I’ve been daydreaming about a lot of places over the past 14 months. The fields of northern France (all the time), croissants in Paris (whenever coffee is brewing), finally visiting the Menin Gate in Ypes, Belgium (whenever hanging out virtually with my British friends at the Great War Group), and occasionally, a warm sandy beach somewhere (during the long Minnesota winter).
When I was finally fully vaccinated and able to safely leave the state of Minnesota for the first time in 400+ days, my options were limited but my needs were much simpler. First, I had some family to visit in Leavenworth, KS. Nearby in Kansas City is the National World War I Museum and Memorial which I (shockingly) had never visited. Throw in promises of a little barbeque and craft beer, and my husband was sold.
In planning the trip I also discovered an important stop that needed to be included on the itinerary – the boyhood home of General J. Pershing. And so our adventure into the Midwest and into history was born.
General Pershing’s Boyhood Home: Laclede, MO
To get to our pit stop of Laclede, Missouri from Minnesota we headed straight south through Iowa and after Des Moines got off the freeway to take some state highways into northern Missouri. I’m not sure what I expected, but this was some really spectacularly beautiful countryside, with green rolling hills and picturesque country homes and farms.
John Joseph Pershing was born outside Laclede on September 13, 1860 to John Fletcher and Ann Elizabeth Thomas Pershing. When he was young they moved to town and his father opened a general store. Pershing called Laclede home until age 21, when he left to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (I sported my West Point shirt specifically for this visit).
Missouri was a turbulent place to live during this time. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 called for popular vote to determine whether neighboring Kansas would be brought into the union as a slaveholding state or free state. This resulted in violent clashes between pro-slavery and abolitionist groups that flocked there to have a say. Although ultimately it would become a free state, the violence would continue in “Bleeding Kansas” as well as Missouri while the Civil War raged from 1861-65.
In 1863, the general store owned by Pershing’s father was looted by raiders that made their way through Laclede. John Fletcher escaped out the back of the store unnoticed, 3-year-old John Joseph tucked under his arm, and ran to the Pershing’s home a few doors down to grab his shotgun, at which point Ann pleaded with him not to do anything rash. Eventually Union soldiers would arrive to restore order, but not before the raiders had sacked the town and killed several civilians. The faded memories of this would stay with the future General for the rest of his life (mostly, his mother nearly crushing him in fear).
The site of the Pershing home is now part of the Missouri State Park system. Due to the pandemic, the visitor center was unfortunately closed, but the house was open for self-guided tours. Also on the site is the Prairie Mound School, where Pershing was educated and was also a teacher for a time. A well-manicured park in between the two buildings contains a statue of Pershing and memorials to war veterans.
Although I wouldn’t recommend to make a special visit to Laclede just for this, if you are ever in the area it is worth it to take a few hours of your time to stop by. I was thrilled to visit the home of my favorite General and get a little insight into what the early part of his life was like.
The National World War I Museum and Memorial: Kansas City, MO
If you are wondering why the National World War I Memorial and Museum in the United States is located in Kansas City, MO, there’s only one good reason I could find: because the people were willing to put up the money. In an old-school version of a Kickstarter, in 1919 the citizens of Kansas City raised $2.5 million ($35 million by today’s standards) in 10 days to create a monument to those who had served in the Great War. The Liberty Memorial site was dedicated in 1921 and the monument completed in 1926. Another fundraising campaign in 1998 led to the restoration of the memorial and the creation of a museum on the site, which opened in 2006. It was then designated the “national” memorial.
The National World War I Memorial and Museum is located just to the south of downtown Kansas City in a beautiful, slightly elevated green area. Although the tower was closed, you get a sense that there is a great view of the city from there.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the museum itself, but I was quite pleased and impressed by how busy it was! Lots of visitors and a range of ages. The museum’s main exhibit is divided into two sections: the war before U.S. entry and the American involvement in the conflict. Each section has a brief film to watch beforehand which provides context for the section you are about to see.
I will preface what is to follow with this: I enjoyed every minute of the place. I was just like a child in a candy store. By the end my feet ached, it was a little too hot under my mask and little cramped with all the people, but I was thrilled by all the artifacts I saw and the new things I learned.
My hot take? I actually found the first section to be stronger than the second. The first section focused on the war as a global war and did this in the truest sense by including all fronts and all combatants. The film gave a quite thorough overview of all the factors that led to war. I got my time with a French 75 and some Howitzer’s and a so many other awesome artifacts.
Here’s where I am a little critical with the second section of the museum, on the U.S. involvement into the war. It’s in the same vein of my main critiques when it comes to the recent domestic narrative on the U.S. World War I. To start, there often seems to be a greater emphasis on the home front with less focus on what happened “over there.” Now don’t get me wrong, understanding the domestic changes that occurred in this country during wartime is really important, but for some reason it’s like we lack confidence in the stories of the actual fighting, and I’m not sure why. There was a huge learning curve, our allies were way ahead of us in tactics and technology, but that’s okay. That’s part of what makes this such an important part of the story of the U.S. military and really, us as a nation.
Second, and this is similar to the first point: tell me about the battles. Where did we fight? What are the names of the places? Normandy, Bastogne, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Sicily… these are all places I can easily list that we fought in the Second World War, but I bet most Americans can’t name a place we fought in the First. The museum had a very thorough (almost too thorough, lots of text) timeline of events laid out, but I felt there could have been a better outline and emphasis of the places and specific battles the Americans participated in: Cantigny, Belleau Wood, Chateau-Theirry, the Marne, Saint-Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne. I got bits and pieces of the US experience, but not a cohesive narrative.
Lastly, and you can roll your eyes here, but give me a more fulsome display about General Pershing! He was our main man! And the other personalities, foreign and domestic. Names were thrown in here and there – near an artillery piece they mentioned Harry Truman, near a tank they mentioned Patton and Eisenhower, but besides these recognizable names from WWII that was all we got.
However, the artifacts were spectacular, and most people were as engrossed as my husband and I. If you are considering visiting this museum, do it. It was well worth the time and expense and I cannot wait to return. I need to get a closer look of the memorial. And throw ALL MY MONEY at the cashier in the gift store…again.
Side note, some Kansas City recommendations: Jack’s Stack barbeque and Boulevard Brewing. This was really our first time “out” since the beginning of the pandemic and it felt so, so good. I highly recommend eating your weight in BBQ and enjoying the views from Boulevard Brewing’s patio.
Buffalo Soldier Monument and Frontier Army Museum: Ft. Leavenworth, KS
While visiting family at Ft. Leavenworth, I also got the opportunity to dive a bit more into history. First up was the Buffalo Soldier Monument, which commemorates the 9th and 10th U.S. Calvary Regiments. They were all-black units established following the U.S. Civil War, with the 10th being formed at Ft. Leavenworth in 1866. (The U.S. Civil War marked the first time black men were allowed to fight as soldiers.) The Buffalo Soldiers operated mainly on the prairies during western expansion as well as in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and were commanded by white officers. General Pershing famously commanded the 10th Calvary in Montana from 1895-97. This earned him the nickname “Black Jack.” The nickname was given to him by the Cadets at West Point while he was an instructor in tactics following his time out west. His students were not fond of him and the moniker was initially not meant as a compliment. However, it stuck with him and changed in tone over the years.
The creation of the Buffalo Soldier Monument was initiated by former U.S. Secretary of State and four-star General Colin Powell and dedicated in 1992.
I also visited the Frontier Army Museum at Ft Leavenworth. The exhibits in this museum cover the activities of the Frontier Army from the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Punitive Expedition (when General Pershing chased Pancho Villa into Mexico). Throughout this time Ft. Leavenworth, the oldest army post in continuous operation west of the Mississippi, was instrumental in providing troops and supplies for operations on the Central Plains.
The bulk of these “operations” involved the oppression of American Indians, so it is not necessarily a happy time in our history to reflect on, but it is important to do so and was an interesting visit nonetheless.
It’s also important to note that in 1881, General William T. Sherman established what would become the Command and General Staff College of the United States Army at Ft. Leavenworth.
My takeaway from this trip? History is everywhere. You just need to look. I was not expecting to see all I did at Leavenworth, to make so many connections from the Civil War to the Western frontier to the First World War. While I’m still dreaming of Belgium and France, I have a much deeper appreciation for our history here at home in the Midwest.