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By Lisa M. Budreau, Ph. D.
In the spring of 1919, the first contingent of Tennessee soldiers from the 30th Division arrived home from France. As they paraded through Nashville, where their glorious deeds in the First World War were hailed by massive, exuberant crowds, talks were already underway for a grand memorial to honor the sacrifice and service of all men and women.
The earliest mass war of the twentieth century lasted four long years, from 1914 to 1918, with the United States entering the conflict on April 6, 1917. Over 100,000 Tennesseans volunteered or were drafted during this war; six of them received the Medal of Honor. As a result of this participation, the state experienced nearly 4,000 deaths and more than 6,000 casualties.
Traditionally, women had assumed the role of mourner and believed it their moral, patriotic duty to tend and mark the graves of soldiers and loved ones. But by 1919, women’s roles in memorialization took on greater significance. Tennessee women’s organizations had worked tirelessly, diligently and successfully to support the war effort nationally and locally, but the effects of their increasing grassroots activism quickly reached into the post-war era. They led the calls for “a lasting monument to honor heroes of the world war,” and their voices were answered.
In early December 1918, Mrs. Robert F. Weakley, member of the Tennessee and Davidson County Equal Suffrage Association and president of the Tennessee Capitol Association, told her listeners that the area around the state capitol was dilapidated. She urged them to consider that “in six months Tennessee could own all of Capitol Hill, have her officials properly housed, [and] a victory park surrounding her capitol …”.
Clearly, the state needed a commemorative site, but exactly what and where that would be was not apparent. So, a Soldier’s Memorial Committee headed by Major Rutledge Smith, former president of the state’s Council for National Defense, was appointed to explore options. Many plans were suggested for the state memorial, and as the weeks passed, controversy ensued over whether it should be exclusively a memorial of beauty or a functional structure with some public utility. Several civic groups, such as Nashville’s Kiwanis Club and the state’s Rotary Clubs, urged the governor to accept the Park Commission’s offer to use a portion of the Parthenon building as the state’s war memorial. Those opposing this proposal claimed it was too far from the heart of the city and could not be viewed by African Americans who were, at that time, excluded from Centennial Park.
In February 1919, Governor Albert Roberts urged the 61st General Assembly to pass legislation for a state memorial honoring those who served in World War I. This resulted with the passage of the Tennessee Memorial Act, Chapter 122 of the Public Acts of 1919. The Act enabled the state to acquire land and build a memorial hall for offices and public assembly.
This architectural rendering shows the proposal for the state’s new War Memorial Building as presented by Edward E. Dougherty with the New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, in 1922. (Tennessee State Museum collection, 79.120)
By the spring of 1919, a new commission was appointed and chaired by the governor, empowered to acquire land, arrange competition for the building and site plans, and award contracts. On March 29, 1921, Senate Bill No. 164 (Historical Committee Bill, 1921) provided for “the collection, preservation, and publication of material relative to the history of Tennessee, including the military records of its citizens; [to mark battlefields] and other historic places within the State and for a historical museum ...”. As money was raised and plans for the memorial progressed, war relics were collected for the planned military museum and stored at the Capitol until the building was completed.
The War Memorial Building, situated in downtown Nashville near the historic State Capitol, was the outcome of a collective desire to erect a site of memory and an enduring symbol to the spirit of volunteerism. The cost of construction was paid for by the city of Nashville, Davidson County, and the State of Tennessee. The Memorial was dedicated in September 1925 and it included administrative offices, space for archival records, an auditorium, and a museum for twentieth century veterans to meet and display their souvenirs, beginning with the Spanish American War. In 1937, that museum became the first incarnation of the Tennessee State Museum.
First State Reunion of Spanish American War Veterans, June 8, 1928, in a photograph taken on the steps of Nashville’s War Memorial Building. (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2010.245)
Since the Memorial’s dedication, a commemorative landscape of stone and bronze has gradually risen around the war memorial as Tennesseans connect their remembrances to other monuments with links to traditions of past military service. However, they were constructed within the confines of their day, when racial, gender and ethnic contributions were often overlooked in favor of national unity and a single voice.
Today, the Military Branch of the Tennessee State Museum continues to serve an extremely important part of honoring Tennessee’s military legacy, but with fresh, updated galleries that reinterpret the past in a more expanded, inclusive manner that highlights the diverse contributions of all those who served. It spans the 20th century to current conflicts in Asia and the Middle East.
Tennesseans maintained their “Volunteer State” reputation when 3,900 enlisted by May 9, 1898. They served in Cuba as well as in the longer conflict that followed in the Philippines. Black troops played a major role in the U. S. victory in Cuba, most notably as part of the Cavalry Division that charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders. (Tennessee State Museum collection 2007.65.4)
Visitors will be pleased to see the improvements recently made to this space that feature artifacts such as an enormous, handcrafted model of the USS Tennessee, World War 1 trench art, a full-scale model of the World War II nuclear weapon “Little Boy” bomb from Oak Ridge, and several items brought back from Vietnam veterans. Combat in Afghanistan, as experienced by a corporal from Mount Juliet, is depicted by the Blackhawk chest rig he wore then donated to the museum. Life-size wall murals and enhanced graphic images help portray Tennessee’s proud military heritage, while remembering the men and women who served in various capacities for over a century.
Military Branch Museum display with handcrafted model of the USS Tennessee.
Sculptor Nancy Cavener-Jacobsohn's poignant 2002 work, "Camouflage," sensitively reveals war’s dark side and the psychological suffering it causes. It was created and displayed in honor of her daughter, who served in Bahrain as a hospital corpsman with the US Navy. (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2016.100)
The War Memorial and Military Branch Museum of the Tennessee State Museum remains a reminder of the debt we owe to all who have served this nation. But space within the old structure is restrictive, and Tennessee’s proud volunteer legacy is expansive, reaching back to the Revolutionary War. The state’s nickname, the Volunteer State, likely derives from the War of 1812 when men from the state rushed to fight the British. The term has since been reinforced through many wars.
In the beautifully designed space of the Tennessee State Museum’s main building, on the corner of Rosa Parks Blvd. and Jefferson Street in Nashville, art and artifacts, archival photos, state of the art technology, interactive displays and films showcase more of the Tennessee extensive military heritage. An entire gallery, Tennessee and the Great War: A Centennial Exhibition, and a significant portion of Change and Challenge (1870-1945) is dedicated to those Tennesseans that served in World War I, from well-known figures like Sgt. Alvin York (with his Medal of Honor, uniform, and personal items), and General Lawrence Tyson, Cordell Hull, and African American officer, Lt. Henry A. Cameron, to lesser known individuals like Captain Albert Harris, a local physician who served in France, and Maggie Sinclair Craig, whose nursing uniform hangs on display. A portrait of U.S. Navy Admiral Albert Gleaves’ is featured in the Tennessee Time Tunnel.
Alvin C. York Medal of Honor, on display in Change in Challenge (Tennessee State Museum collection SC.58.11)
Maggie Sinclair Craig's nursing uniform, on display in Change and Challenge.
World War II display at the Tennessee State Museum
A display focused on Tennessee’s role in World War II not only highlights the work of those in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, but the patriotism and bravery of Cornelia Fort, the first female pilot to die on active duty. Our Tennessee Transforms exhibition highlights the service of Tennesseans in the Vietnam, Korean and Gulf War conflicts.
It is hoped that in the future, we will have an opportunity to display and interpret more of the museum’s vast military collections in the Military Branch of the Museum in a manner comparable to what visitors can now see at the main, and much newer location.
Both spaces combined tell a story of service and sacrifice that crosses boundaries of gender, race, and time that will inspire, inform, and intrigue even the most discerning visitor.
Lisa M. Budreau, Ph.D., is the Senior Curator of Military History at Tennessee State Museum and author of Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933 (NYU Press, 2010) and Answering the Call: The U.S. Army Nurse Corps, 1917-1919 (GPO, Washington DC, 2010).