ECW Weekender: National Museum of the United States Army

Today’s ECW Weekender highlights a new museum that most of our readers have yet to see. Originally set to open in June 2020, COVID-19 delayed the National Museum of the United States Army’s plan. It opened on November 11 that year, only to close to the public as the pandemic worsened. Now, however, it is ready for visitation, though you need to set up a (free) timed entry ticket on their website prior to your visit. The sizeable 185,000 square foot museum includes many aspects of the Army’s storied history, including the “Preserving the Nation” gallery, exploring 1846-1891. Highlighting the stories of both famous and unknown soldiers alike, this museum is a long-overdue opportunity to explore the institution’s role in the country’s history.

I personally enjoyed the museum’s dedication to not only showing the well-known names of the war but also to present lesser-known stories. For example, the artillery piece that forms the centerpiece does not depict Alonzo Cushing repulsing Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg (though he does have a large section in the Medal of Honor gallery), but rather Bayard Wilkeson’s battery on the first day of the battle. A mannequin adorned in the uniform of the 2nd NJ Infantry stands ready to launch an attack on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg but is set for the second battle there in May 1863. Dozens of images, artifacts, and biographies of common soldiers adorned the displays, including period images blown up to larger-than-life size. Of course, artifacts such as Henry Halleck’s dress hat remind visitors of famous figures and interactive screens outline the wider battle histories. It does a great job of introducing wider strategies used during the war while also making the story personal through individual narratives. Be sure to catch the film on US strategy placed inside a theatre area set to evoke Massaponax Church from the famous image of Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters.

Henry Halleck’s dress hat.
Cobra King, one of the first tanks to break through German lines at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

Beyond the Civil War, the museum has further exhibits that highlight incredible artifacts, including an American tank used during the Meuse-Argonne, a landing craft used at Normandy, helicopters from the Cold War era, and a piece of the Blackhawk famously shot down in Somalia in 1993. Each other section is as well done as the Civil War, and the increased inclusion of technology, period images, video, and veteran narratives as you near modern day is impressive. Though I did not try them out, it also boasts virtual reality experiences.

The special exhibition gallery on “The Art of Soldiering” includes this impressive model of winter quarters created by a Civil War soldier as he recovered in a hospital.

The museum is not perfect – I’ll admit there are a few vague artifact labels, inconsistencies, and minor nit-picky inaccuracies in text of labels or on reproduction objects that a more knowledgeable visitor may notice, but these can be fixed in the future. Nevertheless, the big picture of the museum is clear and thematic. It’s well worth your time but be sure to allocate plenty of it! I arrived at 9:30am and after seeing the film, spending time in each permanent gallery, and exploring the temporary galleries on soldier art and the Nisei Soldier Experience, I didn’t leave until 1:30PM when I had to get going elsewhere.

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