Art Works Blog

Military Museums: Beyond the Battlefront

When it comes to war, history is quick to recall a conflict’s victors and losers. But military life is made up more than triumphs and losses, not to mention the political strategies that led to them. The Blue Star Museums listed here take a look at lesser-known aspects of the American military experience, from combat artists and medicine to the experience of foreign POWS on U.S. soil. 

National Museum of the Marine Corps
(Triangle, Virginia)

As General Sherman once famously noted, “War is hell.” Still, there are moments of beauty even in battle, many of which have been captured by combat artists. These artists are embedded with units to present a first-hand look at war through an artistic lens, and today, each branch of the military has its own combat art program. You can see pieces from the Marine Corps’ collection at the National Museum of the Marine Corps’ Combat Gallery, which also has works by civilian artists and illustrators. Taken together, the pieces tell the story of the Marines, from its historical roots to its triumphs on the field.

Check out our military issue of NEA Arts for more on combat artists.

National Museum of Civil War Medicine
(Frederick, Maryland)

Surviving the Civil War wasn’t just a matter of making it off the battlefield. Two-thirds of the 620,000 soldiers who died during the war were felled by disease, including dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia, and measles. At that time, not much was known about the link between hygiene and health, and antibiotics were years away from discovery, which also meant infections from wounds and amputations could be fatal. At the museum, visitors can learn about treatment on and off the field, how the wounded were evacuated from battle, and the hospitalization systems that were in place. You can also see the medical instruments that were used, many of which have a somewhat frightening resemblance to medieval torture tools.

U.S. Army Transportation Museum
(Fort Eustis, Virginia)
Think the Army is all tanks and helicopters? It’s not. Throughout its history, the Army has relied on all manner of transportation to patrol and move troops and supplies, including AirGeeps (flying jeeps!), “mechanical mules,” and even camels. You can learn all about it at the museum, which has 7,000 objects in its collection—including the only surviving hovercraft to have seen combat in Vietnam. 

National Prisoner of War Museum at the Andersonville National Historic Site
(Andersonville, Georgia)

Andersonville, officially known as Fort Sumter, was the most notorious prisoner of war camp in the Confederacy. Crowded far beyond capacity, roughly 13,000 Union prisoners died there, most from starvation, unsanitary conditions, and exposure to the elements. Conditions were so horrific that the commander of the camp, Henry Wirz, was later hanged in Washington—one of only three soldiers convicted of war crimes in the Civil War. Today, the historic site houses the National Prisoner of War Museum, which is dedicated to POWS from every American war since the Revolutionary. Rather than break down the POW experience war by war, the museum examines the POW experience as a whole, from capture and living conditions to morale and escape.

Camp Hearne WWII POW Camp in Texas
(Hearne, Texas)

While Andersonville gives you a sense of the American POW experience, Camp Hearne presents the other side of the coin: what life was like for foreign prisoners in the U.S. Located in rural Hearne, Texas, Camp Hearne was one of over 650 POW camps used in the United States during World War II. The site housed mostly German prisoners, and toward the end of the war, Japanese POWS as well. Today, visitors can see a replica of a 1942 U.S. Army barrack, view an exhibit on POW life, and walk trails that lead to the remains of various prisoner-built facilities, including a theater (with orchestra pit!) and garden fountains.

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