Learning History and Paying Respect
Military Museums, Parks, and Memorials
May 14, 2014 by Mark Dye
The USS Constellation is one of several historical military ships you can visit while in Baltimore.
America has a long and rich military history spanning more than two centuries, and much of it has been captured and collected in numerous museums, parks, and monuments. From the famed Mall in Washington, D.C., to the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, they literally span from one corner of the nation to the other. Below are just a few of them. (And note that most fee-based attractions and parks run by the National Park Service are free for service members and their families. The National Park Service website has more information.)
Visitors to Valley Forge National Park can see firsthand where George Washington and his troops spent the winter of 1777-1778.
It was December 1777, when George Washington and his troops arrived at Valley Forge poorly equipped, barely trained, and intensely tired. They spent the winter learning tactics and regaining their fighting spirit and came out ready for whatever came their way. This National Historic Park lets visitors relive some of that history, and even offers biking and hiking trails through the surrounding area. As a bonus, it’s free of charge. Website.
“Old Ironsides” is one of the most famous ships in American history. It was “undefeated” in battle, including sinking four British ships during the War of 1812. Visitors in Boston can tour the ship free of charge, or visit the museum located just yards away and see what life was like for sailors in that era—from the hardtack they ate to the grog they drank to the 200-foot tall mast they climbed.
The list of Civil War-related attractions is quite extensive, and any state involved in the conflict has something to honor those who fought and died. You have battlefields such as Wilson’s Creek in southern Missouri, site of the first battle west of the Mississippi River, and Vicksburg in Mississippi, home of the largest Union cemetery (some 17,000 soldiers and sailors are interred). Then you have military installations such as Fort Sumter in South Carolina, where the war began—it is easily one of the most popular Civil War sites in the country. There is also Gettysburg, Penn., where President Lincoln gave one of the most memorable speeches in American history, and Appomattox Courthouse, where the war officially ended. These and so many others are well worth the visit.
Visitors to the WWI Museum in Kansas City enter using the Paul Sunderland Glass Bridge, which crosses over a symbolic poppy field from the Western Front. There are 9,000 flowers: one for every 1,000 people who died in the war.
The War to End All Wars
World War I may have been fought on the fields of Europe, but thousands of Americans gave their lives to the cause. The National WWI Museum in Kansas City, Mo., was conceived in 1919 and built thanks to more than $2.5 million that was raised in just 10 days (the equivalent of $34 million in today’s dollars!). Dedicated in 1921, and having gone through an amazing remodel in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it offers some impressive displays, including a life-size re-creation of the trenches used in the war, as well as numerous artifacts and equipment. Website.
Each branch or its academy has a special museum honoring those who have served in their ranks. There is the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va.; the West Point Museum in upstate New York; the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Md.; and the National Museum of the Air Force located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside of Dayton, Ohio. (Note that, except for the Museum of the Marine Corps, you will need a valid government ID to be admitted to these, as they are located on military installations.)
The Rosie the Riveter Memorial in Richmond, Calif., honors the millions of women who were crucial to the Allies winning World War II.
Honoring those who served
Some individuals or groups have had a major impact throughout our nation’s history, and there are many places dedicated to them from coast to coast. Whether it’s a famous military figure such as Gen. George Patton, barrier breakers like African American military personnel or “Rosie the Riveter,” or a specific division such as the 82nd Airborne, there is no shortage of ways to learn more about those who helped shape our country’s military future. Most are run by not-for-profit organizations that rely on the support of visitors to stay open, so check them out!
If you’re into heavily armored machines, then the American Armored Foundation Tank Museum is for you. Located a bit out of the way in Danville, Va., it has a good collection of American tanks. Visitors should note that their hours are a bit limited, and the building is neither heated nor cooled, so keep all of that in mind when scheduling a visit. If you prefer things that fly, then you should try either The Museum of Flight in Seattle—having been there, I can assure you that it is truly impressive—or the National Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla. And for those who have a love of the open sea, Baltimore, Md., has numerous famous and historic ships you can visit, including the USCGC Taney, a Coast Guard cutter and survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
No matter what era you’re interested in or where you live in the country, there is definitely a military museum, park, or memorial close to you. And with May being Military Appreciation Month, now is a great time to pay them a visit!