Fort Belvoir, Virginia, a name formerly known to few people outside of locals and the U.S. Army, is now a national name. An active Army base located in Fairfax County, Virginia built in 1917, Fort Belvoir is now home to the new National Army Museum, a 185,000 square-foot facility. This new museum is a collaboration between the U.S. Army and the nonprofit Army Historical Foundation. After securing 84 acres of federal land at Fort Belvoir, construction began in 2017. Three years in the making, the National Army Museum was set to open June 4, 2020 in time to celebrate the 245th birthday of the U.S. Army on June 14. Unfortunately, like many plans in 2020, the opening date was pushed back due to COVD-19. Thanks to much effort and safety precautions, the museum was able to open on November 11, 2020 with livestream opening ceremonies.
While there are many military museums across the country, the National Army Museum is the first to showcase the comprehensive history of the U.S. Army across its full 245 years. When you first arrive at the museum, the architecture of the building makes it seem like you’re entering a government facility. Once you walk along the pathway, you realize you are about to enter a place of remembrance and honor, as the sidewalk is lined with memorial bricks purchased by family members for their Army loved ones. The massive foyer has every Army ribbon possible hanging above you.
Although the museum is a total of three levels, the first level houses the main portion of the museum. When you turn to your left to enter the exhibits, you are met with several flat pillars, each highlighting an Army soldier from all wars and conflicts in American history. The selection is diverse so as to represent the indigenous populations and people of color who served in these wars. Each person has a unique and honorable story, and one can spend easily 30 mins reading all of them before really entering into the museum. From there, you see a long hallway divided by era, on the far left starting with the Army’s inception, to the far right ending with Present Day. Each major era or war has its own exhibit, while Army history during peace time is sprinkled throughout the timeline of American Army History. Each display showcases a variety of artifacts, multimedia maps, and veteran stories, in addition to small theaters showing videos that recap the history of that time. Each exhibit contributes to a truly immersive experience.
Some key things that jumped out at me during my visit:
The Colonial era shows the progression from the British Army to the Continental Army, ending with the War of 1812. There is a fabulous showcase for Henry Knox, who is best remembered for his incredible feat of moving cannons during winter from Fort Ticonderoga to Dorchester Heights in Boston. Since it is the United States Army Museum, the Civil War exhibit is largely focused on the United States Army. It is still a comprehensive exhibit that provides full context of the war, including the major battles and their outcomes with all the artifacts pertaining to the United States Army and its history during the Civil war.
The exhibit for World War I features a replica of Little Willie, the first tank made by the English in 1915, providing visitors the experience of trench warfare as you walk through an immersive space surrounded by “trenches”. My favorite is the WWII exhibit which does a good job addressing the European and Pacific Campaigns. Considering the Pacific was mostly fought by the Marines and Navy, this exhibit focuses on the Army and the Army Air Corps role. The exhibit features extensive information on the D-Day landings, including one of the last remaining Higgins Boat from the Normandy Invasion. Of course, no WWII display would be complete without a Sherman tank which is on full display right as you walk-in.
After the WWII exhibit, there are few more displays that take you through the Cold War era, including Korea, Vietnam and the Berlin Wall. The last exhibit is post-Cold War, and immediately begins with the Gulf War. Lastly, you end with an area featuring three virtual reality experiences. The first one is you riding on a Sherman tank. The second one is you flying in a pod through the history of aviation, and the third is a bunker game. A common thread across each display is that you can see the progression of the Army uniform and the technology advancements, which is pretty neat!
As of November 2020, and until further notice, one must reserve their tickets online to visit the Army Museum. It is free, but reservations are required and can be made on their website: https://www.thenmusa.org/visit/. Families can also register their Army Veterans for free on the website for any time period. The museum is very interactive, with many touch screens. During my visit each guest was given a stylus to use on the touch screens instead of your fingers, and we were allowed to keep them. I am not sure if this is something that will remain long-term but note that they do take sanitary precautions. The first floor also houses the gift shop and a small food court, while the second and third floor house special exhibits and conference spaces.
If you are visiting out of town, I recommend adding Mount Vernon to your list, since it is a 10-minute drive between the two, and a fitting stop considering George Washington was the first General of the Continental Army. Additionally, the National Marine Corps museum is around a 20-minute drive away, and the U.S. Navy Museum is about a 30-minute drive, assuming no traffic! The new National Army Museum has been a long time coming, but it is well worth the visit.
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Larisa Moran is passionate about engaging more people with history. You’ll find her on Instagram (@History_Dame1776) where she delivers “history in under a minute,” and as a volunteer organizer at History Camps around the country. She’s also a regional editor for The History List. Larisa has a Master’s in Public Administration from George Mason University.