Memorial Context: American War Memorials Before 1982 - World War I Centennial

Memorial Context

American War Memorials Before 1982

The concept of "national" war memorials in the United States is a relatively recent one. Washington DC itself abounds with traffic circles and park squares and other sites with statuary honoring generals, presidents, statesmen and other individuals of distinction. In Washington, this "great man" approach to commemoration focuses on the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Across the country, cities and towns whose residents served in the Civil War typically have memorials to those who died in that war. Similarly, there are thousands of memorials to local World War I veterans. In many cases, local memorials to the World War I dead were subsequently expanded with memorial elements for those who died in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and even September 11 and the war on terror. Many of these memorials list by name the individual soldiers who died.

In Washington there are memorials for the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force, but these are not specific to any one war. There are also, in Washington and around the country, memorials to specific units of the armed forces that are identified with a particular locality.

Another set of memorials are those erected and maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). The ABMC maintains 22 World War I cemeteries, memorials and monuments, all of which are located in Europe. These sites are generally associated with specific battles or other important sites in the war.

There has not been, however, a tradition of memorials that are commonly accepted as the nation's memorial for all its citizens who died in a particular war. The one notable exception, in fact, is a World War I memorial. Kansas City's Liberty Memorial was dedicated in 1926 not simply as a memorial to the residents of Kansas City who died in the war, but to all the nation's WWI veterans, many of whom traveled through Kansas City by rail during their military service.

 Additional Resources

States and local communities, as well as colleges, veterans groups, patriotic organizations, and numerous other civic groups, erected memorials after World War I. Commemoration of the war varied widely. Communities with limited budgets often opted for flagpoles or simple bronze plaques listing the names of those who served or died, often attached to a stone or architectural support, a civic building, or a sculptural base. Hundreds of communities erected stock "doughboy" sculptures, usually featuring a single soldier in an active pose. Others commissioned sculptures or sculptural reliefs, often depicting soldiers in action, or reflecting on the price of war, or aiding a wounded comrade. Several memorials feature allegorical figures (alone or paired with soldiers). Memorials often placed sculptural elements in a modest architectural setting, while other locales opted for purely architectural monuments (such as arches, obelisks, pillars, shafts, colonnades, cenotaphs, gateways, or stele). "Living memorials" -- a largely post-World War I development -- combined commemorative and utilitarian functions, such as stadiums, auditoriums, hospitals, bridges, schools, or parks.

For further information on the commemoration of World War I in the United States and elsewhere, participants may wish to review one or more of the following sources:

  • Lisa Budreau, Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933
  • George L. Mosse, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars
  • G. Kurt Piehler, Remembering War the American Way
  • Mark A. Snell (ed.), Unknown Soldiers: The American Expeditionary Forces in Memory & Remembrance
  • Steven Trout, On the Battlefield of Memory: The First World War and American Remembrance
  • Jennifer Wingate, Sculpting Doughboys: Memory, Gender, and Taste in America's World War I Memorials
  • Jay Winter, Sites of Mourning, Sites of Memory: The Great War in European Cultural History
  • Commemoration and Remembrance (USA), in 1914-1918-online, International Encyclopedia of the First World War: