol:

  • Union Station – Located at First Street, NW, and Massachusetts Avenue.
  • Capitol South – Located at First Street between C and D Streets, SE.
  • Federal Center, SW – Located at the southwest corner of Third and D Streets, SW.

Additional information on riding Metro, is available at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

The DC Circulator, a public bus system with routes through Washington’s downtown area includes stops near the Memorial. Find more information about Circulator busses at www.dccirculator.com.

There is very little public parking available near the Capitol. The nearest public parking facility is at Union Station, to the north of the Capitol. Very limited metered street parking is found along the Mall to the west of the Capitol.

Command Reading List

Many books have been written on Ulysses S. Grant. The below works offer new insights into Grant’s character and leadership.

Grant by Ron Chenow

Noted biographer covers Grant’s entire life and career, from his Ohio childhood through his presidency and beyond.

The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant by Charles Calhoun

This book by historian Charles Calhoun produced a very comprehensive analysis of the Grant presidency, with detailed research that challenges some of the early criticisms of Grant which are often repeated by historians and biographers.  

The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, edited by John F. Marszalek with David S. Nolan and Louie P. Gallow

Grant’s memoirs were immensely popular when published in 1885. This annotated version provides extensive background and context to Grant’s original writing.

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Fort Ward, the Mission Continues

Six Civil War reproduction cannons stand as silent sentinels over the Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site, an open and inviting space in Alexandria, Virginia, Washington, DC’s neighbor to the south. The site, located in Alexandria’s Seminary Hill neighborhood, was originally conceived as a Civil War era preservation project. Today, Fort Ward is embracing over 150 years of history, from the Civil War through the Civil Rights era, for this prominent and storied Virginia city.

Fort Ward’s origins are found in the days following the rebel victory at Manassas in July of 1861.  U.S. Government leaders quickly realized the Federal capital was in a precarious situation. Bordered on one side by Virginia, now enemy territory, and the other by Maryland, a slave holding state, Washington, D.C had almost no physical defenses to rely on.

Cannon - Fort Ward - Alexandria VA - Civil War defenses

The Army appointed one of its leading engineers and an expert on coast artillery, John Barnard, to design a robust defensive system along the high grounds surrounding Washington to guard strategic waterways, roads, railways and bridges. By the end of the war, Barnard’s extensive efforts lead to the construction of 68 forts and 93 gun batteries bristling with over 800 cannons and connected by various roads and trenches. Fort Ward is one of the best preserved examples of Washington’s Civil War defenses.  

Construction of Fort Ward began in July 1861 and was completed about two months later to protect the main approaches into Alexandria. The fort was named for U.S. Navy Commander James H. Ward, the first U.S. Navy officer killed in action during the Civil War.

Civil War re-enactors - Washington DC - Civil War sites
Fort Ward hosts multiple living history events throughout the year.

Fort Ward was built as a bastion fort, meaning the walls were designed at angles to provide interlocking fields of fire from inside the fort. Like most of the other fortifications, Fort Ward was constructed primarily of readily available dirt which was much better at withstanding artillery and rifle fire than brick, stone or wooden logs.  The earthen walls were approximately 20 feet high and 12 feet thick. The fort was expanded several times during the war. Ultimately, Fort Ward had five bastions with emplacements for 36 guns and a final perimeter almost half a mile long.  

A trench ran along that perimeter, a final obstacle for any attackers who might make it through the cannon fire. Units from Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio garrisoned the fort, usually numbering between three to four hundred men at a time.

Alexandria VA - Fort Ward - park - Civil War

The trench or dry moat surrounding the earthen bastion walls presented one more obstacle for any attacking forces.

Just after Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, the Union Army moved quickly to occupy Alexandria.  The city soon became a hotbed of Federal activity. Given its port and railroad connections, Alexandria became a logistical center. Troops and supplies would flow through the city. Wounded were transported to Alexandria for treatment and recovery. The city was filled with Army camps, warehouses, supply depots, hospitals and other official activities. This substantial U.S. Government presence attracted African Americans from around Virginia and beyond. Referred to at the time as “contraband,” these men and women came seeking freedom from slavery. They found paid employment at these Federal facilities, including Fort Ward. Many men enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops regiments and went to fight.

At war’s end, when the Army left Fort Ward, several African American families remained. They purchased property and began building homes, churches and a school. Over four generations, the African American community continued to grow in its own neighborhood known as “The Fort”. The nearby Virginia Theological Seminary (which gives the current neighborhood its name) and Episcopal High School employed many of The Fort’s residents.

In the 1950s, the City of Alexandria began planning for the restoration of the original Fort Ward and the creation of today’s park space. Unfortunately, this work would lead to the resettlement of The Fort neighborhood. The city bought or appropriated the land compelling the families living there to move on. Archeological excavations of the original Fort Ward began in 1961. Renovations of several portions of the fort followed as part of the Civil War centennial.  The park was formally opened to the public in May of 1964.   

Fort Ward Museum, Alexandria, Virginia
The Fort Ward Museum, designed with a board and batten style commonly used around Washington during the Civil War period.

For a chronological view of Fort Ward, a visit today is best begun in the museum, housed in a reproduction two-story building modeled after a period Army headquarters building.  Museum curators have assembled an impressive collection of weapons, uniforms, documents, photographs, medical instruments, folk art, and other implements of military life to tell the stories behind the Civil War defenses of Washington, the history of Fort Ward, conditions in Alexandria at the time and the lives and duties of Union Army officers and soldiers.  A scale model of the original Fort Ward orients the visitor to its Civil War era layout and appearance.

The museum’s upper floor houses a research library containing a trove of historic materials as well as more contemporary documents and publications on the Union forts defending Washington, DC and other Civil War topics. The museum periodically organizes living history events, hosting Civil War reenactors at Fort Ward to enhance visitors’ understanding of the way soldiers and civilians lived their wartime lives.

Civil War - Officers Quarters - Hut
The Officer’s Hut provides a glimpse into how officers lived at Fort Ward.

Adjacent to the museum is a reproduction officer’s hut. Huts such as these were built to provide housing for Fort Ward’s commissioned officers. Peer through the windows and see the furnishings and accoutrements illustrative of how these officers lived at the time.

The museum and officers’ hut buildings are located on grounds outside of the original fortifications in what was a support area where troop barracks and living quarters were located, and administrative and logistical functions performed. 

Fort Ward - main gate - Alexandria, VA
The reproduction main gate at Fort Ward.

Pass through the reproduction entrance gate to the fort’s original grounds and follow the trail to see what the reconstructed northwest bastion would have looked like in 1864. One of the more heavily armed strongholds of the original Fort Ward as it overlooked the busy Leesburg Pike (today’s State Route 7), the restored northwest bastion includes six gun emplacements along with the magazine and a filling room for ammunition.  

After visiting the reconstructed fort area, a path circles through the larger park with open green space, picnic areas, and an amphitheater. Along the way, descriptive signage explains aspects of The Fort neighborhood and the people who lived there. Existing features of the old neighborhood are emphasized, including several surviving grave sites.  

The Fort - Clara Adams - Gravesite

Clara Adams, a longtime leader in The Fort neighborhood, is buried on the grounds of the historic site. Among her many contributions, she donated land for the community’s African American School.

The City of Alexandria continues to expand the interpretation of Fort Ward’s history for today’s Alexandria residents and visitors alike. A series of interviews with former Fort residents provide compelling first-person accounts of life in and around The Fort. These interviews started in the early 1990’s and continue today. An archeological dig concluding around 2014 used ground radars to clarify the boundaries of known grave sites, identify previously unknown grave sites and unearth additional artifacts. The city also has plans and designs for new interpretive signage and markers, a Fort neighborhood exhibit to the museum, historic home floor plan displays from The Fort neighborhood, and other interpretive tools and techniques to more completely convey the multi-layered story of Fort Ward.

Fort Ward is unique among Washington, DC area historic landmarks and a worthy addition to any DC itinerary. It preserves an essential element of Civil War history, namely the defenses of Washington, while also examining the complex social and cultural impacts of that period on life in Alexandria over the century that followed. As important, its 45 acres of leafy parkland are a pleasant place for locals and visitors alike to spend a sunny afternoon.

Northwest Bastion - Fort Ward - Alexandria, VA
Reproduction cannons at the restored Northwest Bastion

Route Recon:

The Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site is located at:

4301 West Braddock Road
Alexandria, Virginia 22304

Phone: 703.746.4848

Fort Ward is approximately six miles south of Washington, D.C. Free parking is available for cars and buses.

From Washington, DC: Follow signs to Interstate 395 (I-395) south to Richmond. Take the Seminary Road East exit. At the fifth traffic light (at Alexandria Hospital) turn left onto North Howard Street. Follow North Howard to its intersection with West Braddock Road and turn right. The Museum entrance is on the left.

From Old Town Alexandria: Follow King Street west to Alexandria City High School, turn right on Kenwood Avenue. Turn left on West Braddock Road, and proceed about a mile. The Museum entrance is on the right. 

From I-95/I-495 (Capital Beltway): Follow road signs to I-395 North. Take the Seminary Road East exit. At the fifth traffic light (at Alexandria Hospital) turn left onto North Howard Street. Follow North Howard to its intersection with West Braddock Road and turn right. The Museum entrance is on the left.

From Dulles Airport: Take Dulles Access Road East to I-495 North (Capital Beltway). Follow road signs to I-395 North. Take the Seminary Road East exit. At the fifth traffic light (at Alexandria Hospital) turn left onto North Howard Street. Follow North Howard to its intersection with West Braddock Road and turn right. The Museum entrance is on the left.


By Metro Rail, then Bus: Take the Yellow or Blue Line to King Street Station. The AT5 DASH Bus  www.dashbus.com to Landmark stops in front of Fort Ward. Call (703) 370-DASH for bus schedules and information.

By Amtrak or Virginia Railway Express: Walk across the street from the Alexandria Union Station to the King Street Metro Station to take the AT5 DASH Bus.  

More information about Fort Ward and how to plan your trip can be found at the Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site website.  

Walking Manassas

On a hot, humid Sunday in July 1861, soldiers from two newly organized armies, one Union, and the other Confederate met on the rolling hills and lush green fields north of Manassas Junction, Virginia, along the Bull Run creek. Those two landmarks would lend their names to this first seminal battle of the American Civil War.  Each side expected quick success over the other, boosted by the belief that attributes such as pride, honor, loyalty or the righteousness of their cause would bring triumph.

Today, the ground where they fought is preserved at the Manassas National Battlefield Park. Located just 25 miles west of Washington, DC., the park carefully conserves eight square miles of the battlefield amidst the development of Northern Virginia.

The Bull Run runs from north to south along the eastern portion of the park. Confederate forces set up defenses on the western side of the creek to defend Manassas Junction.

While key landmarks around the battlefield are, of course, accessible by car, a more interesting option is to explore the battlefield on foot. Walking the ground soldiers once trod and experiencing the terrain adds a certain depth to the facts gleaned through books and articles. Insights into leaders’ decisions become evident and battlefield stories come to life.

The National Park Service maintains several loop trails through the preserved areas of the battlefield.  The trails are of various lengths and signage provides historical context to the many sites encountered along the way. The NPS provides an excellent trifold map, available at the visitor center or on the park’s website, which can help you select the right trail for you based on your interest and level of comfort walking the sometimes hilly terrain.  At 5.3 miles, the First Manassas Trail provides the broadest perspective to the battlefield and the events of that momentous July day.

The trail begins at the park’s Henry Hill Visitor Center, which should certainly be the first stop for any new visitor. The well-appointed center houses a small theater, museum and a map with twinkling lights depicting the troop movements around the battlefield. National Park Rangers also offer very informative interpretive lectures daily explaining how these two quickly assembled armies would come to meet on this hallowed ground.

Exiting the visitor center, the trail cuts across adjoining Henry Hill, past a statue of the Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. It was during this battle that Jackson received his famous moniker. As Jackson was preparing for the defense of Henry Hill, another Confederal general, Bernard Bee, likened Jackson to a stonewall and instructed his troops to join with Jackson’s Virginia brigade. A monument to General Bee, who was killed at the battle, stands nearby. The trail continues along Henry Hill and crosses the “Reinforcement Road” a feint trail used by some Southern reinforcing units to reach Henry Hill during the battle.

The statue of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on Henry Hill dates from 1940.

To boost his forces, the Confederate commander, Pierre Gustave Toutant (PGT) Beauregard worked closely with his counterpart, General Joseph Johnston, who commanded a sizable Confederate force west of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah Valley.  To support Beauregard at Manassas, Johnston skillfully moved his forces from Winchester, Virginia to Manassas, using the railroad to quickly cover ground. Johnston set up his headquarters at a plantation to the southeast of the battlefield and allocated his troops for Beauregard to deploy and maneuver during the battle. Their collaboration was instrumental to the rebel victory.

PGT Beauregard commanded Confederate forces at the First Battle of Manassas. General Beauregard was a native of Louisiana, and the Confederate hero of the assault on Fort Sumter.

Photo By Mathew Benjamin Brady – This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 525441., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1197391

After traversing Henry Hill, the trail then moves through a hardwood forested area and then into an open meadow before crossing a busy road known as the Warrenton Turnpike during the Civil War, but known today as U.S. Route 29. After crossing the highway, follow the trail uphill, pass the ruins of a farm and then turn west, descending along a ridge overlooking the famous Stone Bridge.

The bridge figured prominently into the events on the day of the battle. With rebel forces taking up positions on the western side of the Bull Run to defend the transportation links at Manassas, the Union plan was to outflank Beauregard on the left edge of his line, which was situated on the ridge overlooking the the bridge.

The Union army commander, General Irvin McDowell ordered a diversionary attack commencing at 5:30 that morning on the rebel forces holding the end of the line. Meanwhile his main force would cross the Bull Run further to the northwest.

Today’s Stone Bridge dates from the 1880s. The original Stone Bridge was destroyed by Confederate troops in 1862.

A Confederate signal station observed these troop movements and warned Confederate Colonel Nathan Evans, who commanded two regiments on the Confederate left. After receiving the warning of the flanking maneuver, Evans ordered most of this troops away from the ridge to Mathews Hill, further west of his position, leaving four companies of South Carolina militia. Evans redeployment of those troops proved essential and would shape the later battle.

After passing the Stone Bridge, the trail runs along a segment of the Bull Run. Although not particularly deep nor wide, the creek’s banks are quite steep, which made access to shallow fords with level banks of importance to both armies.

Leaving the Bull Run, the trail turns west and continues through fields and wooded areas. During the time of the battle, farms and plantations predominated in the area and the land was largely cleared of trees and brush opening up fields of fire and making it easier to observe troop movements. Interpretive signs and weathered stone markers dot this portion of the trail, providing the hiker additional background on troop movements and conditions on the day of the battle.

General Irvin McDowell commanded the Union Forces. More experienced in military administration than command, McDowell understood his troops were green, but there was significant political pressure on him to act.

Photo from the Brady National Photographic Art Gallery (Washington, D.C.)

The trail emerges from the woods onto the open terrain of Mathews Hill. From its high ground, scenic vistas looking south and west give an excellent view of major portions of the battlefield. Across the open terrain are clear views of Henry Hill and the visitor center. U.S. Route 29 cuts across and seemingly bisects the landscape.

The view of Henry Hill with the Henry House and Visitors Center from Mathews Hill.

Mathews Hill was the site of significant fighting in the next phase of the battle. Evans’ dispatched troops from the Stone Bridge took up a defensive position on this hill and by 10:30 that morning were encountering the first wave of Federal troops who had crossed the Bull Run further to the north of the Stone Bridge. The rebels fought stubbornly against a strengthening Federal force. Several Confederate regiments arrived to reinforce Evans’ troops. But after several unsuccessful counterattacks and becoming badly outnumbered, the Southerners withdrew from Matthew’s Hill.

Making a critical error that would later cost him the battle, General McDowell did not immediately pursue the rebels as they retreat toward Henry Hill. A delay of over an hour allowed Southerners to organize defensive positions, as their reinforcements continued to arrive from Manassas.  

Leaving Matthews Hill, the final mile of the trail begins a slow decent, past the landmark Stone House, across U.S. Route 29 and then up Henry Hill, site of the battle’s fateful culmination. More of a broad plateau than a hill, Henry Hill was named for the Henry Family farm which occupied the area during and for many years after the battle.

Prominent on Henry Hill is the Henry House. The original house was damaged during the battle and its inhabitant, Mrs. Judith Carter Henry, was killed. The current house was rebuilt after the Civil War by the Henry Family.

The ensuing artillery fight turned into an infantry battle as Union and Confederate regiments arrived, attacking and counterattacking in the vicinity of the cannons.  Buoyed by fresh troops which continued to stream in from Manassas and with numbers now on their side, the Southerners would take the upper hand forcing McDowell’s army to retreat around 4:00 pm and begin a long and sometimes chaotic march back towards Washington.

After the battle, the casualty counts conveyed the bloodiest day in American history, up to that time. The Federal Army suffered the loss of 460 soldiers and over 1,000 wounded and another 1,300 captured or missing. Southern losses were less, but still alarming with 387 killed and about 1600 wounded.

Both sides began to understand victory in this war would be neither easy nor quick.  Many more battles would follow. Indeed, in a little more than a year, the armies would once again return to these fields to fight an even bloodier battle. 

Route Recon

Manassas National Battlefield Park is located about 25 miles west of Washington, DC.

If you are using a GPS device, the mailing address of the Henry Hill Visitor Center is:

6511 Sudley Road, Manassas Virginia 20109

From Washington D.C. and Points East: Travel west on Interstate 66 to Exit 47B, Route 234 North, Sudley Road. Proceed through the first traffic light. The entrance to the Henry Hill Visitors Center is on the right, just past the Northern Virginia Community College.

From Points North: Travel south on I-95 to the Capital Beltway, Interstate 495. Travel west towards Silver Springs, Maryland. Continue on the Beltway for approximately 10 miles, crossing the Potomac river into Virginia. Take the exit for Interstate 66 west to Manassas. Take Exit 47B, Route 234 North, Sudley Road. Proceed through the first traffic light. The entrance to the Henry Hill Visitors Center is on the right, just past the Northern Virginia Community College.

From Points South: Travel north on Interstate 95 to Exit 152, Route 234. Turn left at the traffic light on to Route 234 North, Sudley Road. Stay on Business Route 234 (do not take the by-pass) and travel for approximately 20 miles just beyond the city of Manassas. The entrance to the Henry Hill Visitors Center is located on the right, just past the entrance to the Northern Virginia Community College.

From Points West: Travel east on Interstate 66 to Exit 47, Route 234 North (Sudley Road). Turn left on Route 234 and proceed through the first traffic light. The entrance to the Henry Hill Visitors Center is on the right, just past the Northern Virginia Community College.

Unfortunately, there is no public transportation to the park.

Safety Briefing

Be aware of the following before you start your hike:

The trail can be moderately strenuous and muddy in a few portions, so proper footwear is important. 

Many trails, both official and unofficial, intersect the main hiking trails, so it is important to use either an electronic or paper map and be mindful of your location. Follow trail blazes appropriate for your trail, blue blazes indicate a hiking trail and yellow blazes indicate horse trails.

Bring plenty of water.

Beware of ticks! Stick to the trail. Insect repellent is recommended.

In the event of an emergency on the trail, call 911 from your mobile phone.

Should you see an object of potential historic significance, please leave it in place and notify the park staff at 703-361-1339 x0.

Pets are permitted on all park trails but must be kept on a leash no longer than 6 feet.

“Freedom is Not Free” Remembering Why at the Korean War Veterans Memorial


Nineteen figures, dressed in combat uniforms and moving in formation, cut a silent, ghostly silhouette against the seasonal colors of the National Mall.  Tall in stature and gray in color, these figures represent an American infantry unit from the Korean War.  

The statues are the most prominent feature of the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Sitting just to the southeast of the Lincoln Memorial, it is one of the National Mall’s most intriguing sites. 

The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when North Korean forces of the Korean People’s Army, with the backing of Soviet and Chinese leaders, poured over the 38th parallel, attacking south with the goal of reuniting a divided Korea under the leadership of Kim Il Sung. Within 48 hours, the United States committed air and sea forces to the defense of South Korea. On June 27, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 83, calling on “Members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack…”. 

Fighting would last 38 months, during the years from 1950-1953. United Nations forces were able to repel the initial North Korean invasion. The last two years was largely a stalemate, even though there was fierce fighting and direct engagement between US and Chinese ground troops. An armistice halting the fighting was signed on July 27, 1953 in Panmunjom, Korea.

By the end of hostilities, over 5.8 million Americans served in the US armed forces and 36,574 Americans died as a result of hostile actions in the Korean War theater.  In addition, 103,284 were wounded during the conflict. Losses were especially high among the Korean combatants. Over 162,000 South Korean soldiers and 526,000 North Korean soldiers were killed. Civilian deaths during the Korean War on both sides are estimated at between 2-3 million. 

The details of the Korean War may not be known to many of the visitors, but the memorial vividly weaves together symbolism and imagery to portray the conflict’s sacrifices and significance.  

An image of a US Navy nurse from the Mural Wall

For full effect, the statues should be viewed in conjunction with the Mural Wall, which adds a unique, two dimensional feature to the memorial. The 164-foot long wall is constructed of a highly polished black granite and stands to the statues’ right side. It bears the images of over 2,400 troops and different specialties from each branch of the Armed Forces that supported the infantry during the Korean War. Both the faces of the statues and the visages on the wall are based on actual Korean War veterans, taken from photographs supplied by the National Archives and Records Administration and other renderings. Viewed from a distance, the service member images on the wall resemble the mountains of Korea.  The wall vividly reflects the statues, suggesting 38 servicemen moving in formation and symbolizing the 38th parallel and the 38 months of the war.

On the left side of the statues is the United Nations curb, a stone edge to a paved walkway with the name of the 22 Countries that, like the United States, fought or provided material support in Korea under the auspices of the United Nations.  

An engraving of the the United Nations seal as depicted on the United Nations Curb.

The statues appear to be moving toward an American flag flying from a flag pole next to a reflecting pool shaded by a grove of linden trees. At the base of the flag pole is a small stone with the inscription “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.” 

The pool is inscribed with the numbers of casualties sustained during the war by both the United States and the United Nations. The area is known formally as the Pool of Remembrance; the pool and the adjoining benches shaded by linden trees invites quiet contemplation of the war and its costs. 

* * *

For the United States, the Korean War was unlike any other before it. 

Congress made no declaration of war. Rather, the US fought under the auspices of the new United Nations and provided most of the UN combat forces. The Korean War would be more limited, without the general mobilization of American society as was seen in the First and Second World Wars. A new branch of the armed forces, the US Air Force, would organize and conduct air campaigns.  And for the first time since the American Revolution, the war was fought with a racially integrated military. (Notice the 19 statues represent multiple racial and ethnic groups and all four branches of the armed forces).

Statue depicting a US Air Force Air-Ground Controller

It was also fought in a very far away land, not well known to many Americans, to contain the spread of communism, the growth of which in Eastern Europe and China immediately following World War II was seen as a threat to the American democracy and capitalism. 

The Korean War remains with us today. The armistice of 1953 only ended the fighting, but not formally the war. A demilitarized zone marks the current border between the two Koreas. Tensions remain high. Korea is never very far from the headlines or newsfeeds and remains a major focus of US diplomacy and foreign policy. The US is still committed to the defense of South Korea and maintains a force of approximately 24,000 troops in the country. 

Over 7,600 US service members are still listed by the Pentagon as missing in action. The North Korean government periodically returns remains of US service members. In 2018, 55 boxes of remains were presented to US officials and taken to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Hawaii for identification.  Potentially, 80 US service members may be identified from these sets of remains. Some already have. One was US Army Corporal Charles S. Lawler, 19, of Traverse City, Michigan.  Corporal Lawler was a member of the 1st Cavalry Division. He was reported missing in action on Nov. 2, 1950, after his unit was attacked near Unsan, North Korea. He was buried in his hometown on July 27, 2019. 

A group photo from the 8225th M*A*S*H*. The concept of forward deployed military hospitals was successfully implemented during the Korean War.

Popular narratives sometime label the Korean War as “the Forgotten War”, which seems misleading. It certainly was never forgotten by the Korean people, nor by the veterans who fought there and certainly not by the families of those who died there. The US military community has not forgotten as there has been a large military presence in Korea for decades. And the 1968 novel M*A*S*H*, about an Army field hospital which became a successful motion picture, then later a very popular television show, continued to remind the American public of the Korean War.

And now for over a quarter century, an exceptional and dignified memorial stands on the National Mall to help us remember. 


Route Recon:

The Korean War Veterans Memorial is located at the western end of the National Mall. It is two miles walking distance from the U.S. Capitol. A paved footpath connects the Korean War Veterans Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial area. The nearest metro stations are Foggy Bottom (23rd St. &I St. NW) and Smithsonian (12th St. & Independence Ave. SW).

Visitor parking is available along Ohio Drive, SW between the Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson Memorials. 

The Korean War Veterans Memorial is accessible 24 hours a day. Some visitors especially like to visit at night or in foggy or rainy weather, when the statues take on a surreal nature. 

There are many online resources regarding the Korean War. A good place to start is the US Army Center for Military History’s Korean War Commemorative Website .   

One Last Note: The Department of Defense (DoD) currently lists the number of US service members killed during the Korean War as 36,574. For many years, the Department of Defense had listed the number as 54,260, which is the number included on the memorial. Later research conducted by DoD determined the higher number included deaths of US service members who died on active duty during the 38 months of the war, although not necessarily as a result of combat operations in Korea. The higher number is included on the memorial as it honors all US service members who served during the Korean War.