David Ruth, superintendent of Richmond National Battlefield Park, has helped guide the local, regional and national commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
A Pennsylvania native, Ruth, 58, was a history major at Virginia Tech when he became a seasonal ranger at Chancellorsville Battlefield. There, he met and married Chris Ritchie Ruth, who now works for Chesterfield County. They live in Hanover County.
How did you get interested in the Civil War?
My father and grandfather were avid Civil War buffs. As a youngster, I was hooked. I would stare for hours at the extremely popular "American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War," which contained illustrated maps of each battlefield. I used this type of illustration on our new wayside exhibits at each battlefield.
What changes have you seen in Richmond national parks since you arrived?
When I transferred here in 1991, the park was preparing a new general management plan that envisioned an expansion to more than 7,300 acres. We also redefined how visitors could experience the dramatic Richmond Civil War story.
What's exciting is seeing the plan unfold and still being a part of it. We now have an incredible visitor center at Tredegar Iron Works.
With the help of battlefield preservation organizations, particularly the Civil War Trust and the Richmond Battlefield Associates, the park will expand from the original nucleus of 764 acres to around 3,000 acres by the end of 2013.
What's been the biggest challenge about the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, locally and nationally? What's your role in the national commemoration?
We certainly have had challenges.
First was the messaging challenge. For so many reasons, the 1862 history here isn't as well-known as the stories at other Civil War sites, but it's not because it isn't as important.
In fact, what happened here in many respects is more important than the results of Gettysburg, which U.Va. professor Gary Gallagher brought to light so well in one of the lectures of the commemoration.
Also, we had a major logistical challenge, preparing for an unknowable number of visitors at battlefields that normally don't see that much traffic and shifting rapid-fire from event to event, each in a different location. The park staff had to be in constant motion, just like the armies of 1862. Then, throw in severe storms that dropped trees across park roads and wrecked our program tents — twice.
Nationally, I serve as the northeast region (Maine to Virginia) representative on the NPS Civil War 150 committee. Our challenge is to look for interpretive opportunities that are transformative.
Certainly, we will get out on the battlefields. But we must also find ways to communicate the powerful and untold stories, both positive and negative, that provide transcendent meaning for the sacrifice of the soldiers. This includes the story of emancipation, a nation brought back together, and the continuing struggles for civil rights that is an enduring legacy of the war.
What are your hopes and dreams (or plans) for the remainder of the 150th?
Since no major fighting occurred locally in 1863, we'll focus our attention on the city itself, the symbolic importance of being the capital, the deprivations of the residents, the ambiguous meaning of emancipation for the slaves who were held in bondage here, and the prison and hospital stories. Then in 2014 and 2015, just wait and see.
What role did Richmond NPS play in the filming of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" movie here? How will you build on it?
Having Hollywood bring attention to the last chapter of his life is a great way for more people to learn about his visit to Virginia in 1865. Park staff and alumni were advisers to the film.
One of the ways we plan to build on the film and expand the story is by having our own Lincoln historian, Mike Gorman, lead tours on Nov. 4 at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Mike will follow in Lincoln's footsteps through Shockoe Bottom to the Museum of the Confederacy and the state Capitol.
What's something that people don't know about you?
My father brought me to Richmond as a youngster to visit Civil War sites, and I fell in love with the city and its stories back then.
We were living in Charleston, S.C., when the opportunity arose to transfer to Richmond. I got the job, and we have never regretted our decision to call Richmond home.