Early American War Memorials

Civil War

The earliest of American war memorialization harks back to the Civil War, at the Battle of Gettysburg. Eventually, American mourning of American dead was to be held in America as memorial tradition.The pain of the Civil War became an element in rebuilding the nation: The nation became united under the same, shared banner of pain. During the war, states “according to their abilities” built monuments/places of mourning for their fallen soldiers on the battlefields: “There was thus a communication of suffering between families, the states in which they lived, and the federal government that undertook to memorialize the great battlefields.” Mourning in America, particularly of war and soldiers, became a shared act. Just as a shared pain united the nation, a shared pain united mourning among Americans.  

World War I

WWI memorials represent American promises across an international landscape. Constructed in Europe and the U.S., the statues and monuments are structures of classical design and national patriotism. The many elaborate cemetery memorials built abroad became “signs of the desire of the United States to involve itself permanently in the affairs of other nations.” With American WWI memorials constructed heavily throughout Europe, American history became “inscribed in foreign places.”

    However, to many Americans it was controversial to leave the fallen in foreign fields. This was a result of the tradition of war memorialization provoked during the Civil War. To those affected by WWI, American tradition had included Civil War cemeteries as “important sites of national mourning.” American mourning and memorialization of war placed heavy duty on the bodies of the soldiers. The names of American dead decorated U.S. national WWI cemeteries and monuments in Europe, but the bodies were concerned as an American value. Scattered across Europe and America, the mourning became part of a larger landscape of national and international policy: The body, the status of the U.S. soldier, became symbols of the American nation across the world.

World War II

In the United States, the memorialization of the war became a national framework. That is, the memorials were “practical, functional pieces of the American infrastructure.” Bridges, auditoriums, highways, and parks are a few of the memorials. They became impulses for a “perpetuation of the memory of a great man or great event for future generations.” According to Paul P. Cret, chairman of the War Memorials Committee of the American Institute of Architects, “[m]erely calling them memorials will not make them such” because the “living memorials” of WWII became inseparable symbols of patriotism, prosperity, and a proud future.    They had little to do with the status or body of the soldier, but rather remarked on the WWII soldier’s legacy.

Korean War

There was no land of National Cemeteries and Monuments that has been designated for the fallen American soldiers of this conflict. While a few rest in a United Nations cemetery in Korea, the majority had been brought to the United States under the name of  United States National Cemetery. However, “most went to family graveyards.”   

The shifting battlefield of the Korean War prevented a permanent monument or memorial cemetery in the nation. The US won no territory in this war, but lost many American soldiers as POWs. After a difficult armistice, in which North Korea refused to make concessions, only “about half of the expected number was still alive”. Meanwhile, twenty-three of the 3,958 returned American POWs/MIAs went to China, rather than to the United States. Those 23 Americans who chose China “weighed heavily on American consciousness”; when two of the 23 soldiers eventually returned to the United States, they were “convicted … as collaborators with the enemy.” As a result, all other returned American POWS became suspects to many Americans. The press would eventually present the post-WWII generation of Korean War soldiers as soft and unable to resist. In light of this, many veterans and returned prisoners “did not wish to make demands on the United States government for any sort of memorial.” There was little victory, or cause of celebration: a number, but a number indeed, were suspected of having collaborated with the enemy. Eventually, the veterans of the Korean War preferred silence.

Early American War Memorials