So much of U.S. history is told around battles and wars and it is no wonder since an internet source claims the country has been at war 93% of the time (Freakonometrics hypotheses.org). A visit to the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center tells the story of the U.S. Army Infantry from the founding of our nation to the present. This 190,000 square foot building opened in June 2009 in Columbus, Georgia. It is next to Fort Benning, and its displays reflect military history as it relates to social, political and economic changes in our culture. [NOTE: All subsequent quotes come from museum signs.]
In the entry rotunda, we paused to look at “The Infantryman,” a sculpture of an infantry squad leader in a classic action pose. Fort Benning has been a center for military training since World War I.
I had no idea as I crossed the threshold what a comprehensive display of U.S. history I was about to see and how much I would learn. The museum covers more than 240 years of infantry history from the Revolutionary War to the mountains of Afghanistan.
Prior to our visit, the word “infantry” conjured images of foot soldiers making their way through French villages in WWII. The Last 100 Yards Ramp compellingly introduced me to eight historic battles that quickly expanded my limited vision. “In every battle, the last 100 yards of the fight belongs to the Infantry” and these dramatic representations of decisive moments in history have permanently stamped vivid impressions of the role of the United States Infantry on my mind.
”The Capture of Redoubt #10” on October 17, 1781, Yorktown, VA. In a night attack Under Alexander Hamilton’s leadership, Continental Army troops stormed British General Cornwallis’ defense works. Hamilton ordered his men to unload their weapons and fight in total silence using only bayonets and swords. Two assault parties of four hundred men went up against over 8,000 English troops and residents. The attack was the last battle after a long siege and the outcome led to the British surrender at Yorktown.
“Battle of Antietam” on September 16, 1862, Sharpsburg, Maryland. This battle is known as the “Bloodiest single day battle in the Civil War,” but it was not to be the end of the bloodshed. The war went on for two more years.
“Battle of Soissons” on July 18, 1918. After years of stagnant trench warfare, the arrival of American and British troops gave the assistance needed for French soldiers to break the stalemate against German forces. The goal was to attack and cut through vital German railroad supply routes and its success marked the turning point in the war and led to Germany’s eventual defeat.
“Battle of Omaha Beach” D-Day Invasion on June 6, 1944, Normandy, France. Pointe du Hoc is a 100-foot cliff overlooking the English Channel between Omaha and Utah Beaches, and it was heavily fortified and manned by German forces. The plan was for three companies of Army Rangers were to attack the Pointe, but due to enemy fire and sea conditions only about half the men arrived. These newly trained American troops waded to shore, scaled the cliff on rope ladders and defeated the seasoned Germans and destroyed this artillery outpost that was threatening ships in the English Channel.
“Recapturing the Rock” February 16-26. 1945 Corregidor Island. This WWII battle pitted American forces against a Japanese garrison. The Japanese had captured the fortress from the U.S. Army in a 1942 invasion so the retaking of the Rock was both a strategic and a personal objective for General Douglas MacArthur. The plan required an amphibious landing as well as daring landings by U.S. paratroopers on Topside, a prominent feature on the island and a point from which troops would be able to fire down on the Japanese. The Japanese garrison was thought to hold 2,000 troops, but actually held 5,000…almost all of which were killed in the action.
“Millett’s Bayonet Attack” on February 7, 1951, Soam-Ni, Korea. Medal of Honor winner Lewis Millett led his infantrymen across icy rice paddies and up a snow-covered hill to attack the defending Chinese forces. Using only their bayonets and hand grenades, the hand-to-hand battle was so lethal that the Chinese fled in terror. Millett was seriously wounded in the action but would not leave the field until victory was assured.
“Air Assault at Landing Zone X-Ray” on November 17, 1965, Ia Drang Valley, Vietnam. U.S. Army Cavalry Regiments delivered infantrymen in the first large-scale helicopter assault while B-52 bombers provided air support. Although American forces were surrounded and under heavy fire, they succeeded in driving back the forces of the Peoples Army of Vietnam in this battle.
“Infantry Operations in Iraq” on October 20, 2003, northeast of Bayji, Iraq. In a hostile area during a Desert Storm night reconnaissance mission, a Bradley tank was stuck by an improvised explosive device. While gunners in the companion vehicles provided cover fire, the infantrymen offloaded protecting those who had been wounded in the blast.
At the end of the ramp, we entered the Fort Benning Gallery with its displays of the evolution of infantry training, which today includes instruction in physical training, weaponry, survival and logistics. An important aspect of the training process is to instill Army values: Loyalty, Integrity, Personal Courage, Honor, Selfless Service, Respect and Duty. Fort Benning also offers secondary levels of professional training for officers as well as instruction in specialized skills.
A large world map in the gallery shows where our troops are deployed not just across the country…but around the world “protecting national interests and fulfilling U.S. responsibilities. …Their lives are on the line every day to protect America’s vital interests, and in doing so, ultimately guarantee our nation’s defense for every American.”
The Family Gallery acknowledges the difficulty service and separation inflict on soldiers and their families and the importance of communication and courage both for those away and those maintaining the home front. In early times the armies had little domestic support, so during the Revolutionary War camp followers trailed along with the fighters. They cooked the food, nursed the wounded and their presence helped to keep down desertion.
Some of these brave women also stepped in and took over their husband’s job when he was felled.
Women of color were in the fray as well. Susie King Taylor (1848-1912) was the first African-American Army Nurse, tending the men in the Civil War infantry regiment where her husband served. After the war she published a memoir and “was the first African-American to teach openly in a school for former slaves in Savannah, Georgia, where she taught children during the day and adults at night.”
The next five galleries we visited took us through the history of military engagements beginning with Securing Our Freedom/Defining the Nation (1775-1898). In Jamestown in 1607, an American militia system was established to protect settlers from “competing European colonial powers” and Native American attacks. Training of militia troops was based on the English system and modified to meet the needs and environment of this New World. The tradition of a militia dates “back to 1181 and King Henry II’s ‘Assize of Arms’ proclamation, which required each freeman to maintain arms, train regularly and swear allegiance to the king. In the end, the American military system that arose during this period contributed to the independence of the thirteen colonies.”
The militia played a vital role during the War of Independence and remained essential even after the formation of the Continental Army. The militia was made up of volunteers who assembled primarily to protect their local communities, and the Continental Army members bought leadership, discipline and structure when they were engaged together in action. A separate branch of the Army, the U.S. Dragoons, was the first cavalry. They were mounted infantry who primarily served as scouts and messengers but were also trained to fight with sabers when they were on foot.
By the time President Madison ordered an invasion of Canada at the start of the War of 1812, the U.S. Army had roughly 7,000 soldiers. The Army’s early efforts in the war were not impressive, but with training and discipline came military success.
While the war was being fought on the northern front, the country needed to secure itself from threats on its southern and western borders. The Creek Indian War (1813-14) ended the power of the Creek Nation and ultimately led to western expansion. At the end of this period of fighting, there was no change in U.S. territory, but the Army was on its way to becoming a more unified and developed fighting force. The essential role of the rifleman had been firmly established. Throughout these incursions, sharpshooters played an active role in protecting Army troops.
An especially colorful exhibit highlighted the role of the drum and the fife. The Drum and Fife were the principle instruments used to communicate orders to foot soldiers…light infantry and riflemen listened for the bugle calls. Every regiment had two flags: the United States flag and a regimental flag. These banners were used to provide visual rallying points for the troops in the midst of battle.
When the Mexican-American War was declared (1846-48) the Army had 8,613 men, and the fighting would range from Texas and Louisiana down to Mexico City…a vast sweep of territory. Prior to this time the U.S, Cavalry had not been viewed as a major component, but it played a decisive role in 1846 in the Battle of Reseca de la Palma when Captain Charles A. May led a mounted charge that “broke through the Mexican lines and forced a retreat.” Another outcome of the Mexican campaign is that Army training standards began to be established.
An interesting map highlighted the principle campaigns in the Civil War (1861-65), and diagrammed inserts made reference to specific battles and the tactics that had been employed. Both Northern and Southern armies were being led by men who had had significant military background and training prior to the war.
A large display area compared and contrasted the uniform, arms, equipment and provisions carried by infantrymen on both sides of the conflict.
During the period of Reconstruction (1865-77) “the U.S. Army became the only institution that could restore federal authority to the states that had left the Union. U.S. Infantry would be used to protect the rights of the newly freed slaves and perform the duties of the former civilian governments.” About a third of the army was assigned to duty in the Southern states.
At the same time on the Western Frontier (1865-1898), other troops were deployed to protect “migration routes and developing settlements west of the Mississippi River.” In this setting, the cavalry was doing more of the fighting while the “infantry built forts and roads; provided protection for railroad and telegraph construction, escorted wagon and supply trains and army paymasters; and controlled labor strikes.” During this period the quality of small arms improved as did the training for marksmanship. Basic infantry training was also implemented, as well as specialized training for noncommissioned officers.
After years of national isolationism, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer increased newspaper sales with salacious headlines supporting the Cuban rebel’s push for independence from Spain. Their “yellow journalism” campaign helped set the stage and when the U.S.S. Maine mysteriously blew up in Havana Harbor, “Remember the Maine” became the rallying cry that moved the United States into the Spanish-American War (1898). Although the ship’s sinking was most likely due to an internal explosion, the political of the day escalated the situation, and soon the U.S. was at war with Spain…not just in Cuba but in Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam, all of Spain’s remaining territories. While the war officially only lasted about four months, U.S. involvement in the Philippines, led to a long and dangerous fight against Filipino rebels fighting for complete independence.
The U.S. had become a colonial power with infantry troops positioned in the Philippines and Cuba. Next would come military involvement China in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion and also a return to Mexico (1910-1920).
World War I (1917-1918) introduced our troops to trench warfare in Europe. Although America’s national policy of neutrality ended with the Spanish American War, isolationism was still the predominant attitude in the country. Germany’s submarine warfare and attacks on neutral ships endangered U.S. lives. When Russia backed out of the war in 1917, German troops that had been fighting on the Eastern front moved join those on the Western front. The balance was tipping and German rule of Europe appeared eminent.
Under President Woodrow Wilson’s orders, troops were sent across the Atlantic and into the trenches to help turn the tide. Speed was of the essence, so some of the new recruits were sent directly to France for training there, and a new U.S. Army training facility named Fort Benning was developed in Columbus, Georgia.
This was also a pivotal time with the mechanization of warfare. The introduction of tanks, airplanes and trucks changed the way war was fought. Tanks helped protect advancing soldiers; airplanes were used for observation and bombing; and trucks replaced horses and wagons to transport supplies, troops and the wounded. [NOTE: For those interested in this period we strongly recommend watching They Shall Not Grow Old, a superb documentary based entirely on WWI film footage.]
An Army Nurse Corps had been established in 1901 and during WWI American nurses joined the war efforts to help wounded troops on the battlefield, serving not just U.S. forces but English and Canadian soldiers as well.
Fighting was fierce and hand-to-hand with an enormous loss of lives…but Germany was finally defeated. After the war American troops remained in Europe until 1923 to help keep Bolshevik and German forces in compliance with the Treaty of Versailles. On the home front most Americans were appalled by the loss and carnage and wanted to return to isolationism…but that was not going to be the path for the future.
In response to WWI and the Depression, Fascist leaders gained popularity in Germany and Italy, while Japan began expanding into China and other Southeast Asian countries to gain access to natural resources it lacked.
Benito Mussolini gained power in Italy and aligned with Germany in hopes that there would be a “new Roman empire.” Post-war Germany proved to be a fertile environment for the Nazi Party, and in 1933 Adolph Hitler became leader of that country. When German aggression became so egregious it could not be ignored, England went to war and later a reluctant United States came to her aid in World War II (1939-1945).
Many hoped that would be the end of the fighting, but the United States was now the dominant world power and that led to U.S. involvement in the Cold War (1947-1991). U.S. troops were sent to South Korea under the United Nations banner after North Korea pushed down to take over almost all of that country. The Korean War (1940-53) cost the U.S. and her allies over 500,000 lives with most of the casualties being U.S. infantrymen.
In 1950 the United States began taking steps to assist France in Vietnam, and the fall of the French in 1954 set the stage for further U.S. involvement in that country. Secret missions involving U.S. troops began in 1961, and on March 8, 1965, U.S. troops entered Da Nang and military involvement did not end until May 7, 1975.
At the end of the Cold War, the United States emerged as the world’s sole superpower. “It was the only nation with the wealth, strategically capable military force and global reach to intervene in regional disputes, prevent aggressive territorial conquests, stop genocide campaigns and cope with international misdeeds.”
No matter one’s feelings about war, the military and U.S. involvement in world affairs…it is still important to recognize the men and women who have served with honor and courage in the face of great personal danger. The Walls of Honor are a tribute to the U.S. Army Infantrymen who have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. It is a humbling experience to walk down these long walls and see the names and faces of so many who have fought, and in many cases died, for our country.
In addition to what we have shared here, there are special exhibits and an I-Max theater within the museum, and its 155-acre campus contains other attractions for visitors, including a ¾ scale model of the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., a 1940s period training post, and a collection of armored vehicles.