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by William H. Benson

May 29, 2008

     On the east bank of the Potomac River stands the Lincoln Memorial. Dedicated on May 30, 1922, it was made of marble mined in Tennessee and also limestone from Indiana. The statue inside, entitled “Seated Lincoln,” faces eastward across the length of the reflecting pool toward the Washington Monument and beyond to the Capitol.

     Other Presidents have their own national memorials in West Potomac Park. There are statues of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, which stand on the shore of the Tidal Basin, and across it is Thomas Jefferson’s Memorial. Lyndon Baines Jonson has a Memorial Grove on the Potomac, and on Theodore Roosevelt Island within the Potomac River is a memorial to T.R.

     Lincoln also has a second National Memorial, located in Indiana, and it honors his boyhood home. Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota then brings together the faces of four of the Presidents: Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt.

     The answer to the old joke, “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” is that the bodies of both President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia lie in dark wood caskets in a tomb, the largest mausoleum in the U.S., on the east bank of the Hudson River at 125th Street in New York City.

     Currently, the United States government, through the National Park Service, administers 29 National Memorials. Besides former Presidents, there are memorials dedicated to war heroes: Oliver Perry of the War of 1812, Robert E. Lee of the Civil War, and Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish hero of the American Revolutionary War.

     There are five memorials honoring early American exploration: the Arkansas Post, Fort Caroline in Florida, the Jefferson National Expansion in Missouri, and memorials to two Spanish explorers—Coronado and Desoto. Another memorial, Chamizal, in El Paso, Texas honors the agreement settling the boundary dispute between the U.S. and Mexico. 

     Memorials to national tragedies recognize the victims at the Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood in 1889, those on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the passengers aboard the aborted Flight 93 that crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. In addition, there is the Astronaut Memorial at the JFK Space Center, which remembers those who died while conducting U.S. space programs.

     Alexander Hamilton’s home in New York City; Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York City; Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, the site of the Wright brothers’ historic flight, and Roger Williams’ home in Rhode Island are included as National Memorials.

     Also in West Potomac Park are the three veterans’ memorials: World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Of these, the latter has received the most acclaim. Two wings come together at a steep angle to create a Wall that cuts into the side of an incline. One wing aims towards Washington Monument and the other juts out towards the Lincoln Memorial. On 140 panels are inscribed the names of 58,256 veterans, missing or killed while serving in Vietnam.

     Maya Lin, a Yale architectural student who designed the Wall in 1982, later said, “I didn’t want to destroy a living park. You use the landscape. You don’t fight it. You absorb it. When I looked at the site, I just knew I wanted something horizontal that took you in, that made you feel safe within the park, yet at the same time reminded you of the dead. So I just imagined opening up the earth.”

     In 1855, Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke at the dedication service of Concord’s new cemetery, appropriately named Sleepy Hollow, and he said, “In this quiet valley as in the palm of Nature’s hand, we shall sleep well when we have finished our day.” And, then, Emerson tossed out a question, “We shall bring hither the body of the dead, but how shall we catch the escaped soul?”

     Memories—so pleasant and so fond—attach us to those souls who are in an instant set free, and thus we feel ourselves still connected to those who once lived, through our private memories and our National Memorials.