Memorial Day honors the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. What better way to observe the last Monday of May than to take a tour of our nation’s war memorials in the District of Columbia.
Washington, D.C., is named for George Washington, hero of the American Revolution (1775-1783). The Washington Monument commemorates his service as general and president. On Constitution Ave., stonework celebrates the Signers of the Declaration of Independence with facsimiles of the signatures of this foundational decree. And there are several Monuments to the American Revolution in Lafayette Park. Statues of French, Prussian, and Polish officers recall foreign assistance to the revolution.
Historians will remember that British troops set fire to the White House in the War of 1812 (1812-1815). Across the street from the White House is a Statue of General Andrew Jackson as he appeared at the Battle of New Orleans. In this, the final major battle against the British, American forces consisted of free men of color, Choctaw volunteers, the U.S. Navy and Marines, militia from several southern states, and a pirate force under the command of Jean Lafitte.
The Indian Wars (approx. 1817-1898) can best be memorialized with a visit to the National Museum of the American Indian. An exhibit there in 2009 featured a hundred Peace Treaties – all of them broken by the U.S. Government. Adjacent to the museum is the National Native American Veterans Memorial. This tribute to Native heroes was dedicated last year to recognize the enduring and distinguished service of Native Americans in every branch of the U.S. military.
While there is no memorial in D.C. for the Mexican War (1846-1848), Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee both served in that conflict. The Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, at the eastern terminus of the National Mall, has been the site of countless demonstrations. And the Arlington House, atop the hill in the National Cemetery, serves as the Robert E. Lee Memorial.
The Civil War (1861-1865) is remembered around the district in a variety of ways. Indeed, Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day) was first widely observed on May 30, 1868, to commemorate the sacrifices of Union soldiers. The Arlington Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River connects the Lincoln Memorial on the north with the Lee Memorial on the south.
A Confederate Memorial, complete with depictions of a ‘mammy’ figure holding a white baby and a slave marching off to war with his master, sits within Arlington National Cemetery. The African American Civil War Memorial, dedicated in 1998, honors the sacrifice of the 200,000 former slaves who served in the Army and Navy during the Civil War. Their efforts helped to end slavery and shortened the war. In 2009, President Barack Obama sent a wreath to both memorials.
The Spanish-American War (1898-1902) played a key role in reuniting North and South after the Civil War. Perhaps that is why Arlington has more Spanish-American War memorials and gravesites than any other site in the U.S. But the USS Maine Memorial is the most visible.
Although the Potomac River is at the bottom of the hill, a ship’s mast rises against the skyline near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Mast of the Maine was removed from the ship after the war and honors those who lost their lives when the ship sank in Havana Harbor, the event that started the Spanish-American War.
World War I (1917-1918) is remembered in the District of Columbia War Memorial. Local residents wanted to honor the 26,000 Washingtonians who served in the Great War and the 499 D.C. citizens who lost their lives. This Doric Temple, dedicated by Herbert Hoover on Armistice Day in 1931, was the first war memorial to be erected in West Potomac Park.
A new World War I Memorial is rising just east of the White House. This memorial incorporates the existing memorial to Gen. John J. Pershing and the Peace Fountain. “A Soldier’s Journey,” a 58-foot-long bas-relief sculpture will be installed in 2024 and will depict the journey of an American soldier and represent the larger American experience of World War I.
World War II (1941 –1945) was celebrated with parades and speeches when it ended but it was not until Memorial Day 2004 that the World War II Memorial was dedicated. Two pavilions represent the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of war. The Rainbow Pool, a feature before the memorial was constructed, is now surrounded by 56 pillars to symbolize the states and territories of the U.S. Bas relief panels convey the story of the war, a synopsis for those who remember remembering and an introduction for neophytes.
The Korean War (1950-1953) was ‘the forgotten war’ until the Korean War Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1995. 19 stainless steel statues represent the branches of the military as well as the cultural groups of those who served. While the nearby Vietnam Wall lists names without faces, a wall at the Korean War Memorial depicts faces without names.
In 2022, a Wall of Remembrance was added that features the names of the more than 43,000 U.S. service members and Korean augmentees who were killed during the war. Words on the plaza help us remember, “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.”
Support and resistance to the Vietnam War (1964-1975) divided our country more than anything between 1861 and 2021 and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial epitomizes that. Rather than focusing on the war, ‘The Wall’ memorializes the individual soldiers. The black granite is in contrast to the white marble of most other war memorials and the site itself cuts into the earth. It is apolitical yet contemplative and remains the most visited memorial on the National Mall.
The Persian Gulf War (1990-1991) will not be forgotten. Groundbreaking for the Desert Shield and Desert Storm Memorial occurred last year on Constitution Ave. Across 23rd street will be a lasting tribute to the sacrifice of all who have served in the Global War on Terror (Oct 2001 – ). The Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation leads the effort to plan, fund, design, and build the memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Both of these monuments will be within sight of the United States Institute of Peace. This independent agency, founded by Congress in 1984, is devoted to the nonviolent prevention and mitigation of deadly conflict abroad. Its roofline is reminiscent of a dove’s wings. It has been said that “the purpose of war is peace.” Let us remember that on Memorial Day as we remember those who fought and died in our nation’s wars.
all images courtesy of author