After two decades of planning, fundraising, and construction, the National Museum of the United States Army opened on November 11, 2020, at Fort Belvoir in northern Virginia. The museum, a cooperative project of the Army Historical Foundation and the United States Army Center of Military History, encompasses 185,000 square feet of exhibits and interactives that cover the entire history of the United States Army from 1775 through today.
The main exhibits are divided into six eras. Though the galleries focusing on 20th century conflicts make up the majority of the exhibits, the Civil War period is represented in the “Preserving the Nation Gallery.” As you walk into the gallery, a large display on your left provides some background to the role that many Civil War notables played in the Mexican War. As you continue, the first major display is about how Army officers, North and South, decided whether their allegiance was with their country or with their state. Divided loyalties remains a theme throughout the gallery.
Exhibits then run in a chronological fashion, with a heavy focus on wartime artifacts and material culture of the Army. Items of notable figures are represented, like Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s field glasses, Ulysses S. Grant’s forage cap that he ordered upon his promotion to Lieutenant General in March 1864, and Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s hat that he wore during the “March to the Sea.” The vast majority of artifacts are from common rank-and-file soldiers, focusing on weapons, uniforms, and personal items. With so many unique objects on display, however, there is not enough space to describe the background history or provenance of many of the items.
There are several touch screen interactives for visitors to enjoy that focus on individual battles and significant figures from the war. One of the larger interactives is a video presentation of Grant’s strategic planning for the Overland Campaign, which is presented in a replica of the interior of Massaponax Church. Currently, because of COVID-19 restrictions, the video exhibit is closed.
No items relating to the Confederate Army are displayed, as the mission of the museum is the history of the United States Army. That does make it unique from other Civil War exhibits where both sides are typically represented. But the focus of the gallery, and the museum as a whole, is not on the overall military history of the Civil War, but on the Northern soldiers who fought it. You will not get an in-depth overview of the causes, campaigns, or battles, but a focus on the lives and experiences of the soldiers and an emphasis on their material culture.