History at Home: Kick off a summer of exploration this Memorial Day | Lifestyles





The monuments of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., are definitely sights to see. Lofty and grand, they remind us of the sacrifices made to preserve our collective freedoms. They pay homage to the men and women who gave their all in both the creation and defense of these United States. 

But looking closer to home reveals equally impressive memorials, including the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum in downtown St. Louis at 1315 Chestnut St., and Missouri’s National Veterans Memorial (Vietnam Veterans Memorial) in Perryville, Missouri. 

At the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum, there are over 5,000 names engraved on the walls of the museum’s Cenotaph (a monument to someone buried elsewhere) and its Court of Honor. Those names represent St. Louis men and women from every branch of service who gave their lives for their country. 

Missouri’s National Veterans Memorial (about a 1.5-hour drive down I-55) features an exact replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., bearing all 58,272 names engraved there. Impressive in their size and scope, these memorials also are rich in history – and are great places at which to begin a “history at home” tour. 

So, too, is Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, especially with Memorial Day fast approaching. 

Did you know that the first Memorial Day (then known as Decoration Day) was held on May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery? 

Arlington is known for many things, including being home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last November. Watching the silent march of the Sentinels as they guard the tomb in which three unknown American service members are interned, is both humbling and mesmerizing. 

The Sentinels are members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard,” who volunteer for this duty. To qualify as a Tomb Guard, they must undergo a strict selection process and intensive training. According to the commemorative guide published by the U.S. Army Center of Military History: “Sentinels guard the Tomb 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, regardless of weather. The military’s highest ceremonial honor – the 21-gun salute – is the basis of the Sentinel’s ritual walk. The Sentinel takes 21 steps, and pauses for 21 seconds between movements. After executing a facing movement and before walking to the next point, the Sentinel executes “shoulder-arms” to place the rifle on the shoulder farthest from the Tomb.”

While there is no changing of the guard ceremony for visitors to witness at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, the experience of viewing all those precisely aligned headstones and journeying among them as the history of our nation unfolds from the American Revolution through present day is no less awe-inspiring.  

Located on rolling hills that overlook the Mississippi River, row upon row of white marble and granite headstones stretch for as far as your eyes can see. Established and dedicated as a national military cemetery in 1866, its first recorded burial actually occurred not long after the establishment of Jefferson Barracks, which has served as a military post since 1826. Ironically, that first burial was not of a soldier but rather the infant daughter of an officer. Elizabeth (Eliza) Ann Lash was laid to rest on Aug. 5, 1827. Today, more than 237,000 people are buried there. 

Of those are Revolutionary War veterans Private Richard Gentry, Major Russell Bissell and Colonel Thomas Hunt. Hunt and Bissell were originally buried at Fort Bellefontaine, and Gentry was buried near Richmond, Kentucky. All three men’s remains were moved to Jefferson Barracks in the 20th century. Also buried there are about 14,000 Civil War soldiers, including 1,140 Confederate soldiers, most of whom were prisoners of war. Many of the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers that are marked “unknown” are the graves of those who died of smallpox. They were originally buried on Arsenal Island also known as Smallpox Island on the western side of the Mississippi River across from Alton, Illinois. Flooding, however, had washed away their original markers and so the remains were unidentifiable when they were moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. 

Within the cemetery, there are many memorials, including The Fort Bellefontaine Monument, a red granite boulder that was donated in 1904 by the Daughters of the American Revolution in honor of the officers and soldiers who died at Fort Bellefontaine (Belle Fontaine), which was located about 20 miles north of St. Louis and is today a county park. 

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the remains of 175 officers and soldiers of the 56th U.S. Colored Troops Infantry were removed from a cemetery at the former Koch Quarantine Hospital in St. Louis in 1939, and re-interred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. The men died of cholera in August 1866. The monument to the 56th USCT also was moved from its original location at Koch hospital and re-erected at Jefferson Barracks. 

A water fountain designed by award-winning architect Eugene J. Mackey Jr. also serves as a memorial within the cemetery. Dedicated on Memorial Day 1952, it pays homage to the 35th Division, an infantry formation of the U.S. Army National Guard that dates to 1918. Mackey may be best known locally for designing the Climatron at the Missouri Botanical Garden, but his mid-century structure monument made of polished pink granite is likewise unique as the only memorial water fountain found in a National Cemetery Association cemetery. 

Many of the memorials have been erected in the last 25 years, including a carillon bell tower that was erected as part of the AMVETS international carillon program to provide living memorials in honor of American veterans. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the bell tower, at the time of its installation, was described as “a very fine instrument [whose] beautiful tones can be heard throughout the entire cemetery and beyond.”

Every monument and gravesite within the cemetery has a story to tell. The same can be said of the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. All are exceptional places to begin exploring history at home this Memorial Day weekend.


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