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. 

* * *

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.

Happy 75th Birthday Pentagon!

The Puzzle Palace, Fort Fumble, the Big Spoke, Bat Cave on the Basin, the Concrete Carousel.

The world’s most famous five sided building has many nicknames, but the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense is more simply known as the Pentagon.

1 Pentagon Aerial View
Overhead view of the Pentagon 2008 Photo by David Gleason from Chicago, IL. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

2018 marks the 75th anniversary of this iconic Washington, DC landmark.

In the late 1930’s, as the world edged closer to war, Secretary of War Henry Stimson and War Department leaders knew they needed a new building to house the department’s expanding workforce. At that time, employees were scattered in multiple buildings around the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.

2 Munitions and Main Navy Buildings
An overhead view of the Main Navy and Munitions Buildings.  Built at the beginning of World War I, these buildings housed a large number of War and Navy Department workers. The buildings were located on the Mall in the vicinity of the current Viet Nam Memorial. The buildings were demolished in 1970. Photo: Histories of the National Mall, accessed 25 January 2018, http://mallhistory.org/items/show/57.

Designing and planning the new building began in earnest in 1940, with two proposed sites selected in Arlington, Virginia, just over the Potomac River from Washington. The first proposed site was the U.S.Department of Agriculture’s Arlington Experimental Farm. The other was Hoover Field, an early Washington area commercial airport. The Pentagon owes its particular five-sided shape to the irregular layout of the experimental farm location. The unique design of five pentagons nested together connected by radiating hallways allowed planners to maximize the structure’s available work space.

3 Pentagon Ramps
Pentagon concourse in 1944. In order to save steel, building designers used concrete ramps, rather than elevators, for workers to move floor to floor. Photo: U.S. War Department

Ultimately, the Hoover Field site was selected over the farm location, but the five-sided design was kept. The building was to be made of concrete, to minimize the need for steel, which was needed for war production. Limestone facades over the concrete completed the neoclassical look of the Pentagon we know today.

The final contracts were signed and ground was immediately broken on September 11, 1941. The attack on Pearl Harbor three months later only added to the urgency to complete the Pentagon’s construction, which took just sixteen months. When construction was completed on January 15, 1943, some War Department workers had already moved in.

The Pentagon was the headquarters for the War Department from 1943 through 1947, when the National Security Act formally established the Department of Defense (DoD). Then the Pentagon became the headquarters for this new department as well as for each of the armed services. As the size, budget and influence of the military grew during the Cold War, the term “the Pentagon” would become synonymous with the DoD and American military bureaucracy, with all of its successes and excesses, strengths and weaknesses, victories and mistakes.

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Members of the general public have been able to tour the Pentagon since 1976, when the tour program was implemented as part of America’s bicentennial. Today Pentagon tours are still available, but they do require some planning ahead.

Tours are by reservation only, which can be made by visiting the Pentagon Tours website. Reservations must be made at least two weeks before the tour date. The DoD is very careful about who is allowed into their headquarters so follow all the instructions on the website carefully.

On the day of the tour, arrive at the Pentagon Visitor Center (near the entrance to the Pentagon Metro Station) with sufficient time to clear an airport style security checkpoint. The Pentagon tours website recommends arriving one hour ahead of time.

After clearing security, there is a waiting area, also used by other Pentagon visitors. The waiting area has a gift shop with the expected collection of hats, key chains, post cards and other trinkets with Pentagon or military service themes. (If something catches your eye, be sure to buy it before the tour begins as you will not pass by the gift shop again). There is also a mockup Pentagon briefing podium and backdrop for taking selfies or group photos, sure to impress friends and family.4 Pentagon Podium

Tours are led by junior enlisted service members. One cannot help but feel a bit of pride in these young men and women, dressed in their class A uniforms with crisp creases and polished brass. Guides are selected from the military services various honor guard units stationed in the area. One guide confided it is a good job to have, working in a climate controlled building with weekends and holidays off. The biggest challenge he said was memorizing all the facts and walking backwards for most of the mile-long tour.

As one of the world’s largest office buildings, the guide had many facts about the Pentagon to share. They are recited effortlessly, with machine gun-like repetition. The Pentagon is five stories tall, with an additional two stories underground and covers 28.7 acres. Today there are over 17 miles of corridors, 54 escalators, 70 elevators, 131 stairways, 284 restrooms, 8,979 parking spaces, 16,250 lighting fixtures and 26,000 employees.

The tour followed the guide up one of the 54 escalators to the Pentagon’s extensive retail area. The original building designers wisely included extensive retail space so workers would not have to leave the building for common necessities. Today the Pentagon’s  workers can visit about 20 fast food restaurants, three banks, a clothing store, drug store, barber shop, hair salon, dry cleaners, jewelers, post office, vision center, even an office of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

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The displays in the ANZUS Corridor, on the Pentagon’s second floor, commemorate the 1951 Security treaty between Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

But the tour is more than just facts, figures and shopping. Many Pentagon corridors have special defense-related themes with museum quality displays. However, the tour is only about 60 minutes long. While the tour group keeps moving most of that time, the size of the building makes it impossible to see every special exhibit in that amount of time. The tour planners though selected a route that allows the guides to broadly focus on the missions of the U.S. Armed Forces and their storied pasts.

The center piece of the Air Force displays is a series of scale models of Air Force aircraft, past and present. After the guide discussed the size of the C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft, the capabilities of the F-22 Raptor fighter and the stealthiness of the B-2 Spirit bomber, he pointed out his favorite aircraft, the Waco CG-4A Combat Glider.

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A Waco CG-4A-GN (45-27948) Combat Glider on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force  Photo: U.S. Air Force

The guide explained how the gliders saw service during World War II. The light bodied aircraft earned the nickname “the Flying Coffin” due to their precarious mission of flying unarmed while carrying troops and equipment deep behind enemy lines as a precursor to invasions and large advances. Gliders and their crews served with distinction in Sicily, Burma, Normandy, Southern France and Bastogne among other places.

Somewhat surprisingly, the tour next passed the displays of the United States Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is a component of the Department of Homeland Security, not the DoD. But at several times through its history, especially during wartime, the Coast Guard has served as part of the Navy. The displays trace the Coast Guard’s history from its forerunners first establishment in 1790 as the Revenue Cutter Service. Naval aviation followed the Coast Guard, then a corridor dedicated to Dwight D. Eisenhower represented the Army.

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Inside the Pentagon’s interior 9/11 Memorial. Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

The one stop the tour does make is at Pentagon’s interior 9/11 Memorial. The memorial is located on the first floor of the outer ring, in the area struck by American Airlines Flight 77. The walls of the memorial feature a textured metallic finish with black stone tablets recognizing the sacrifices made that day, commemorating the names of those who died and detailing the medals awarded to the military and civilian casualties. Adjoining the memorial is the Pentagon Memorial Chapel, which opened in 2002.

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The Secretary of Defense Medal for the Defense of Freedom was established after the 9/11 attacks for civilian employees of the DoD killed or wounded in the line of duty.

The corridor leading to the memorial and chapel has one of the Pentagon’s most unique displays, the Pentagon Memorial Quilts. In the months and years after the attack, individuals and groups from across the United States (and some foreign countries as well) sewed then donated quilts to the Pentagon to mark the tragedy and aid in recovery. The quilts reflect a variety of themes but most reflect patriotism, loss, memorializing the fallen, gratitude for the responders and support for the military. There are about 120 quilts in the collection. Around fifty are displayed at the Pentagon with others rotated and loaned for display in communities and military facilities around the world.

Because of the security precautions, visiting the Pentagon takes a special effort, but it is well worth it. The Pentagon’s size, shape and mission certainly make it a unique location to visit. But walking its hallways, hearing its history, seeing its occupants walk briskly about, and seeing the exhibits remind us all of what it takes to serve.

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Route Recon

The best way to reach the Pentagon is by taking the Metro Rail system. There is a Metro station at the Pentagon, served by the Blue and Yellow lines.  As you exit the metro gates, make a left and proceed up the escalator. The Pentagon Visitors’ Center will be on your right.

There is NO public parking at the Pentagon. If traveling by car, park in the parking garage at the Pentagon City Mall. The Pentagon is about a 10-minute walk away. After exiting the parking garage or mall, cross Army-Navy drive and take a pedestrian tunnel  over to the Pentagon. When you exit the tunnel, follow signs for the Metro, which will lead you to the Pentagon Visitor’s Center. Visit the Pentagon Tours website for more information.

Mess Call

There is no eating during the Pentagon tour and unless you have an escort, you will not be able to visit any of the Pentagon’s eating establishments. The nearby Pentagon City Mall and neighborhood have a wide variety of dining options

Serving with Paint, Paper and Pencils

Weapon? – Check!

Gas Mask? – Check!

Paint Brush? – Check!

Sketch Book? – Wait! WHAT???

Paint brushes, sketch books and charcoal pencils are usually thought of as implements of art, not of war. But a very special exhibit of combat art from World War I currently hosted at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum demonstrates how they can be both. The exhibit, entitled Artist Soldiers, is a collaboration between the Air and Space Museum and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

While art depicting combat has been around probably as long as there has been combat, what makes this exhibit unique is the featured artists.

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Battle of the Marne by Harvey Dunn; Watercolor and Pastel on Paper, 1918

Shortly after the U.S. entered World War I, military policymakers decided to recruit artists directly into the Army, due in part to similar British and French programs. Visual images in posters, newspapers and magazines would be important for maintaining the morale and support of the American public. British and French military artists had generated some impressive work for their governments in this regard.

The task of recommending specific artists for this duty fell to Charles Dana Gibson, an accomplished artist and illustrator who headed the Division of Pictorial Publicity of the Committee on Public Information. Gibson recommended illustrators, artists who can usually draw or sketch quickly, an important skill for someone working in combat.

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Helping A Wounded Ally by Harvey Everett Townsend; Charcoal on Paper, 1918

In early 1918, eight of these successful commercial artists were commissioned as Reserve captains in the Corps of Engineers and assigned to the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).

It was the first time the War Department incorporated artists directly into the Army’s ranks and sent them into combat areas for the expressed purpose of “making a complete pictorial record of the American Army’s participation in the war”.

Many of the artists already knew each other before arriving in France with the AEF, having studied at the same art schools such as the Art Institute of Chicago or the Art Students League in New York.

The eight artist-soldiers were:

William James Aylward – A successful book, magazine, and advertising illustrator, he grew up around docks and often portrayed maritime subjects. As a combat artist, he focused on ports, of course, but also landscapes.

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Unloading Ships at Bassen Docks by William Aylward; Charcoal and Gouache on Paper, 1919

Walter Jack Duncan – Also a noted illustrator before the war, he often depicted the soldier’s life in rear areas.

George Matthews Harding – During World War I, Harding produced combat scenes incorporating many new technologies introduced in World War I, such as aircraft and tanks. Harding would serve as an official combat artist again during World War II.

Wallace Morgan – Prior to the war, Morgan worked for many of the major magazines of the day, such as Colliers’ and the Saturday Evening Post. He was especially well known for his black and white drawings.

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Tressing Nets for Artillery Emplacements by Ernest Peixotto; Pen and Ink Wash and Charcoal on Paper, 1918

Ernest Clifford Peixotto – The “old man’ of the group at 48 upon his commissioning, Peixotto worked in France, painting landscapes and illustrating travel books prior to the war. Peixotto stayed in France for several years after the armistice. He taught art in an AEF’s educational program for soldiers remaining in Europe.

J. Andre Smith – Trained in architecture, he actually preferred to draw and etch. Smith was the only one of the artists who received military training before he deployed, having served briefly in a camouflage unit. He also became the group’s commanding officer.

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Band concert at Neufchatel by J. Andre Smith; Watercolor and Charcoal on Paper, 1918

Harry Everett Townsend – He returned to the U.S. from Europe in 1914 to draw war posters, then volunteered for Army service. Townsend lost a brother early in the war in a plane crash. He focused much of his work on aviation and other new technologies. Townsend later worked at the Paris Peace conference and taught art at the AEF’s training center.

Harvey Thomas Dunn – He was a daring combat artist who usually worked in close proximity to the front lines.

Upon arriving in France in May 1918, the artists were assigned to the AEF Intelligence Section, Press and Censorship Division. For several weeks after their deployment–as U.S. forces continued to drill and train for combat missions–the artists oriented themselves to Army life, toured the battlefields, and prepared themselves for what was to come.

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The Morning Wash Up Neufmaison by Wallace Morgan; Charcoal on Paper, 1918

They established a studio in the French town of Neufchateau, halfway between the AEF’s Headquarters and the front. There they could complete or refine their drawings into finished pieces. The artists were directed to submit their images to the War Department at the end of each month, along with a report on anticipated follow-on pieces.

Once deployed, they had the authority to move freely around both the forward and rear areas to do their work. While there is no record of any of the artists going “over the top”, they took their mission very seriously. They positioned themselves at the front, lived in the trenches, got wet in the rain, missed meals, and exposed themselves to enemy fire many times in order to do their work.

In the nine months of service with the AEF, the artist soldiers produced over 700 pieces. They drew, painted and sketched scenes from the front, rear areas, the use of new technologies, soldiers both on and off duty, landscapes, civilians, in short, all they were exposed to.

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Returning Refugees at Hattonchatel by William Aylward; Charcoal and Gouache on Paper, 1919

For all their efforts, however, the brass in Washington was not always happy with their work. While skillfully prepared, the pictures and their subject matter were not always easily transferred to home front use in boosting morale. But they do provide a challenging and thought-provoking contemporary rendering of the daily life of American soldiers and French civilians in 1918.

Following the war, all the artists continued their successful art careers. The War Department transferred about 500 of their works to the Smithsonian Institute which displayed them at various times through the 1920’s. Since then however, the paintings have not been exhibited very often, making this a rare opportunity to see a portion of these unique and historic works.

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American Artillery and Machine Guns by George Harding, Charcoal on Maison, 1918

An accompanying exhibit entitled Soldier Artists displays some impressive photography of stone carvings created by soldiers while living in the underground trenches, along with other World War I period artifacts from the Smithsonian collections.

Both exhibits are currently on display until November 2018.

While you are at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, be sure to visit the permanent exhibit on World War I combat aviation.

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ROUTE RECON

The NASM is located at the intersection of Independence Avenue and 6th Street, Southwest. There is no onsite parking, but there are several commercial lots nearby. The nearest Washington Metro stations are the L’Enfant Plaza Station on the Yellow and Green Lines and the Smithsonian Station on the Blue and Orange lines. Both stations are about a two block walk to the NASM.

MESS CALL

The Wright Place Food Court offers a variety of fast food meal options from Boston Market, Donatos Pizza and McDonald’s.

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Featured Image: The Prisoner by Harvey Dunn, Oil on Canvas, 1918