Richmond Civil War Visitor Center Dedication Remarks
Good Afternoon. I'm honored and privileged to be here with you today.
The National Park System has responsibility for maintaining a remarkable number of places associated with this nation's military history. We have this task because most nations measure themselves at least in part by the yardstick of conflict. "Battle-tested" is a term used with respect for men or machines.
This nation--OUR nation--has been battle-tested. Nowhere has that test been any sterner than at Richmond.
For four years, two competing armies, supporting different notions of the suitable political, social, and economic future of our Constitutional Democracy engaged in combat for control of the political and industrial hub of the South: Richmond.
To help new generations of Americans understand both the tactics and the purposes of theses opposing forces, the National Park Service has long maintained a series of properties around this great city where we could recount that story.
Today, the story gains a new, and stronger, voice from a new, a better platform.
Just as the city was the linchpin over which two armies fought long and hard, the Richmond Civil War Visitor Center will be the linchpin to the tale of what happened in and around this great city nearly a century and a half ago.
The mission of the National Park Service can be summarized in four words: protection, preservation, presentation, and perpetuation.
We have been handed a trust. We have been given responsibility for the heritage of this great nation. We are responsible for places and things that represent the values of America and American society.
We have been asked to protect that heritage from loss or damage from cataclysmic acts of God and malicious acts of man.
We have been asked to preserve that heritage in the face of ordinary daily deterioration or extraordinary dramatic destruction.
We have been asked to present it in ways that will foster understanding of that heritage by those who share it with us and those who will inherit it from us.
And we have been asked to perpetuate it--to make certain to the best of our ability that it will be undiminished when we pass on the mantle of responsibility to the next generation.
That's a tall order. . . .
This visitor center will tie together the elements, not just of war, but of the time that spawned the war and the time that grew from it. And the site itself, now so wonderfully restored, reminds us that the Tredegar Iron Works not only supplied vital weaponry and munitions to the Confederate forces, but jobs and products that were essential to family finances and regional economics.
And this center is ready just in time. . . .
The National Park Service is already pointing toward 2010 and the resurgence of interest in the Civil War that will inevitable come with the 150th anniversary of the conflict. This will be the staging ground for a new army of visitors, hungering for an understanding of what brought a great nation into great conflict with itself. Our responsibility is to use the opportunity afforded by that anniversary to enhance public understanding of the varied meanings and enduring legacy of the people, places and events of that time and this place that has shaped a direction for the America of our own time and beyond.
We have a leading responsibility, but as those who helped make this facility possible have proven, as the exhibits within will show, it is too great a challenge for the National Park Service to undertake alone. We are here as partners of the city, the state, the business community, and--most of all--the visitors who will be served in ever-growing numbers.
But how do we do that?
Back in 1929, a career parks man named Carl P. Russell wrote: "Any plan involving assistance to the visitor must include an examination of the attitude of the park visitor to what is presented. We are not concerned merely with the fact that many things may be large or wide or deep or highly colored or have an interesting evolutionary development. . . . From the point of view of the visitor, we are interested in their meaning to them in terms of their most fundamental thinking, and their significance in relationship to their everyday lives."
And we do that because nothing in our care matters if it can't be related to people. We have to look at what matters in their lives and help them see how what we are doing relates to that.
A generation before Carl Russell, the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana taught us a simple, stark truth: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The horrors of history, once forgotten, can be revived. That's too high a price to ignore; it's too great a responsibility to neglect.
To keep the story--and its context--alive, we now have this magnificent center. I see the Richmond Civil War Visitor Center as a shrine to the spirit of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune's wise counsel to, in her words, "always have a thirst for education."
We are now a generation removed from America's last great military conflict. It increases the burden on us to do our job better. I won't shed a tear because this generation hasn't personally learned the meaning of war--or even the meaning of readiness for war. I might, however, shed a tear because they have no understanding of the reasons for war--the causes, events, and circumstances that would justify putting the best of our youth in harm's way for a higher purpose.
We have long taken responsibility for explaining the mechanics of war--the availability, use, and evolution of strategy. . . tactics. . . logistics. But we've left it to the old warriors, the successive generations of fighters themselves, to tell the children, friends, and neighbors why they did what they did.
It was safe for us and in its way, it was successful, too. But the trouble with informal systems is that they break down. Sadly, we were so unused to the notion of an entire generation without a serious breakout of armed hostility, we didn't consider how that message would be carried forward in such circumstances.
My message to you is as direct as any soldier's war story: It's them or us. And it's better if it's us.
We must tell the stories of why, not just the stories of who, what, where, when and how. And as any reporter will tell you, "why" is a lot harder to tell.
The interplay of conflicting and overlapping reasons is a great challenge. But it is a challenge we must not shy away from. To go to war without a reason would be a national shame. To tell of war without the reasons should be no less so. . . .
I'm proud that right here, we are beginning the new millennium with a new perspective. Right here, we now have an exhibit that says forthrightly: "More than seventy years after the adoption of the Constitution, a nation founded on principles of liberty and equality still allowed human enslavement and quarreled over the balance between state and federal powers. These interrelated issues led to Constitutional crises that were merely patched over, satisfying neither North nor South."
The challenge of the 21st century is to make America understand the reasons our most hallowed places should be respected and remembered. It is unquestionably important that the classic battlefield tactics employed at Cold Harbor, Drewry's Bluff, Gaines' Mill, Malvern Hill and other nearby places deserve careful study. But it is just as important to know why those troops were there, what impelled them to fight, what values deserving of our continuing attention and concern motivated the strategy, courage and sacrifice we so admire.
As we face that challenge, let us remember the words of Theodore Roosevelt, who. . . went on to become our first great conservationist President: ". . .credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, at least fails while daring greatly."
Can that story be complete if we ignore the "great enthusiasms, the great devotions," and the "worthy cause" while we tell of the people and actions that they inspired? I don't think so.
As the guardians truly of the nation's heritage, we must tell that part of the story to keep the legacy intact for future generations.
Protection, preservation, presentation, and perpetuation. Those four come together at the Tredegar Iron Works today.
The stories of the Civil War are rich and compelling. They merit scrutiny, study, analysis, and consideration. On behalf of the National Park Service and our partners and contributors, large and small, I'm proud to be here to dedicate this great facility that will provide opportunity to visitors from near or far to acquire a new and fuller understanding of, and respect for, what took place here.
Last updated: February 26, 2015