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.

Sandwiches, Softball . . . and Secrecy

Tucked in among the stately homes, river scenery and suburban neighborhoods which enfold the George Washington Memorial Parkway lies Fort Hunt Park. The park is a 136-acre expanse of green in an already leafy corner of Northern Virginia about three miles north of Mount Vernon. It makes a pleasant location to toss a Frisbee or ride a bicycle. But among the picnic tables and softball fields are four hulking concrete artillery emplacements. These relics bely a much different use for the parkland than is enjoyed by visitors today. Indeed, this quiet, suburban park has an interesting history as a military post, a portion of which was for decades shrouded in secrecy. 

Construction began at Fort Hunt in the 1897 on previously purchased land, once part of George Washington’s estate. At the time, the War Department was actively improving coastal defenses, building or retrofitting concrete batteries and equipping them with systems of rifled cannons, special mortars and rapid fire guns, while maritime mines would be deployed in the water. Fort Hunt and the older, larger Fort Washington on the Maryland side of the Potomac River were both equipped with these new batteries and weapons. The outbreak of the Spanish-American added urgency to the project designed to prevent enemy naval vessels from reaching a position in the Potomac where they could bombard Washington, D.C. and the Navy Yard.

Fort Washington, opposite Fort Hunt on the Maryland side of the Potomac River

The focus on artillery led to the fort being named for Brigadier General Henry Jackson Hunt, who had died in 1889. Brigadier General Hunt was the Chief of Artillery in the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War and renowned as a master tactician in the use of artillery on the battlefield. 

Battery Robinson is located closest to the Potomac River. Each of the four batteries can be explored by park visitors.

Eventually, four concrete batteries would be built. The first and largest, the Mount Vernon Battery, was completed in 1898.  It would have three 8” guns with a range of 8 miles. Other batteries would have smaller, rapid fire weapons meant to channel enemy ships towards the 8” guns of both forts. The Battery Commander operated from a concrete tower just to the west of the Mount Vernon Battery. The remaining batteries would all be completed by 1904.  

The Battery Commander’s Headquarters tower. The Commander could direct the fire of the cannons and communicate with Fort Washington from here.

Fort Hunt’s life as an artillery post, however, was short lived and rather undistinguished. No enemy fleet ever sailed up the Potomac and Fort Hunt’s guns remained silent, save for drills and exercises. During World War I, the Army removed the artillery pieces and shipped them to Europe, never to be replaced. 

A picture of Fort Hunt from the 1920’s. Unlike today, the artillery soldiers at the time had a clear view of the Potomac River. Photo: U.S. Army

After the war, Fort Hunt settled into a peacetime training and logistics support mission with fewer and fewer functions. From 1921-1923, the U.S. Army Finance School was briefly located at Fort Hunt. Cadets from the first African-American Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) detachment conducted summer training camp there in the early 1930’s. At the beginning of the Great Depression, World War I veterans marched on Washington, D.C. demanding bonuses. The bonus marchers camped at Fort Hunt and a small hospital treated the infirmed. In 1932, with tighter budgets and no operational mission to support, the War Department transferred Fort Hunt to the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital.     

As the Great Depression wore on, Fort Hunt became a residence camp for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC was a New Deal-era program meant to put young men to work on various environmental projects. The U.S. Army was responsible for administrative and logistical support to the CCC to include operating housing, feeding, and logistics. CCC enrollees at Fort Hunt worked along the George Washington National Parkway, which was as being built at the time.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, along with President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Elenor Roosevelt, aboard the USS Potomac, sailing from Washington, DC to Mount Vernon. The photo was taken on the day the royal couple visited Fort Hunt. Photo: Harris and Ewing collection at the Library of Congress.

On June 9, 1939, during a state visit to the United States, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, along with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, visited Fort Hunt to view the camp and meet with the CCC enrollees. The royal couple arrived at Fort Hunt after earlier visiting Mount Vernon. During their stay, the king and queen conducted an “inspection”, viewed exhibits of CCC work in the area and discussed CCC life with several enrollees. They then continued on to Arlington National Cemetery where the king laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Just three months after the royal visit, World War II would begin in Europe and the Army began preparing Fort Hunt for its most intriguing mission.

A Pin Oak at the Fort Hunt Park, planted in commemoration of the King and Queen’s visit.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the War Department identified Fort Hunt as a location for sensitive intelligence work and resumed operational use of the grounds. A variety of intelligence functions would be performed at Fort Hunt. However, given the secrecy of the missions, the name Fort Hunt was not officially used. Rather, the location and the units working there were referred to by their mailing address: Post Office Box 1142, Alexandria, Virginia.

The intelligence work conducted at PO Box 1142 was divided into three main areas:

Interrogations of Enemy Prisoners 

During World War II, the Army and Navy recruited and trained personnel with distinct language skills into cadres of interrogators. At Fort Hunt, interrogators from both the Army and the Navy questioned German prisoners and emigres to gain information on military and naval organizations and capabilities, tactics, weapons design and development, scientific research, espionage operations, and industrial production. From 1942 through July 1945, over 3,000 prisoners were interrogated at PO Box 1142. Questioning took place before the prisoners were declared to the International Committee of the Red Cross, adding to the secretive nature of the work.  

Windowless buses such as this were used to transport enemy prisoners to and from Fort Hunt. Photo: U.S. Army

Escape and Evasion

In early 1943, a special program was launched at Fort Hunt to aid soldiers and particularly airmen in evading capture. The program also fabricated specialized equipment and kits for Allied Prisoners of War (PWs) to use in escaping from prison camps. Coded messages were sent to US prisoners. Items such as miniature radios, maps hidden in decks of playing cards, compasses disguised as uniform buttons and other such devices were meticulously developed and cleverly concealed in aid packages. The packages were then distributed to PW camps under the cover of two fictional relief organizations.

Picnic Pavilion A at Fort Hunt Park. The pavilion is on the site of the Post Hospital, where much of the Escape and Evasion work was based.

Open Source Research

German print publications such as newspapers, magazines, academic journals and captured documents as well as radio broadcasts and movies were translated and analyzed by linguistic specialists for useful wartime information. This section also developed military Order of Battle details, such as unit identifications and commanders, which were very valuable in operational planning. Analytic details from the translations were also provided to interrogators for their use. 

After the war, most of the buildings on Fort Hunt were removed and records related to PO Box 1142 destroyed. Personnel who served there were sworn to secrecy. After the war, Fort Hunt was turned back over the Interior Department. Later, public improvements, such as picnic pavilions were installed. For years, few of the park’s visitors ever knew of the work undertaken there.

The stone marker dedicated to the veterans of PO Box 1142.

In 2002, a new National Park Service superintendent assigned to Fort Hunt wanted to add some historical signs to park. Park staff began researching the park’s past and slowly the secret history of Fort Hunt opened itself up to discovery. Several documents related to PO Box 1142 became declassified. A chance encounter with a tour group led the staff to a Fort Hunt veteran who told about his experiences and referred the staff to other veterans. The NPS Staff at Fort Hunt began an extensive oral history project interviewing over 60 veterans from between 2006 and 2010. PO Box 1142 veterans were invited to a special recognition ceremony at Fort Hunt in 2006 and a flag pole and stone marker were installed in their honor.  

This building served as Noncommissioned Officers quarters and is one of the few remaining structures from Fort Hunt’s military past.

There are but a handful of physical reminders of Fort Hunt’s past remaining today. Yet Fort Hunt is unique. Outside of a few museums, it is one place which encapsulates so much of the Army’s history in the first half of the 20th century. The evolution of coast artillery, material needs in World War I, post-war austerity for the Army, the Great Depression and finally, highly sensitive intelligence work in support of the Allies — Fort Hunt saw it all. So take a few minutes to visit, perhaps coupled with a trip to Mount Vernon, and explore the batteries. The place you play some football or walk your dog was once trod by soldiers, scientists, spies, engineers, even a king and queen. You will be in excellent company. 

* * *

Route Recon

Fort Hunt Park is located on the George Washington Memorial Parkway between Alexandria, Virginia and the Mount Vernon.  

From Old Town Alexandria,  drive south on Washington Street and continue on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Take the exit for Fort Hunt Park and follow signs into the park.

From Mount Vernon, drive north on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Take the exit for Fort Hunt Park and follow signs into the park.

Parking is available in each of the picnic areas. 

Fort Hunt is also reachable by foot or bicycle. From the Mount Vernon Trail, turn into Fort Hunt Road and follow signs into the park.

Additional Information

For more information about reservations and events at Fort Hunt, visit the National Park Service’s Fort Hunt Website.

The National Park Service’s Fort Hunt Oral History Project provides fascinating first hand accounts of Fort Hunt during World War II.

 

“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. 

Remembering the Liberators

…we were actually hit by a stench that we immediately knew had to come from burning flesh… everybody who saw what was going on there was literally stunned into silence. The only thing that was spoken after that were when orders were given to move food and blankets into the camp… 

– Sergeant Paul Lenger – 8th Armored Division


On April 13, 1945, elements of the 8th Armored Division assisted in the liberation of the Langenstein-Zwieberge concentration camp, a subcamp of the much larger Buchenwald camp in nearby Weimar, Germany.  More than 7000 prisoners from 23 countries were held at Langenstein-Zwieberge between April 1944 and April 1945. 

The division colors of the 8th Armored, along with the colors of 35 other US Army divisions, are displayed each April at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s annual Days of Remembrance ceremony held in the US Capitol, providing a stately backdrop to the day’s proceedings. These 36 divisions were acknowledged by the US Army Center for Military History has having liberated a Nazi concentration camp. 

The division colors of the 1st Infantry Division. Military units having their own flag, colors, standard or guidon is an ancient military tradition which continues today. US Army colors for infantry divisions have two wide horizontal stripes, one red and one blue with the division’s distinctive shoulder insignia in the middle. On May 8, 1945, the 1st Infantry division liberated Zwodau and Falkenau an der Eger, two subcamps of the larger Flossenbürg concentration camp. 

The first Allied liberation of a Nazi concentration camp occurred on July 24, 1944 as Red Army units advancing west came upon the Majdanek Concentration Camp, located near Lublin, Poland.  Several news outlets, including the New York Times, reported to the world some firsthand accounts of the atrocities the soldiers had found. The Times reporter, W.H. Lawrence referred to Majdanek as “the most terrible place on the face of the earth”.

Grisly discoveries would continue through the Spring of 1945 as Allied armies continued their ground campaigns across German held territory. Red Army units, moving west through German held territory in Ukraine, Belorussia, Poland, and the Baltics liberated many camps, notably Treblinka, Auchwitz, Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrueck. British Army units moving west through northern Germany liberated Neuengamme and Bergen-Belsen. Further south, the U.S. Army liberated Buchenwald, Dora-Mittelbau, Flossenbuerg, Dachau and Mauthausen. 

The division colors of the 4th Armored Division. During World War II, colors for armored divisions had horizontal stripes of red and green. On April 4, 1945, the 4th Armored overran Ohrdruf, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp, near the German city of Gotha. It was the first Nazi concentration camp liberated by the US Army. One week later, General Eisenhower would visit Ohrdruf to see first-hand the conditions there. He would write to the Chief of Staff, General of the Army George Marshall, “The things I saw beggar description”.

Forty years later, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, was in the planning stages. Museum leaders approached the Secretary of the Army to ask permission to display the colors of US Army units involved in liberating the camps in the museum building, as well as at the annual Days of Remembrance ceremony. The Army agreed to the project. The Holocaust Memorial Museum and the US Army Center for Military History quickly recognized ten divisions as camp liberators: the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 10th and 11th Armored Divisions and the 42nd, 45th, 80th, 90th and 103rd Infantry Divisions.

45th Infantry Division – The “Thunderbird” Division was first organized in 1924 consisting of National Guard units in the southwest. In 1940, the division was reactivated and in June 1943 deployed to North Africa. On April 29, 1945, the 45th, along with the 42nd and 20th Armored divisions met at the Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich. At that time, they discovered more than 30,000 prisoners in the overcrowded camp. 

As awareness of the project grew, more veterans’ associations sought to become involved. Ultimately, the Center for Military History established some additional parameters. Recognitions would remain at the division level, official records of the division’s involvement in liberating the camp needed to be held by the National Archives and Records Administration, and the division needed to arrive at a camp within 48 hours of the first division unit’s detection of a camp’s presence. A division’s specialized units with support missions involving medical care, mess operations, logistics, displaced persons, and public health were often brought in to provide initial support to survivors.  

80th Infantry Division – The “Blue Ridge” Division’s insignia was adopted in 1918 and represents the Blue Ridge Mountains of Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. The 80th Infantry Division would relieve the 6th Armored Division at Buchenwald concentration camp on April 12, 1945. It later turned south into Austria where it liberated Ebensee, a subcamp of the Mauthausen concentration camp, on May 6, 1945.

Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus, the museum is currently closed to visitors and 2020’s Days of Remembrance Ceremony is a virtual, online event. But both the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Center of Military History maintain excellent websites with detailed history of the roles these divisions and subordinate units played in liberating the concentration camps. Unit profiles, riveting firsthand accounts, maps, videos and photographs are all available. Bibliographies for additional reading are also included.  

First organized in 1979, the annual Days of Remembrance as observed in the United States is an 8-day period, designated by the United States Congress. It includes various ceremonies and educational programs held nationwide to mark the catastrophic events of the Holocaust and inform current generations.   

This initiative to recognize the US Army units helps us all to remember the liberators as well as the liberated. 

104th Infantry Division – The “Timberwolf” Division was first organized within the Reserves in 1921. It arrived in France in September 1944. The 104th logged almost 200 days of fighting in northwestern Europe, fighting in France, Belgium, and western Germany. It participated in the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest, the Battle of the Bulge and the encirclement in the Ruhr Pocket. On April 11, 1945, the Timberwolves liberated the Dora-Mittelbau Concentration Camp near Nordhausen in Thuringia, Germany.

The World War II Memorial Marks a Nation’s Victory and a Generation’s Sacrifice

“Time is short!” is a maxim often repeated by military planners. It was similarly intoned by the planners and organizers of the World War II Memorial on the National Mall.

2019 marked the 15th anniversary of Memorial’s dedication. While there had long been consensus on the need for a national memorial in Washington, DC to commemorate America’s victory in World War II, the initial progress was slow. Yet the WW II veterans were aging. As most WWII veterans were entering their late 60’s or 70s, there was a growing concern within the broader veteran community about the need to build a memorial before that generation passed away. 

Congressional legislation authorizing the project stalled several times, finally passing in 1993. Once signed into law, an advisory board was formed, a sight selected, funds raised, designs submitted and construction begun.

The image of Nike, from the World War II Victory Medal, under the Atlantic and Pacific pavilions at the World War II Memorial

Finally, on May 29, 2004, as part of the largest reunion of US World War II veterans, President George W. Bush dedicated the World War II Memorial. In his speech that day, President Bush remarked that winning the war “would require the commitment and effort of our entire nation. To fight and win on two fronts, Americans had to work and save and ration and sacrifice as never before”. 

The memorial, over ten years in the making, honors that two front victory, that commitment, that sacrifice and the unity of the American people who achieved it. That honor is reflected in part by the memorial’s location, on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool, with the Lincoln Memorial appearing in the distance. The location signifies how the struggle to win World War II is comparable with the contributions of Lincoln and Washington in American history. 

The Lincoln Memorial with the World War II Memorial in the foreground.

Approaching from its 17th Street entrance, the memorial greets you, a broad expanse of granite, water and metal. It can be confusing at first. Its neoclassical design incorporates a jumble of names, figures, and symbols.  But slowly, the imagery becomes cohesive and themes emerge — victory of course, but also unity and reverence. 

The visitor’s eyes are first drawn to the oval shaped Rainbow Pool with its twin fountains. This feature was originally designed in 1923 by Frederick Law Olmstead and was part of the National Mall for many decades. It was later incorporated into the World War II Memorial’s design.  Arranged in a semi-circle around the pool are 56 granite columns, one for each US state and territorial possession during World War II.  Alternating victory laurels of wheat and oak leaves (signifying agricultural plenty and industrial capacity respectively) adorn each column while a bronze rope, indicating unity, ties the columns together. 

The Rainbow Pool with the Atlantic Pavilion and several state columns.

On each end of the pool are two 43-foot-tall pavilions, representing the victories in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Major campaigns and battles of each theater are inscribed at the base of the pavilions. Four stately bronze eagles, one for each branch of the US Armed Forces are perched inside. They hold aloft a large victory wreath representing how the combined efforts of the armed forces secured victory on the land, on the sea and in the air. On the pavilion’s floor is a bronze disk with an image of the Greek goddess Nike, the same image depicted on the World War II victory medal issued to US service members after the war. 

An Atlantic Theater bass relief scene depicting US paratroopers preparing to jump.

Aligned along the entry walkway are two series of bronze bass relief plaques rendering period images from the World War II era.  Scenes from the war in Europe are found on the north side, aligned to the Atlantic Pavilion. Scenes from the Pacific are found on the south side, aligned to the Pacific Pavilion. Depictions from both the battlefront and home front are included, showing the unity of the American people in the war effort. The last two plaques denote victory — U.S. and Russian soldiers linking up in Europe and civilians celebrating the end of the war in the Pacific.

While the memorial is meant to honor the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, there is a special section to honor the approximately 400,000 American servicemen and woman who died during the war. The Remembrance Wall on the western edge of the memorial is composed of over 4,048 gold stars on a blue background, each gold star representing 100 fallen service members. On either side of the Remembrance Wall are two small waterfalls which, along with the Rainbow Pool’s fountains, muffle the sounds of the many boisterous pedestrians, vehicles and overhead aircraft transiting the area. The cascading waters allow for quiet contemplation before this visual reminder of the price of war.

Over 4,000 Gold Stars adorn the Remembrance Wall. The tradition of displaying the Gold Star to mark the death of a US service member goes back to World War I.

Naturally, the process to build the memorial was not without some contention. While there was a sense of urgency among some, there were also objections raised to the memorial’s prominent location on the National Mall, its design, and the accelerated approval and construction timeline. (Congress exempted the World War II Memorial from certain legal requirements other groups needed to follow out of concern for the aging World War II veterans.) Despite these controversies, today the World War II Memorial is one of Washington’s most visited sites. The National Park Service estimates the memorial drew about 4.8 million people in 2018. 

A bouquet left at the memorial in memory of a World War II veteran.

The memorial has even spawned a nationwide organization known as the Honor Flight Network, dedicated to transporting veterans from around the country to Washington DC to see those memorials dedicated to their service and sacrifice. Since 2005, the Honor Flight Network has transported over 220,000 veterans, along with 163,000 escorts, to Washington. The memorial draws many other organized visits by veterans groups and survivors organizations leading to emotional reunions and the presentations of long overdue awards such as this one recently recounted in the Washington Post. Events such as this, as well as the many wreathes, flowers, notes, pictures, and other mementoes left at the Memorial are testament to its effect as being a meaningful tribute to the legacy of our WWII generation.

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Computer Registry 

Adjoining the Memorial is a small National Park Service building with computer kiosks where the visitors can access the Registry of Remembrances, an unofficial compilation of names, units and events entered by members of the public to honor US service members who helped to win the Second World War. More information on the registry and how to enter information about someone you know can be found here. 

Route Recon

The World War II Memorial is located at 1750 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C., near the intersection of 17th Street and Independence Avenue. Very limited parking is available on West Basin Drive, on Ohio Drive SW, and at the Tidal Basin parking lot along Maine Ave., SW.  

A better option to access the National Mall is the Washington Metro System. The nearest station for the World War II Memorial as well as the Washington Monument is Smithsonian Station. Use the Mall Exit when leaving the station.

Two images of Kilroy are hidden within the World War II Memorial. The Kilroy image was widely drawn by American servicemen in both theaters. See if you can find Kilroy when you visit.

Can You Read the Writing on the Wall?

Upon hearing the word graffiti, spray painted tags, stencils, or other designs on buildings, overpasses and other fixtures might come to mind.

At Historic Blenheim in Fairfax, Virginia, however, researchers study a very different type of graffiti.  These graffiti were written in graphite, crayon and charcoal by Union soldiers over one hundred years ago. The graffiti and the stories of the soldiers who wrote them provide insight into the lives of the Union Army recruits who early on answered the call to fight to preserve the Union.

Historic Blenheim | Fairfax Virginia | Civil War Graffiti | Travel Objective DC
In addition to their names and units, soldiers also made drawings. Ships such as this one were common. 

The centerpiece of Historic Blenheim is a brick farmhouse, built by Albert and Mary Wilcoxon on their a 300+ acre farm near what was then known as the village of Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia, about 17 miles west of Washington, DC The house was built around 1859 on the site of their previous home which had been destroyed by fire. 

Historic Blenheim | Fairfax County Virginia | Civil War site | Military tourism | Travel Objective DC
The Farmhouse at Historic Blenheim

In July of 1861, an article in the Richmond Dispatch described how Union soldiers, en route to Manassas, vandalized the home, breaking windows, tearing doors off hinges and destroying furniture. Those Union soldiers moved on and Confederate forces held the area until March of 1862, when they evacuated toward Richmond.

Once the Southern troops withdrew, the Army of the Potomac moved from Washington, DC to occupy parts of Northern Virginia, including Fairfax Courthouse.  The Wilcoxon’s, who favored succession, departed their home and resided elsewhere in the area sometime between July 1861 and March 1863.

Vase on display from Historic Blenheim Civil War site in Fairfax Virginia
A vase by the dining room fireplace.

During the Civil War, as in many wars, disease killed more soldiers than combat. Poor sanitation, inadequate nutrition, contaminated water, cramped living conditions, a limited understanding of germs, and other factors all contributed to an environment rife with disease. Illnesses such as dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia, and tuberculosis were common and deadly for Civil War soldiers.

As a sturdy structure near strategic thoroughfares, the Wilcoxon house and farm soon became a hospital for Union soldiers diagnosed with diseases and other inhibiting ailments, rather than combat wounds.  Many were housed in tents in the surrounding fields. The more seriously ill were quartered in the house. 

Historic Blenheim in Fairfax Virginia was used by the Union Army as a hospital for soldiers during the Civil War
The first floor parlor fireplace with period medicine bottles and crutches.

The first soldiers convalescing in the Wilcoxon house found three floors of pristine plaster walls. Since the house was new, the plaster had not yet cured and the walls were neither painted nor wall papered. Soldiers quickly began writing their names, units, dates, and adding drawings, doodles, sketches and other decorations. 

Drawing of a ship by Civil War soldier | Northern Virginia Civil War Graffiti Trail | Military tourism | Fairfax Virginia
Ships, buildings and aspects of military life were all common subjects for soldiers’ drawing. 
Northern Virginia Civil War Graffiti Trail | Historic Blenheim | Drawing of a soldier by a Civil War soldier

The first dates written by soldiers on the house’s walls were in March 1862. Soldiers were on the Wilcoxon farm through mid-1863.  The family returned to the home around September 1863, after Albert Wilcoxon signed an “Oath of Allegiance” to the United States.  The Wilcoxons returned the farm to working order.  Although the family would paint and paper the walls on the first and second floors of their home several times through the years, none of the four generations that lived in the house ever covered or altered the attic graffiti.

Today, the property is known as Historic Blenheim and the Civil War Interpretive Center. Visitors can tour the first floor of the Greek revival farm house and see the recovered writings and some of the preservation work underway. Paper and paint have been carefully removed from the walls and the floors reinforced to protect the structural integrity of the house.  

Unfortunately, the second floor and the attic are not open to the public, but the nearby Interpretive Center does have a life size replica of the attic so visitors can get a closer look at the attic drawings. The Interpretive Center also has information about the soldiers and units who passed through Blenheim, additional background on the Wilcoxon family and a small gift shop.  

The Interpretive Center at Blenheim | Civil War history | Fairfax Virginia | Travel Objective DC
The Interpretive Center at Blenheim. It’s design suggests Blenheim’s agricultural past. 

The center’s staff have identified 122 individual soldiers from 23 different units who wrote graffiti on the Blenheim walls. Reviews of military records provide an overview of the men. As a group, the average age was 25. About 45% were foreign born, mostly from present day Germany. Farming was their predominate occupation.

Blenheim researchers though have combed through military, pension and other government records and worked with local historical and genealogical societies to assemble more intimate portraits of many of these men. One is Charles Schlingermann of the 58th New York Infantry Regiment. A native of Prussia, he enlisted in September 1861 at the age of 19. He had only been in America about three months. He died of his wounds following the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862 and is buried on the grounds of the Old Soldiers’ Home in Washington, DC. 

Civil War graffiti | 58th New York Volunteers | Fairfax VA | military tourism | Travel Objective DC

Another is Charles H. Johnson, of the 1st Michigan Calvary Regiment. He was 19 years old when he wrote on the attic walls on June 20, 1863. He survived service at Gettysburg and the remainder of the war to reenlist in the Veterans Volunteers of the 1st Michigan Cavalry. He served at Fort Laramie during the Indian Campaign.

He left the Army in 1866 and returned to Michigan where he married and raised his family. After his wife’s death, he moved to San Jose, California to live with his daughter until his death in 1924. He was a prolific letter writer during his military service; his many letters home are now archived at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Civil War soldier signature on the wall at Historic Blenheim | Fairfax VA | Travel Objective DC | 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteers
Researchers are working to identify another soldier’s signature using acetate to trace the signature in order to see it more clearly. This soldier was a member of Company B, 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry. 

A visit to Blenheim provides a unique Civil War historical experience. It is not a battlefield, and not quite a memorial nor museum. The names on the wall take on a new significance when written by the hand of the soldier. As a preservation project, Blenheim takes its visitors past the odd fact and footnote and literally introduces them to the personal legacy of the soldiers who passed through over a century ago. 

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Civil War soldiers left their marks in other buildings as well. The Northern Virginia Civil War Graffiti Trail features six other Civil War era buildings where soldiers’ writings have been preserved.   

ROUTE RECON

Historic Blenheim and the Civil War Interpretive Center are located at 3610 Old Lee Highway, Fairfax, Virginia, 22030 The operating days and hours are  1000 – 1500 Tuesday – Saturday. The historic house tour is held once each day at 1300. Call 703-591-0560 for more information. Historic Blenheim can be accessed by public transit. Take Metro’s Orange Line to the Vienna Metro Station. From the Station, take the CUE Gold Bus Route 11 toward George Mason University, stopping at Heritage Lane.


A Place to Pause and Ponder the Marks of War

One of Washington’s newest memorials is also one of its most unique. Dedicated by President Barak Obama on October 5, 2014, the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial (AVDLM) stands on a wedge-shaped piece of ground in Southwest Washington, D.C., an island of reverence floating amidst a busy bureaucratic sea.

Unlike other monuments found throughout Washington dedicated to individuals, military units or specific wars, this memorial is dedicated to all current and former members of the Armed Forces who have been changed physically or psychologically by war.

The AVDLM was the brainchild of Lois Pope, a Florida philanthropist who was inspired after meeting a disabled veteran at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1995 and realizing no similar monument exited for American service members disabled by war.


She would ultimately team up with then-U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown and Art Wilson, head of the Disabled American Veterans, to spearhead the effort. The three would encounter many challenges and hurdles in building this memorial before realizing their goal, not the least of which was the memorial’s location.

The 1986 Commemorative Works Act provided the National Capital Monuments Commission the authority to approve the sighting for all monuments and memorials on most Federally owned land.

During the review process, the commission found that the AVDLM did not reach the level of prominence necessary to afford it a space on the National Mall. While the AVLDM’s supporters were taken aback by the decision, they selected an alternate location one block south of the Mall, rather than risk a major delay in the project.

A view of the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory (and its reflection) from the memorial.

At first glance, the site might seem an odd location for such a monument. It lies between three busy streets–Washington Avenue, 2nd Street and C Street–amid interchange ramps for arterial highways and next to the Headquarters of the Department of Health and Human Services. The Rayburn House Office and other Federal office buildings spread out in the blocks around it. The massive Capitol Power Plant looms large to the south. Pedestrian and vehicle traffic can be heavy in the area.

The U.S. Capitol Dome and the Bartholdi Fountain are both visible from the AVDLM site. The memorial’s planners thought the close proximity of the memorial to the Capitol would remind Congress of their responsibilities regarding war and peace.

After numerous revisions, the final construct combined stone, water, fire, vegetation, and etched glass into multiple design elements which not only mark the physical and psychological impact of war on the veteran, but also the ability of that veteran to emerge from trauma and move forward toward recovery with courage and resolve.

The National Capital Planning Commission’s architectural drawing of the layout of the AVDLM’s final design.  National Capital Planning Commission (June 24, 2010). American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, …  NCPC File No. 6179 (Report). Washington, D.C.: National Capital Planning Commission.

The focal point of the memorial is a star-shaped fountain and triangular reflecting pool. At the center of the fountain is a flame produced by the ignition of gas bubbles floating up through the water. The flame of course recalls the sacrifice of wounded veterans and the effect of the flame rising out of the water is quite enthralling. (Unfortunately, during the colder weather months the fountain is drained and there is no flame).

Along the south side of the memorial (cleverly masking the power plant) are three walls composed of 48 glass panels where the true message of the AVDLM is found in etched images and inscriptions of wounded veterans discussing their duty, the impact of their wounds, what it took to recover, and how they moved forward.

The 18 quotes on the walls were selected from over 600 submitted anonymously to a design panel. Interspersed within the walls are four bronze silhouette sculptures which provide additional visual context to the disabled veteran’s path of pride in their service, trauma, recovery and finding new purpose.

Along the western side of the memorial are two large granite walls bearing two more quotes on the burdens of war and military service by George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Around the memorial are ginkgo and cypress trees and a variety of ornamental bushes and other plants, which add some greenery to the many stone and glass features. The ginkgo trees turn gold each November and will ultimately grow to form a canopy through the memorial.

A ginkgo tree silhouetted by the Department of Health and Human Services next to the memorial.
A bronze silhoutte sculpture within the glass wall.

Throughout the memorial plaza are a myriad of stone benches, inviting the visitor to sit and spend some time letting the memorial’s elements come together – the burning flame, the trickling water, the thoughts and images of the veterans, the names of Washington and Eisenhower, the Capitol Dome, even the traffic and people passing by – to remind us all that the wounded warrior is much more than the wound.

Disability does not define the disabled veteran.

If you cannot come to Washington DC to visit the AVDLM in person, click here for a virtual tour or check out the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial website for a video montage and information about the memorial’s planning and construction.

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The Census Bureau estimates there are approximately 4 million disabled veterans living in the United States today. If after your physical or virtual visit to the AVDLM, you want to lend some of them a hand, there are many organizations who are looking for volunteers with a wide variety of skills to assist in providing professional services, home improvement help, advocacy, fundraising and many other areas.

A few examples include:

  • The Disabled American Veterans (DAV) organization offers a variety of services to disabled veterans and their families and has many volunteer opportunities.
  • The Fisher House Foundation has a network of homes on the grounds of military and VA hospitals for visiting family members of hospitalized service members and veterans. Fisher House operates the Hero Miles Program, using donated frequent flier miles to bring family members to the hospitals for visits.
  • Building Homes for Heroes builds specially modified homes for disabled veterans that help them live independently. The homes are provided at no cost to the veterans.

ROUTE RECON

The AVDLM is located southwest of the U.S. Capitol and south of the U.S. Botanic Gardens. The Street address is 150 Washington Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20024. The memorial is accessible from the Capitol South and Federal Center Southwest Metro Stations (on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines).  There is very limited street parking in the immediate area.

MESS CALL

There are a number of eating establishments in the blocs to the west of the AVDLM. One locally owned favorite is the 2 Sisters Deli at 400 C Street SW. The deli features tasty and generously sized sandwiches at a reasonable (for DC anyway) price. And the staff is friendly.