U.S. Military Museums Across the World
America’s History Has Spawned Many Impressive Military Museums.
By Rich Grant
Senior Travel Writer
The United States has been at war or had military troops engaged in “harm’s way” for 227 out of the 245 years since 1776, or about 92 percent of the time. At first glance, that statement seems impossible. That would make America seem like one of the most war-like nations in all history.
But you have to remember the almost continuous warfare with Native Americans in the 19th century and the dozens of military interventions, “peace-keeping” missions, military outposts, and all the troops stationed at embassies around the world, not to mention troops engaged in occasional domestic violence, like the Civil War.
Put aside for a minute the motivations behind all these conflicts and one thing remains, a thought perhaps best expressed by Abraham Lincoln: “Honor to the soldier and sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country’s cause.
Honor, also, to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field and serves, as he best can, the same cause.” And, of course, honor to the women in both cases.
Interpreting the Battles
With so much history of warfare in this country, it is natural that there would also be museums to try to interpret what happened in these battles and engagements, why they happened, remember those who were in command, and most of all, honor those poor souls behind the guns, the men and women who just followed orders and bore the brunt of the fighting and casualties.
Perhaps through this remembrance, there are some lessons to learn for the future. We don’t seem, as a nation, to have learned many lessons yet, but there is always hope.
As we begin to end our longest war in history, the one in Afghanistan, here are some places to remember those Americans who have fought, for whatever reason, in the name of the United States. These represent only places I have visited and not a comprehensive list.
Located north of New York City at a strategic bend of the Hudson River, West Point was the most fortified position in the American Revolution and after the war became home to the U.S. Military Academy. Every inch of it is historic.
The entire military campus is more or less a museum because when the British army surrendered at Saratoga in 1777, the trophies and captured cannons from the battle were stored at West Point, and over the years since, other items captured in wars have been displayed here.
The official West Point Museum opened in 1854 and is the bucket list stop for all military buffs with pistols owned by George Washington, Napoleon, and Adolph Hitler; dioramas of famous battles; the “unused” backup shell of the second atomic bomb; and every type of gun, sword, and cannon known to warfare.
Some 75 percent of the generals in the Civil War on both sides went to West Point and were friends and classmates at the military academy here and the museum has such strange items as drawings done by Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman for their art classes. They were both very good artists.
The museum is outside the military academy and easily visited, but since 9-11, you can only enter the academy on guided tours.
However, it’s well worth it to see the beautiful views of the river, Trophy Point, where dozens of cannons captured in different wars are displayed.
They include George Custer’s grave (though how much of Custer was actually recovered from Little Big Horn and re-buried here is debatable).
To hear and see the history of this important fort, that ironically was commanded at different times by two American officers who would ultimately inflict tens of thousands of casualties on U.S. military forces: Benedict Arnold and Robert E. Lee.
The Smithsonian National Museum of American History and Washington DC
Someone arriving from another planet would have no problem understanding America’s long history with warfare and how this city and government center have become the headquarters for the largest military industry complex in earth’s history. Scratch a memorial or statue in the city and you will find someone connected to the military, a war or a violent death.
The Smithsonian is where many of the trophies and top military artifacts of the U.S. have ended up, from Abraham Lincoln’s hat to the chairs that Grant and Lee sat in at Appomattox. I have to say, on my last visit to the museum three years ago, the venerable museum was looking a bit tired and beat up.
I had just come from the Newseum (since closed for good) which had the suit that Will Farrell wore in the movie Anchorman. It was displayed with reverence in a revolving case with dramatic lighting and music. Even in the Smithsonian, Indiana Jones’ fedora and whip have a major presentation.
After that, to see George Washington’s uniform tucked away in a simple old display case, off in a dark corner with just a placard, was somewhat ironic. Of course, much of the museum’s collections have to be in dark areas to protect them from too much light. But this museum, though tired and often crowded, is a great place to start looking into America’s long, warlike history.
500,000 Demonstrators and Me
On my last visit, I was standing in the Vietnam exhibit, looking at a picture of the 500,000 demonstrators surrounding the Washington Monument at the May Day 1971 anti-war protests.
Somewhere, I was in that picture. A gentleman my age was next to me with probably his grandson, pointing out the names of helicopters and cannons used in the Vietnam war.
I was about to turn to him and say, “Thank you for your service,” when he pointed out to his grandson the infamous picture of Jane Fonda, sitting in an anti-aircraft gun in North Vietnam.
He said, “I hate that bitch and if I saw her today, I’d still want to kill her.”
I withdrew my hand and decided to move on. If there’s any wonder why we need to visit war museums in the United States and think about warfare, well, I thought, maybe this is why.
But I regretted not shaking his hand, and I still do.
There are so many reasons to tour this museum, perhaps the greatest museum I have ever visited.
But not the least is to discover how many African Americans have fought for American interests while being denied simple equality themselves back home.
No less an authority than Ulysses S. Grant said that the Civil War could not have been won without the 200,000 African Americans who bore arms for the Union.
From the Revolution (where more Blacks fought for the British than the colonists because the British offered freedom to their Black soldiers) to the Civil War, World War II and all modern wars, the contributions of African American soldiers is documented here.
If there’s a challenge, it’s that the museum is so large and so overwhelming and covers so much history, music, cultural history and more, that it is simply too much to see in a day. But from a plane of the World War II Tuskegee airmen to the Buffalo soldiers in the Indian Wars, to the pen Abraham Lincoln used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation to African American Medal of Honor winners to the 275,000 African American troops who fought in Vietnam to wars in the Middle East, the museum tells a story most Americans do not know. But they should.
Annapolis and the U.S. Naval Academy Museum
Annapolis is simply wonderful. Lump crab cakes, seagulls overhead, tall ships, old colonial architecture, dockside bars and the soft glow of gas lamps at twilight reflecting on brick sidewalks are just some of the charms. But not the least reason to visit here is the U.S. Naval Academy Museum.
Located on the beautiful Naval Academy campus, it follows the history of America’s fighting fleet from the Revolution to modern space endeavors. You can see the famous “Don’t Give Up the Ship” flag from the Battle of Lake Erie and the largest collection of model ships in North America.
A short stroll away is the Crypt of John Paul Jones, a truly bizarre monument that looks like something from the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. Jones, the “father of the navy” and hero of the American Revolution, was originally buried in France, but his remains were moved here in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt.
The crypt says a lot more about 1906 fashions than it does about Jones. It is simply bizarre. And somewhat embarrassing. It looks more appropriate for a Pharaoh than for Jones, who was a scrapper, possibly a pirate and an absolute terror in battle.
Jones wasn’t even his name. He added it after his real name, “John Paul,” after he killed a sailor in a mutiny and (though justified) didn’t want to face trial. He’s most famous for his battle against a British frigate where with half his crew killed or wounded and his own ship sinking, he was asked to surrender. Jones yelled back, “I have not yet begun to fight!”
Like West Point, the Naval Academy campus is littered with trophy cannons captured in war, and if you get up early, you can watch a thousand cadets march to breakfast with a band playing during a flag-raising ceremony. I was the only spectator there one summer morning in 2019.
The Naval Academy museum does a good job of pointing out that in a ground army fighting on land, many of the troops are behind the lines serving as cooks, headquarters staff, operating depots of food and ammunition or working in communication and equipment centers. When a ship is in battle, everyone is committed.
This is their home. They are all literally in the same boat fighting for their lives. The horror of a battle on a ship at sea is well communicated at the museum. So is the commitment made by thousands of young Americans attending the academy.
This is the most immersive of all the military museums, using super-realistic, life-size dioramas with noise, lighting, and hot and cold air to bring you into a battlefield filled with real tanks, weapons and helicopters. The dioramas fill you with the carnage — and courage — experienced in battle.
The Marines started as soldiers assigned to ships, and you follow them through 240 years of warfare, walking through a timeline of seven galleries. Originally, through the Civil War, the Marines played a fairly minor role in the military, but that changes when you enter a diorama of the French countryside, of all places. Here on June 6, 1918, during World War I, the Marines in the Belleau Wood suffered more casualties in one day than in the previous 143 years.
In World War II, the Marines took on a new mission: amphibious assault. Dioramas depict the sheer horror of beach landings in the Pacific, while genuine artifacts include the 2nd flag raised over Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi, where 6,000 Marines were killed.
In a Korean War diorama, you feel the cold of fighting in the mountains, and in the Vietnam dioramas, you feel the confusion of fighting in places most people have never heard of, while bullets whiz by and explosions and shouted commands surround you in hellholes like Howard’s Hill, Marble Mountain, Quang Nam, Khe Sanh, and Dong Ha.
Future plans call for new exhibits to explore the role the Marines have played in the War on Terror and other interventions. When you leave, you will know the meaning of the Marines’ motto, Semper Fidelis. “Always Faithful.”
There are so many superlatives surrounding Gettysburg that it’s hard to know where to begin. It was the largest battle in American history with the most casualties. During the battle, the largest artillery bombard in the history of North America took place, as did one of the largest and most disastrous military charges of all time.
Gettysburg is, of course, the most visited battlefield in America. It has the highest number of stone monuments and memorials of any single place in the world. You can tour the battlefield individually or in small groups led by 150 national park licensed guides, all of whom have spent years studying every detail of the conflict.
You can go through the rolling hills and farms of this 17-square-mile park by bike, horse, plane, automobile, bus, Segway, moped or of course by foot. Whichever way you go, you will be transported to a 19th-century landscape, covered with 370 historic cannons, 1,328 monuments, and 200 miles of rail and stone fences.
There are really only two common-sense rules: Before visiting Gettysburg you should read the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Killer Angeles, by Michael Shaara.
There are 60,000 books on the Civil War, hundreds of them just on Gettysburg, but this book is the one “must-read.” There’s hardly a bookstore anywhere in America that won’t have a copy.
Scratch a Civil War historian, from Ken Burns to all 150 licensed guide, and most will tell you, this is the book that got them interested.
The other piece of advice is that Gettysburg was fought over three days, like a three-act play. No matter how you decide to tour, follow the battle as it developed by following the action in the correct order over the three days. It does not take three days to visit. You could visit Gettysburg in two hours if you had to, but it’s so much better with a full day. For many of us, a lifetime and 20 visits will not be enough.
The museum here is spectacular and includes the cyclorama of Pickett’s Charge. At 377-feet long, 42-feet high, and weighing 12.5 tons, it is one of the largest paintings in the world. But in truth, the whole battlefield is a living museum. Stop by the relatively new Seminary Ridge Museum.
The building occupied a centerpiece of the first day’s battle. Lee surveyed the battlefield from the cupola as did Union officers before they were driven back.
Today the museum documents the true devastation that was left behind when both armies moved on after the battle and left behind 12 horribly wounded men for every citizen in Gettysburg.
How the town tried to cope with this disaster (in July with little medicine or bandages) is well documented in this museum.
The Little Big Horn Battlefield is unique in the world in that there is a macabre marble marker indicating where every single soldier was killed.
Two days after the battle of June 25, 1876, a relief force finally arrived and found a gruesome and dreadful sight.
Scattered over a wide area on several hills was Col. George Armstrong Custer and all 210 of his men… each man lying in the sun, scalped, stripped naked and often mutilated. One victim had 105 arrows stuck in him. The entire column had been wiped out.
Shocked, the relief force buried every soldier exactly where they had fallen and marked the spot with a wood cross. These were later replaced in 1890 with marble markers, and all the bodies were eventually interned in a single grave under a large monument.
But these first elementary markers allowed historians to know where every single soldier had been killed in the battle. The lingering question was, how did they get there and why were they scattered in so many places? Using metal detectors, microscopes and CSI techniques, historians have studied thousands of rifle cartridges and bullets discovered on the battlefield.
Because each rifle cartridge has a distinctive mark from a firing pin, they were able to trace where each gun was fired, and therefore, where each soldier fought and how well they fought. Coupled with new interpretations of Native American accounts, historians have pieced together a story of the ebb and flow of the battle that might be what actually happened.
But this is a battlefield that has to be walked to be understood. In addition to an excellent museum, there are audio guides, ranger tours, and tours led by Native Americans.
Unfortunately, it’s more difficult to understand the nearly 300-year war between European colonists and Native Americans that dates back to shortly after the first whites arrived at Jamestown, VA, in 1607. Little Big Horn was the last major engagement of that war. On the battlefield’s mythical rolling hills of grass and endless skies, the legendary people who stood and fought here on both sides will bring a chill to your spine, even on warm June afternoon.
Normandy and Omaha Beach in Northwest France
Normandy was and always will the largest invasion in history. To pull off the invasion, the Allies gathered 29,000 paratroopers, the largest fleet in history, thousands of bombers, coordinated attacks by the French resistance, an invasion army of 150,000 troops, and the greatest spy network and intelligence deception ever attempted. The story is all here at the museum on Omaha Beach, with videos by many of the participants.
Interestingly, the museum grounds and the vast cemetery nearby are all on American soil. The land here along the coast of Normandy was deeded to America from the grateful people of France.
Of course, since you are entering American ground, you have to go through a heavy security line to visit the museum, but it’s worth it.
A short walk from the museum, there is a stretch of peaceful beach that looks like any other beach in Normandy. But this is no ordinary beach.
All implements of war have been removed. The battlefront of the Normandy invasion was 60 miles long, but here at Omaha Beach, the very worst of it happened. Everything went wrong.
Thousands of aircraft were supposed to drop 13,000 bombs of explosives, wiping out the German bunkers and creating holes on the beach for cover, while eliminating barbed wire and mines.
Thirty-six “floating” tanks were supposed to clear the roads and take the hills. Instead, because of low cloud cover, not a single bomb hit the beach and almost all the tanks sank upon landing.
Machine Guns on the Beach
The Germans held their fire until the last moment. Every inch of the beach was pre-sighted for machine guns and cannons. When the first wave of Americans landed, they were nearly annihilated in one unending horror. As successive waves of Americans hit the beach, they went into a hell of burning tanks, floating dead bodies, debris and exploding mines, only to be torn to pieces by metal from machine guns that could fire 1,200 rounds a minute.
Many of the young men who landed on this beach are still here, part of the 9,387 simple white marble crosses and Stars of David above the graves of soldiers killed in action at this site and in the coming Normandy campaign.
Each marker has the soldier’s name, home state, and the date they were killed, but not the date they were born. Their dog tag number is etched on the back. No picture can capture how moving this scene is, especially when you consider that this giant field of graves that stretches to the horizon contains just a small number of the 425,000 Allied and German casualties in the full Battle of Normandy.
The National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum, Fort Pierce Florida
We’ve all heard of the Navy SEALs, but few know their history. At the official museum in Fort Pierce, FL, you are immersed into the story of this special unit and their predecessors. As the museum slogan says, “If you got any closer, you’d have to enlist.”
The forerunners of the SEALs started at Normandy with the mission to be the first to swim up to the beaches using flippers and explode the underwater obstructions to clear the way for landing craft. It was a disaster and some 52 percent of them were killed on D-Day.
Later in the War in the Pacific, these commandos cleared beach after beach during invasions. They were always the first to go in, wearing nothing but beach trunks and flippers and loaded down with underwater explosives.
In 1962 they became the United States Navy SEa Air and Land (SEAL) team, designed to conduct small-unit special operation missions in maritime, jungle, urban, arctic, mountainous, and desert environments with unconventional warfare, counter-guerrilla warfare, and clandestine operations.
They were the “Green Faces” in Vietnam, the ones who saved Captain Richard Phillips when his ship was captured by Somali pirates (depicted in the Tom Hanks film, Captain Phillips); and of course, it was SEAL Team 6 that landed in Pakistan in 2011 and killed Osama Bin Laden.
Today, there are ten teams of 200 men and women who are Navy Seals and support.
The museum documents their training. Once you see what they have to go through, it is no wonder that 80 percent of the candidates drop out.
A SEAL has to be proficient in computers, multi-lingual, experts in underwater demolition, parachute drops, operating motorcycles and sand vehicles, knowledgeable about all manner of weapons and personal defense, and naturally in absolute top physical condition. It’s exhausting just reading the exercises they have to go through to become a SEAL.
The museum and grounds have all manner of boats, landing craft, guns, and stories about the SEALS of history. There are also interactive exhibits where you plan a SEAL operation in which you have to select the weapons, men, their specialties and the choice of attack. Choose wisely. It’s disheartening when your attack fails.
9-11 Memorial & Museum in New York City
This may not seem like a military museum, but the site honors the 2,996 people killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and February 26, 1993. It recognizes the courage of those who survived and salutes those who risked their lives to help others.
It is the one “must visit” site in this article. Somehow the thousands of surviving families, relatives, politicians and NYC officials worked together to create one of the most moving and beautiful spaces on earth. And one that in the 21st century exemplifies the madness, frustration, sadness, and devastation of war.
The 9-11 attacks are so close to us all in memory that it would be a rare visit to the site today where you won’t see relatives of the victims touching a name, leaving flowers, or reacting to someone whose remains are literally in the basement walls of this building, each with a picture and tribute.
The museum contains a minute by minute retelling of the attack, from the interior of the captured planes to the firefighters racing up the stairwells to the office workers in the World Trade Center talking with their families in their last minutes on cell phones, as the smoke and flames got closer and closer.
The museum is a harrowing and hard place to visit. Go there first, and then afterwards to the Memorial, which is soothing with its incredible beauty and classic design.
Plan half a day to visit and then walk around the Wall Street area to nearby St. Paul’s Chapel, the historic church that survived both the adjacent 9-11 attacks and the great fire of 1776. Across the street is the $4 billion Oculus station at the World Trade Center designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and end your tour with a drink in historic Fraunces Tavern, just a ten-minute walk away.
When Samuel Fraunces opened his tavern here in 1762, there were already 217 taverns in New York to serve just 13,000 people. Today, it is the only colonial tavern to survive and the oldest establishment serving food and drinks in New York.
On Nov. 25, 1783, the day the American Revolution officially ended and the British army departed New York City for the last time, General Washington marched his army into the city and gathered 185 friends at Fraunces Tavern for a celebration dinner.
Where better to have a drink than at the same tavern where George Washington had one celebrating what he hoped would be the last day of America’s first and possibly last war.
Visit these Museums
A famous T-shirt says “War Belongs in Museums.” Today’s military museums follow that theme, and while honoring the soldiers who fought, they also explore the largest question of all…why did any of these historic situations have to resort to war?
It is a question all Americans should ask. Yes, as Abraham Lincoln said, “honor the soldier and sailor,” but perhaps through travel and education we can learn from the past and avoid similar mistakes in the future.