Remembering the Powerful and the Poignant

The new 185,000-square-foot, stainless steel-clad National Museum of the U.S. Army at Fort Belvoir, opening on November 11, will celebrate the American soldier through exhibits of the powerful and the poignant.

National Army Museum documents vital contributions throughout U.S. history

The Captain Rocky Versace Plaza and Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Plaza at Mount Vernon Recreation Center is dedicated to 67 Alexandrians killed or still MIA from the Vietnam conflict. Captain Versace was captured by the Viet Cong in 1963, held captive for
two years, then executed in 1965. In captivity, Rocky was fiercely defiant, but had an endearing way with village children. This statue depicts him playing ball with two Vietnamese children. (Sculpture: Antonio Tobias Mendez; photo: Kelly MacConomy)

Alexandria, VA – The new 185,000-square-foot, stainless steel-clad National Museum of the U.S. Army at Fort Belvoir, opening on November 11, will celebrate the American soldier through exhibits of the powerful and the poignant. It means to tell the complete story of the Army, not from military leaders’ perspectives, but through soldiers’ eyes, from Sherman tanks to military medicine, from Army brats to trench warfare, from machine guns to pigeons.

Pigeons? Mention the Army to most people and pigeons are unlikely to come to mind, but pigeons played a critical role in warfare during World Wars I and II. Pigeons carried messages in tiny capsules attached to their legs. The most famous war pigeon, Cher Ami, is credited with saving 197 soldiers’ lives in World War I and last year was awarded the Congressional Animals in War and Peace Medal of Bravery. The museum is displaying the Cher Ami’s French medal, the Croix de Guerre, which she received for delivering a message from the 77th Division’s “Lost Battalion.”

Tiles in the lobby floor depict the Department of the Army emblem.

Medals for Army pigeons are but one of the many tangible examples of the breadth, diversity, smarts, and skills of this Armed Services branch. With 1,389 micro and 19 macro artifacts, exhibits interpret historic battles, display massive military vehicles, and show off weapons. But this museum is about much more than the mechanics of war.

Under the theme “Service and Sacrifice,” it will relate the stories of more than 30 million men and women who have served since the Army’s founding in 1775. The museum is 12 miles south of the Mount Vernon Estate, which is fitting because George Washington was the successful commanding general of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War—the Father of the Army. The terrain on which the museum sits was part of the Fairfax family’s Belvoir plantation in Washington’s day.

For civilians, the museum experience is a history lesson, an eye opener for people who may still think of the Army as stiff-lipped, straight-backed men marching in formation or scrambling across a smoky battlefield with rifle in hand. Its exhibits, vignettes, artifacts, tableaus, stories, film, and art cover the Army’s broad reach, diverse talents, and noted accomplishments. Most of these artifacts have never before been seen by the public.

Pylons in marching formation, each with an individual soldier’s story.

The National Museum of the U.S. Army is a joint project of the Army and the Army Historical Foundation. Foundation president LTG Roger Schultz (USA-Ret.) says that the museum is “a steel-encased architectural marvel that outwardly and inwardly conveys the strength, durability, innovation, and distinguishing character of our American Army and its magnificent soldiers.”

What Visitors Will See and Do

In the 8,600-square-foot lobby, visitors are greeted by illuminated glass panels and streamers overhead that represent each of the Army’s 190 campaigns over more than 240 years. A wall of honor commemorates each battle. A series of galleries takes visitors through chapters of American history, starting with the founding of the Continental Army.

Through the Civil War and Grant’s strategy in the Preserving the Nation Gallery, visitors will move to the Nation Overseas, which explores the Army’s first venture onto the world stage. Exhibits include operations in China and the Spanish-American War, also along the Mexican-American border.

America’s World War I story is told through doughboy artifacts, personal stories, and a diorama of real war in the trenches. The World War I FT17, a French tank known as the Five of Hearts (with all 1,300 bullet holes) is on display.

A diorama of Americans chasing Germans soldiers in trench warfare during the World War I Meuse Argonne offensive

The Global War Gallery’s centerpiece is a 38-ton M4A3E2 Sherman Jumbo Tank and a landing craft that carried 36 soldiers at Normandy on D-Day, two macro artifacts that spotlight the Army’s role in the Allied victory in World War II. These vehicles are so large that they had to be put in place before the museum’s walls were built.

A Sherman tank, named the “Cobra King.”

The Changing World exhibit features technology and the evolving battlefields of places like Iraq and Afghanistan. A Bradley Fighting Vehicle that was used in Iraq and Kuwait is front and center.

Many stories are told through dioramas: Soldiers climbing down a cargo net into a landing craft on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Building the Panama Canal, where Major General George W. Goethals supervised construction of the 50-mile-long canal from 1907 to its completion in 1914.

A diorama of soldiers climbing from a ship down to a Higgins landing boat at Utah Beach, Normandy, France, on D-Day

And then there’s a photograph of Mutt, the French bulldog that carried cigarettes to troops on the frontlines during World War I. Mutt was wounded twice.

The museum’s state-of-the-art, surround sound theater presents an all-sensory, 12-minute film about Army values and battles. The ground rumbles when a tank rolls by and throbs when a helicopter flies over.

More than Combat

An Army and Society Gallery introduces the Army’s contributions to science, aviation, and technology, and explores how it has grappled with challenges like gender equity and racial integration.

Both professional and amateur artists are on display, e.g., a soldier’s sketches on his helmet. A video filmed at the Military Academy at West Point, New York, shows that it takes all night to make enough pancakes to feed 2,000 cadets breakfast. How the 1860s Signal Corps helped establish the science of meteorology and sent weather dispatches by telegraph.

For those wanting an interactive visit, the Experiential Learning Center “trains” visitors in several disciplines and, once they’ve mastered certain skills, they are instructed to complete their final “mission.” For example, on a humanitarian mission to rescue people trapped under earthquake debris, you need to learn the geography, how to identify injuries, steps to build a bridge, and how to get water to the victims. The point of these exercises is that the Army is about more than combat.

A tableaux of American soldiers in Afghanistan making contact with a drone.

Visitors needing a respite from all this activity will find tranquility in the outdoor Medal of Honor Garden, which emphasizes valor, gallantry, and intrepidity. Here rests a soldier’s cross—a rifle in a boot, topped with a helmet.

“This state-of-the art museum will engage visitors in the Army’s story, highlighting how the Army was at the birth of our nation over 240 years ago and how it continues to influence our everyday lives,” says museum director Tammy E. Call. “We can’t wait to welcome visitors from around the world to see it.”

How to Visit

The museum is located at 1775 Liberty Drive, Fort Belvoir, Virginia 22060, just off the Fairfax County Parkway between I-95 and U.S. 1. For information and directions, visit www.theNMUSA.org. The Fairfax County Connector bus route 334 goes to the museum from the Franconia-Springfield Metro station.

LTG. (ret) Roger C. Schultz, president of the Army Historical Foundation with a drawing of the outdoor gardens.

The November 11 invitation-only opening ceremony of Army leaders will be livestreamed. Check www.theNMUSA.org. After November 11, the museum will be open daily (except December 25), 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.. Entry is free, but requires reserved, timed-entry tickets.

The museum has over 300 volunteers and will accept more. Prospective volunteers must be interviewed and trained. Volunteers will greet visitors and give tours and talks, among other tasks. Visit armyhistory.org/museum-volunteers/ or call 800-506-2672.

The Army Historical Foundation is heading a fund-raising campaign for the $200 million building. For information or to donate, visit armyhistory.org/individual-giving-programs/.

Visitor experiences could vary depending on local, state and federal health and safety guidelines. The museum will update health and safety protocols regularly on the website, www.nmusa.org.

Veterans Day 2020

Most traditional Veterans Day events will not be held this year due to COVID-19 protocols. In a private ceremony, officials will lay a wreath at Alexandria National Cemetery. But while public gatherings are not scheduled, we can individually commemorate Alexandria’s long legacy of brave men and women who gave their lives for our country, for our city, and for all of us. The story started long ago.

The Army’s Civil War Legacy in Alexandria

Today two sites remind us of the U.S. Army’s presence in Alexandria during the Civil War, when Union troops occupied the city.

Fort Ward

Fort Ward, at today’s 4301 West Braddock Road, was a 35-acre installation built in 1861 by the Union Army’s Corps of Engineers. It included a five-acre fort with 36 gun emplacements, constructed on land owned by Phillip Hoof. Records show that at least 3,000 soldiers celebrated when construction was completed and 11 units rotated through.

In 1861, Confederate troops unexpectedly defeated the Union Army in the First Battle of Bull Run. President Abraham Lincoln, anticipating Confederate attacks, ordered that the nation’s capital be protected. Fort Ward was one of 68 forts and 93 batteries that Union forces built around Washington on strategic heights overlooking turnpikes, railroads, bridges, and shipping routes. The location of Fort Ward was chosen to guard the Leesburg and Alexandria Turnpike, now Route 7. It was named for Navy Commander James Harmon Ward, killed in 1861 at Mathias Point, King George, Virginia.

Around 90 percent of Fort Ward’s earthwork walls still stand and the Northwest Bastion has been restored. It is one of the best preserved forts of the Defenses of Washington. The completed ring of defenses made Washington, D.C., one of the world’s most fortified cities.

Alexandria National Cemetery

In 1862, the federal government established the Alexandria National Cemetery, located at today’s 1450 Wilkes Street, for Union troops who died in the city. It is one of the original national cemeteries. Known then as Soldiers’ Cemetery, at 5.5-acres, it filled up quickly, leading to the creation of Arlington National Cemetery.

Alexandria National Cemetery is the final resting place for 4,087 individuals, 3,991 of whom are known and 96 unknown. It was the first cemetery where White and Black soldiers were interred together, as ordered by the military in 1864.

Visitors enter through 1892 cast-iron gates decorated with military images to see tombstones, the Seneca sandstone superintendent’s lodge (1871), the tool house-comfort building (1887), and a monument dedicated to four Quartermaster Corps men who drowned in the Rappahannock River when pursuing Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. The cemetery closed to new interments in 1967.

Information Fort Ward, alexandriava.gov/FortWard. The site is open to the public, but the museum is closed.

Alexandria National Cemetery, www.nps.gov/nr/travel/national_cemeteries/virginia/Alexandria_National_Cemetery. The cemetery is open daily, sunrise to sunset. It is closed to new interments.

ICYMI: Honored at Last: Revolutionary War Patriots Remembered in Alexandria Graveside Event

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