FAYETTEVILLE, North Carolina — Any traveler with a penchant for American military history should make a point of visiting this southern North Carolina city, the home of Fort Bragg, the largest military base in the world.
The history of the U.S. armed forces, and the men and women who made that history, are celebrated at many sites throughout the country. Most recently, the impressive $82 million National Veterans Memorial and Museum opened in Columbus, Ohio, last weekend.
But the entire city of Fayetteville is steeped in military history and tradition due, in large part, to the 50,000 military personnel at Fort Bragg.
The city is named for the Marquis de Lafayette, the Frenchman who famously championed the cause of the American Revolution.
Fayetteville had a long history even before it became a center of American military might. A symbol of that early history stands at the heart of Fayetteville’s lively downtown district: The old Market House, built in 1832 and located on the site where state legislators ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1789.
The unusual and attractive building is Fayetteville’s only National Historic Landmark. It faced the wrecking ball until it was saved in 1906 by the newly formed Woman’s Club of Fayetteville, one of the earliest examples of community historic preservation efforts in North Carolina. The building houses a small museum that’s open during the city’s monthly Fourth Fridays downtown celebration.
Another downtown architectural beauty is the restored Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railroad Depot. The 128-year-old building now houses the Fayetteville Area Transportation & Local History Museum. Exhibits focus on city history — especially transportation, including what was once a surprisingly robust steamboat trade on the Cape Fear River.
Visitors who enjoy nature and gardens should visit the Cape Fear Botanical Garden, 79 acres of pine and hardwood forests along the Cape Fear River. The garden includes natural areas showcasing indigenous plants and more than 2,000 varieties of ornamental plants in areas that feature daylily, camellia and hosta display gardens.
Any visit to Fayetteville, though, will likely focus on the city’s military history and memorials. And that should probably include a visit to the city inside the city, Fort Bragg.
American citizens with a valid ID can stop by the fort’s main gate for a brief security check to get a base pass good for one year.
Fort Bragg is home to the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School and also to the JFK Special Warfare Museum, established in 1963.
The small museum explores the history of the force known as the Green Berets and also delves into unconventional warfare going back to the French and Indian Wars. Visitors will see unusual mementos from World War II and Vietnam such as Barney the Malayan sun bear who was discovered by U.S. troops in Vietnam and became the mascot of a Special Forces unit. (Barney eventually came back to the U.S. and lived at Fort Bragg for several years until he died and was stuffed.)
Fort Bragg is also the home of the 82nd Airborne Division and the division’s War Memorial Museum. The 82nd, the "All-American Division," the first American airborne division, was created in 1917. The museum follows the unit’s heroic exploits from its creation through World War II, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and into the present.
Back in downtown Fayetteville is North Carolina Veterans Park, a beautiful tribute to military veterans, especially those from the Tar Heel State.
I have visited many veterans’ memorials around this great land of ours, and I think that the North Carolina Veterans Park is truly one of the best to be found outside Washington, D.C.
Visitors walk through pillars representing each county of the state. Each pillar contains casts of the hands of individual veterans from that county, many of them showing signs of scars and wounds suffered in past conflicts.
Monuments pay tribute to all five branches of the armed services. Interesting and tasteful sculptures, some incorporating military artifacts such as airplane parts, dot the large park.
Adjacent to the park is the gem of Fayetteville’s military museums, the Airborne & Special Operations Museum.
The large museum explains the mission and history of America’s parachute and glider-borne troops and special-operation forces using state-of-the-art exhibits, audio and video displays, interactive exhibits and life-size dioramas.
At one point in the museum, visitors walk through dimly lit "streets" resembling those of small villages in Normandy during the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. Overhead, a full-size C-47 "Skytrain" airplane hangs from the ceiling with a parachute trooper preparing for a jump.
I found the effect very stirring, as I did many of my stops in Fayetteville.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SteveStephens.
IF YOU GO
This city in southeastern North Carolina is home to Fort Bragg, the world's largest military base. Visitors will find plenty of interesting sites paying tribute to or exploring the region's military history and traditions.
To learn more about visiting the Fayetteville area, call the Fayetteville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-888-984-3763 or go to visitfayettevillenc.com.