Editor's note: As the National Park Service last week commemorated the start of the Civil War 150 years ago, Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis addressed an audience at the Manassas National Battlefield and told those in attendance about the value and importance of maintaining Civil War sites in the National Park System.
It is an honor to stand with you on one of our most sacred American landscapes. Here, 150 years ago today, the nation got its first real look at civil war. This is where American democracy began its baptism by fire. Where the grueling four-year journey that shaped a nation, began in earnest.
The battle of Manassas dispelled the myth that the war would be a quick affair. The Confederate secretary of war, LeRoy Pope Walker, suggested prior to the battle that when all was said and done, he would be able to wipe up the blood that would be spilled with his pocket handkerchief.
Historian Shelby Foote liked to point out that it would have made a good doctoral dissertation, calculating how many handkerchiefs it would have taken to clean up the blood that was actually shed.
Over 620,000 lives. That was the price exacted by the Civil War. But those were only the military deaths. The war’s impact extended much farther than the battlefield.
The Civil War’s social, political, and economic effects were equally profound as the nation divorced itself—with great violence—from an institution that reduced human beings to property.
The war transformed our conceptions of race and freedom. It changed ideas about death and religion. It remains to this day our greatest national upheaval.
The places where the war was fought are among our nation’s most sacred sites: Gettysburg, Shiloh, Antietam, Manassas. The names themselves evoke not only the great struggle, but the personalities and events of that incredible time.
Over 75 of these battlefields and related sites are now national parks. For the National Park Service, serving as the steward of these places, which occupy such a defining role in American memory, is not just a great honor, but a solemn responsibility.
Over time, individual battles have taken on a kind of historical shorthand. Chancellorsville has come to represent the intelligence and audacity of Robert E. Lee; Gettysburg: the high-water mark of the Confederacy; Vicksburg: the plodding determination of Ulysses S. Grant.
The first battle of Manassas was the first great Southern victory, a shock to the federal army, and the place where the name “Stonewall” entered the American lexicon. But deeper than that, Manassas was where the awful realization set in that this was going to be a protracted struggle, whose cost neither side had really bargained for.
By nightfall on July 21, combatants and spectators alike were probably asking themselves, “What have we done?”
One of the most important questions visitors to Civil War battlefields can ask today is: “How did we get to the point of war?"
Helping them find the answer is one of the National Park Service’s most important roles as keeper and interpreter of these iconic American places. Because our mission encompasses not only preservation, but education. It is our responsibility to help visitors understand not only the war itself—its methods and mechanics, its heroes and generals—but also the circumstances that brought it on, the passions that set us against each other, and how the war set our future course as a nation.
In 1861, some four million African Americans were living in slavery. Protected under the Constitution, slavery was legal in 15 states and the District of Columbia. It was a well-established part of life in America, a powerful economic, political, and social force.
Just a few years before the outbreak of hostilities, the Supreme Court had ruled in the Dred Scott case that black Americans—whether slave or free—could not be citizens under the Constitution. By the eve of the war, slavery had become a festering issue, one that could no longer be put off. Mixed in with the debate over slavery was the nature of the states’ relationship to a central authority.
The South fiercely believed it was fighting for the survival of its way of life. Its leaders referred to the struggle as the second American Revolution.
The idea of secession is foreign to us today, but for the people of the South, where they felt the radical passion of the Founding Fathers very strongly, secession was entirely within their rights as independent states.
As a nation, we found ourselves in the peculiar position of debating whether we were, in fact, a nation. The Civil War decided, once and for all, the questions of slavery, of union or disunion.
The debate over states’ rights would continue long after Appomattox, but there would be no more argument over whether we were one nation. Before the war, people spoke of the country in the plural, saying “The United States are.” After the war, it was singular: “The United States is.”
Today our national story – of our one nation – is told in 394 national parks across America. The National Park Service has the privilege of being entrusted with this story, with its truth. We are the keeper of the American legacy in all its sweep and drama.
At every turn of this narrative, there are prescient lessons for today. These places, these national parks, have been set aside for posterity, not because they are old, but because they are timeless.
We stand on this battlefield today because we understand that in addition to celebrating our greatest achievements, we must commemorate our most somber moments. In our most trying time as a nation, both sides looked within, and found no alternative but to pay the terrible price. The result was our greatest social revolution, and our greatest evolution as a people.
In the darkest days of the war, Abraham Lincoln said, “If we could first know where we are, and wither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.”
That is the relevance of history.
There, also, lies the power of our Civil War sites.
These places command our reverence not only because of what happened there, but because they help us understand the monumental trial and sacrifice that shaped our nation, our government, and our society.
We can recognize the passions aroused in our own political dialogue concerning the issues of today: Freedom, race, justice, citizenship, the economy, the role of the federal government, national security.
They are not quite the same as the issues that brought millions of men to arms in 1861, but we continue to cherish—and debate—the principles that brought bloodshed.
The Civil War holds vital lessons for all of us: That civil discourse and mutual understanding are essential to a democracy. That we are defined not by what divides us, but by what joins us together. That a nation that lays claims to greatness, must look within itself and be willing to pay the price of standing by its high ideals.
Here at Manassas, and at hundreds of other places like this, the nation got a sobering lesson in how costly that can be. The National Park Service is proud to be the steward of that legacy.
I can promise you that we will be here every day of every year watching over this place, to keep it and protect it; to pass its story on to future generations of Americans. For it is not simply a battlefield that we preserve here. It is our birthright as a nation, purchased at an unimaginable cost, and one that we will care for with all the reverence it demands.