Three years in the making, Chattanooga's newest attraction is now open, set to memorialize for generations to come some of the finest Americans to ever bear the Stars and Stripes in defense of their country.
Expected to draw visitors from all over the country, the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center seeks to memorialize "the history of our nation's highest military award for valor, from the first medals in 1863 to the present," while educating younger generations about the "six character traits associated with the gallantry of Medal recipients," according to the center's website.
The Feb. 22, 2020, grand opening of the 19,000-square-foot facility in downtown Chattanooga's Aquarium Plaza was set to be a day to remember, complete with various high-ranking members of the military services, including 15 Medal of Honor recipients. It was right in keeping with the center's mission to bring to life the history of the medal and the men and women it honors.
"[People] will be astounded at what they see," said Keith A. Hardison, the Heritage Center's executive director and military historian. "Our focus is on the people and their real-life stories, and their character that prompted them to show this type of bravery and valor and overcome an extraordinary challenge."
The center's exhibits, both permanent and revolving, recognize Medal of Honor recipients from Chattanooga and across the nation. The collection of artifacts dates from the present day back to the Civil War, when the medal was first bestowed for acts of valor in and around Chattanooga.
The first recipients of the medals were Union soldiers who commandeered a train (The General) and took it north as they destroyed Confederate railroads and bridges from Atlanta to Chattanooga in what is now dubbed "the Great Locomotive Chase." Nineteen of the 25 "raiders" received the first medals, and soon after, 33 additional medals were awarded for bravery in and around Chattanooga during the Civil War. These "First Medals" are why Chattanooga is known as the birthplace of the Medal of Honor.
The Heritage Center's innovative exhibits tell the stories of significant recipients of the Medal of Honor, such as the center's namesake, Charles H. Coolidge, a lifelong Chattanoogan who, at the time of the center's opening, was one of the nation's two oldest living World War II recipients, and Dr. Mary Walker, the first and only woman to receive the Medal of Honor. The center is divided into three galleries, and guests are immersed in the history and narrative of each featured soldier who received the nation's highest military honor.
Set to run through May 13, the first revolving exhibit, titled "Honoring the Sacrifice: Medals of Honor Through Time," features a large collection of Medals of Honor and the individual stories behind their recipients, from the Civil War through Vietnam. Each recipient section features a biography, pictures of the recipient, the actual medal and various objects that belonged to the individual or represent their service.
"We are borrowing objects from institutions and individuals all over the country in order to bring this very large collection to the Heritage Center," said Molly Randolph, curator of exhibits for the Heritage Center. "Our hope is that visitors will be inspired by these extraordinary acts of valor by ordinary individuals and that they can connect these same character traits to their day-to-day lives."
General Admission: $13.95
Seniors/Military (active or veteran): $11.95
Kids 5-12: $9.95
Kids 4 and younger: Free
Group rates available
More info: mohhc.org
BY THE NUMBERS
Total Recipients: 3,508
Living Recipients: 71
Double Recipients: 19
Most Recent Recipient: Matthew O. Williams
Information provided by Congressional Medal of Honor Society
As Hardison walked among the exhibits in their final stages of development, he explained the unique experience.
"It's highly interactive. It's what we call an 'immersion experience,'" he said. "You're not looking through glass cases at an artifact, you're walking in a Civil War battlefield. You're at Okinawa with Desmond Doss looking up at Hacksaw Ridge. You are a part of these incredible stories."
Guests can attempt to tie the knot that Doss used to lower 75 wounded soldiers down Hacksaw Ridge, or find themselves in the middle of a World War II battle with Coolidge, surrounded by the sounds of heavy gunfire by the approaching German army and two Panzer tanks.
In the Vietnam exhibit, the focus zooms out, showing guests the two points of view of war: what citizens see at home and what a soldier sees on the battlefield. On one side of the wall, you are in a quaint 1960s living room, watching the nightly news coverage of the war overseas in Vietnam and hearing about the action taking place on the opposite side of the world. On the other side of the wall, you are in a bunker in the jungles of Vietnam, living the war instead of watching it from the comfort of your home.
At several points along a visitor's journey through the center, there are spots called Character Kiosks. Each is devoted to one of the six characteristics that exemplify Medal of Honor recipients: courage, patriotism, citizenship, commitment, integrity and sacrifice. Every kiosk explains how a specific medal recipient reflected that particular characteristic during their time in battle. Visitors see how these ordinary citizens were able to face and overcome extraordinary challenges.
As guests walk through the exhibits, they also learn how these six character traits are applicable today, whether it be on the battlefield, in a boardroom or in their daily lives. "It's an opportunity to not only learn about [these men and women] and about their characteristics, but also to have this 'ah-ha' moment for yourself," Hardison said. "Courage is courage whether you're on a battlefield, on a playground or in a corporate boardroom."
Being the birthplace of the Medal of Honor, the decision to open the Heritage Center here was an easy one. "Within a 25-mile radius of [this center], during the Civil War there were actions for which 52 Medals of Honor were awarded," Hardison said. "No one can match our claim of being the birthplace of the medal."
"It is incredible to be able to come and learn about the soldiers and their acts of bravery within the center and then have the opportunity to visit the exact location of where it happened," Hardison continued. "You get an experience in our Heritage Center and then you can physically go out on the ground and see where many of these actions occurred. We invite you to come visit the Heritage Center and help us honor these genuine American heroes who represent the best and bravest of all who have served and sacrificed in defense of our nation, especially the 32 Tennesseans who have received the Medal of Honor."
He is confident that all sorts of people — families, active military, retired veterans, history buffs and people who want to learn more about the nation's heroes — will appreciate the history highlighted and the immersiveness of the experience.
"What I hope [guests] will take with them is that this country has produced an amazing number of genuine heroes who were willing to risk their lives to keep us free and to make our country better, and that each visitor, by embracing the characteristics of the lives of Medal of Honor recipients, can really do the same thing. They can make this country, their community, their neighborhood, better," Hardison said.
For more information, including details on memberships and special events, or to purchase tickets visit: mohhc.org.
The history behind the history
A timeline of the circuitous route taken by the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center to become reality.
Knoxville businessman John H. Hill suggests museum to honor Medal of Honor recipient Alvin C. York
Nov. 6, 1987
The Medal of Honor Hall of Valor Museum of Military History Foundation incorporated. Office and exhibit space in Chattanooga’s Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium is leased shortly thereafter.
Museum relocated to 20,000-square-foot space rented from city of Chattanooga at East Fourth Street and Georgia Avenue, now site of Brabson Place office building.
Lease runs out at East Fourth Street and Georgia Avenue site. Museum is mothballed with artifacts going into storage.
Museum finds 1,000-square-foot site at Northgate Mall. It would remain there for 16 years, operated primarily by a dedicated group of volunteers. Annual attendance is at around 6,000 visitors.
Museum moves artifacts not on exhibit to improved collection-storage facility on campus of Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum
Coolidge Park, named in honor of Chattanooga Medal of Honor recipient Charles H. Coolidge, identified as possible site for new, less-than-5,000-square-foot facility. The location proves controversial, with many concerned over the loss of limited greenspace in the downtown area. The idea is eventually shelved.
Tennessee State Education Commission approves the Congressional Medal of Honor Character Development Program as a statewide initiative.
Museum’s Board of Trustees sends letter of intent to property owner River City Company to pursue a 19,000-square-foot property in downtown Chattanooga’s Aquarium Plaza. Board launches capital campaign to generate $6.25 million required to renovate the space and create exhibits.
Capital campaign exceeds fundraising goal through private donations, as well as $500,000 appropriation from state of Tennessee, followed by matching gifts from city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments.
Feb. 22, 2020
The Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center opens.