Preservation Opportunity in the Western Theater

Our friends at the Civil War Trust sent along this announcement and opportunity to preserve more battlefield ground in the Western Theater. Continue reading for more information about this opportunity and how you can get involved.

“With the exception of Virginia, no state endured more significant Civil War battles than Tennessee. It was in Tennessee — during the war’s early stages — where Gen. Ulysses S. Grant first gained national recognition by demanding and securing the “unconditional surrender” of a Confederate army at Fort Donelson. In 1863, the nation’s gaze was again fixed upon the Volunteer State as Union and Confederate troops vied for control of Chattanooga. And it was in Tennessee that Gen. John Bell Hood launched a last-ditch effort to strike back at the Yankees, resulting in inconceivable suffering at Franklin and ultimate defeat at Nashville.

In recognition of the state’s importance during our nation’s defining conflict, you and I have already saved 3,491 acres in Tennessee, allowing future generations to walk the ground where history was made.

Today, we have the opportunity to save an additional 15 acres at three battlefields in Tennessee: Fort Donelson, Brown’s Ferry (near Chattanooga), and Franklin. We will be adding to the 639 acres we have already saved at these three battlefields—more tiles in the mosaic of Tennessee’s rich Civil War heritage. Thanks to a magnificent $21.17-to-$1 match, you and I can save this land—worth a combined total of $1.5 million—for just $73,250!

Help us build on our previous successes in Tennessee and save these three Tennessee battlefields.

’Til the Battle is Won,

Jim Lighthizer, President
Civil War Trust

P.S. Please join our efforts to save 15 acres at Fort Donelson, Brown’s Ferry, and Franklin. 

A Conversation with Dave Ruth, Richmond’s Retiring Superintendent (part five)

(part five of five)

We conclude today my interview with Dave Ruth, who starts 2018 as the former superintendent of Richmond National Battlefield. Dave retired at the beginning of this week after a 44-year career with the National Park Service, including the last 26 in Richmond.

“One of the things that I never figured out was how to deal with my impatience,” Dave told me early in the interview. As we get ready to wrap up, I wanted to circle back to that statement. 

CHRIS MACKOWSKI: I want to tie back to a comment you said early on: one of your own challenges is your own impatience. But this all—everything we’ve been talking about—just strikes me as an incredible “long game” that you have been playing and working and been extremely patient with. That’s amazing to me.

DAVE RUTH: Well, I think it’s not so much patience as it is persistence. One of the things I’ve learned is that because of public response and the difficulty we had initially at expanding our boundaries, we could have taken the tack of “It’s just not worth it. At this moment in time, the sentiment is so negative, there’s too much potential damage, and it’s not worth it.” We wanted instant gratification even then, but the reality was that it’s a long game.

It became clearly apparent to me that we’re in it for the “500-year game” and couldn’t just look at it as what we were going to create in the next two or three years, but we had to look at what it could be in 100 or 500 years, and that’s how we have to manage it. With persistence, we look at what we absolutely need—we don’t know when the acquisition opportunities are going to occur or even if they will, but we have to indicate our interest to buy what we can as soon as we can and then figure out how to get the sites open.

Also I don’t worry about how we can afford to maintain the new areas we do acquire. Maybe I should, but our maintenance staff works hard and they work smart. When we acquire fields that are currently farmed, we keep hem in agriculture and put the leasing revenue back into maintenance and resource protection.

CM: I think the story you’ve shared about the park’s growth has been a remarkable achievement, and an incredible testimony to great leadership and vision. As we get ready to wrap up, as you get ready to retire, do you have any regrets?

DR: Any regrets about retirement? I’ll have to figure out what to wear each morning. [laughs, indicating his Park Service uniform].

I have a lot of regrets. I have grown to love this agency more than I ever imagined I would. A lot of my colleagues feel a great amount of frustration due to dwindling budgets and the absolute nightmare of trying to hire great people—and there are many great ones looking to work for this agency. But I love the mission of the National Park Service. I will miss the interaction with the public. I think most of the things we’ve talked about today in terms of land acquisition have been wonderful.

But putting in an electronic map program at Cold Harbor, installing it and watching visitors walk in and say, “My gosh, I really now understand what happened here!”—there’s nothing more satisfying than to realize we made a momentous change in a person’s understanding of the story or in some way provided a way for them to make a personal connection or even locate where their ancestor fought and might have been wounded or even killed. We can’t underestimate the power of genealogical connections in these places. I will miss all that tremendously.

But I will relish greater opportunities for more writing projects, and maybe that will help to offset what I’ll miss in the agency and the people I work with, either indirectly or directly.

I’ve had many mentors along the way in the National Park system that have helped me in my career, and from all over the country, not just the battlefield circuit. I’ve had many friends that I’ve developed in Glacier, or Yellowstone, or Yosemite, and I’m very fortunate to be able to call them with a dilemma, a question, or a challenge, and together we work through it. One of the strengths in the agency is the kind of folks that work for NPS, extremely dedicated folks who are not in this game to get rich. The beneficiaries of this work are the American public who are richer because of the experiences and opportunities our staff provides. That may sound egotistic, but I truly believe that.

A Conversation with Dave Ruth, Richmond’s Retiring Superintendent (part four)

(part four of five)

Earlier this week, Dave Ruth retired as superintendent of Richmond National Battlefield—a national park that preserves stories from Civil War campaigns in both the 1862 and 1864. But as Dave explains today, the park’s layers of history resonate even more deeply—and in the most unexpected of ways.

CHRIS MACKOWSKI: I’m thinking of all the different stories you’ve been able to tell and help develop interpretation for, and all the land you’ve been able to acquire. Do you have a favorite story or spot or something that sticks out for you? 

DAVE RUTH: There are a number of those. I think Rural Plains, at the Totopotomoy Creek Battlefield, brought together my role as a historian and a manager together in that story. In 1991, my friend Mike Andrus took me to the site and said, “This is an amazing house and an amazing battlefield,” and when we did our management plan, we hoped someday to place a sign out there. Acquisition of the battlefield was not even contemplated.

As it turns out, one of my tasks is serving as the NPS liaison to the Hanover County Historic Commission. One evening the commission reviewed a proposal that we received from a developer who, we came to realize, had absolutely no interest in history whatsoever. I was asked to serve as an ambassador and go talk to him about his development proposal that would impact if not destroy the Confederate infantry and artillery works on the Totopotomoy Creek battlefield. So I went to meet with the developer along with a Presbyterian minister who also served on the Commission. We asked this tall, rather gruff older individual if, together, we could with historic sensitivity explore preservation as part of his proposal. He said, “I’m not giving you a damn foot. I’m a developer, not a historic preservationist.”

Over the next few months, the Presbyterian minister met with him on his own—they were both Hampton Sydney graduates and the connection was amazing. What evolved was an enlightenment. It was almost like in A Christmas Carol with the ghosts paying nighttime visits. All three of us got back to the table and, suddenly, I realized that this developer became infatuated with the story of Patrick Henry marring the daughter of the owner of Rural Plains and Henry’s association through that part of Hanover County—that was his sudden awakening. Everything in that that part of Hanover County now represented something historically important to the nation.

In fact, he became so enlightened that he set up a foundation, worked with the owner of the Rural Plains house and the surrounding 125 acres of the battlefield, and took the lead with the county supervisors to see to the site’s preservation. One of the strategies we worked out was, for the first and only time in Hanover County, the supervisors agreed to a “transfer of density” program —where the developer was allowed to increase the density for residences on his tract, which was possible since he had a contract on the 125 battlefield acres. Essentially he transferred what development he could get on the 125 acres to his development on the non-battlefield land. That actually gave him more profits, which he moved into the foundation that eventually raised $1.1 million to buy Rural Plains and deed it to the National Park Service for $1.

This effort ensured that not only would Rural Plains and much of the battlefield be preserved but the Confederate fortifications on his 800-acre tract would also be preserved. In addition, the county supervisors made him proffer to build a 430-foot bridge to cross Totopotomoy Creek that connected the Union and Confederate positions.

For me, it became a very strange unplanned situation—how it came to be that this developer who told me he wasn’t giving me a damn foot suddenly becomes one of our greatest preservation supporters.

His work manifested itself at Malvern Hill later when the Civil War Trust was put into a really difficult position when a huge farm that stood in the killing ground of the battle was going to be sold. The family would not agree to break off the northern piece of their property and sell it to the Trust, but required that the entire farm be purchased without subdivision. Well, the Trust could not afford the entire price tag, so once again comes Andy Shield, the developer from Rural Plains, to the rescue. Andy and the Trust worked out an arrangement where Andy purchased the southernmost parcel—the least significant portion—and the Trust bought the northernmost 400-plus acres. The deal happened, and Malvern Hill was preserved.

Additionally, Andy thought about developing his half, but instead placed a conservation easement on the property. And in addition to that, he and his son worked together with the Trust to purchase the second-largest public holding at Malvern Hill that has just recently transferred to the NPS.

So not only did this evolve into the preservation of Rural Plains, but it resulted in many acres being preserved at Malvern Hill that might not have happened if the determination of Andy and the Trust had not been brought together.

I think, for me, that will always be one of the most unbelievable stories, to just have somebody turn around from their initial position of being a draconian developer and not caring a hoot about preservation to somebody who still calls me every month with new preservation opportunities.

Every one of the parcels we have acquired over the years has been a challenge for one reason or another, and there has been a story each time, but none of them has surpassed what happened at Rural Plains and Malvern Hill.

CM: I think [NPS Historian] John Hennessey once said something to the effect that there is a “political will” that will only let parks be a certain size. There’s a certain size that any park can get to, just because of politics—which of course was a major challenge in Fredericksburg because they have four major battlefields. Have you run into that same sort of mindset down here?

DR: No. The political situation is one that, I’ve found, needs nurturing along the way, so that the county’s needs and the park’s needs can hopefully be met. Our original land protection plan, as I mentioned earlier, was extremely conservative and we have already completed one minor boundary adjustment, and several more doubtless will occur in the years ahead.

I think the key for us is to at least annually do a presentation to the board of supervisors and county managers, and meet with individual supervisors more regularly. We explain to them our preservation targets and how any new lands we acquire will be made accessible to the public and why. We also talk about instances where our boundary is insufficient to protect historical important lands and seek the county’s support for any expansion. If anyone doesn’t believe the adage that all politics are local, I am here to offer proof that it is. We often find that if we can help the county to achieve their goals, they will help us with ours. Sometimes there are challenges to be sure, but as long as you are talking, anything is possible. Frankly, the county managers and I talk regularly about all kinds of mutual issues and sometimes just to check in.

And we also talk about land use once we do get a piece of property—where trails will run, where parking lots will be built, and where agriculture will be continued through leases. In most cases, we continue to lease farms back to the current farmer. This provides a wonderful revenue stream for us but also pleases counties who see some indirect revenue coming back to them. We actually purchased a 630-acre farm at North Anna and leased it back to the farmer for a period of 20 years, during which time we will oversee the operations like an easement holder and also do special programs on the property, but not pay the expensive costs of managing the property, at least for 20 years.

One of the challenges in our region has been the fact that sports tourism has trumped heritage tourism. In Henrico, most of that has gone to the western area of the county. In Chesterfield, it’s not been in the battlefield-rich zones of that county, either. In Hanover, we have to work a lot more carefully with that effort. Sports tourism has become a mega “funding source.” It’s one thing we watch carefully and will be dealing with this issue in the future, I’m certain.

As we continue to establish trails in the new areas that we acquire, we find that one of our big supporters are recreational users. And we don’t say “Recreation is against our policy”—because we have a lot of recreational use, and we find that a lot of those recreational users are local and become engaged in the historical value of the properties that they utilize for walking, jogging, or whatever.

By providing these opportunities, I find that the counties see that we help meet their needs in green and open space in a growing suburban area. Some may say that we have sacrificed the traditional mission of the National Park Service, that this is not an area where recreation should be allowed, but frankly we try to manage it extremely closely. I do believe it’s one of the reasons that we don’t come under fire when there’s a major expansion plan, because the counties know that we are an important asset to the community.


Join us tomorrow for our final segment of my interview with Dave, as we take a look ahead to the long game and a final look back at a distinguished career.

A Conversation with Dave Ruth, Richmond’s Retiring Superintendent (part three)

(part three of three)

I’ve been talking with Dave Ruth, who retired this week as superintendent of Richmond National Battlefield after serving there for 26 years. During yesterday’s segment of my conversation with Dave, we talked about the important preservation work the park has been engaged in. But Dave says preserving the ground is just the first step. 

DAVE RUTH: I think there are great preservation efforts, but now I think what we really need to work on is the promotion piece.

Working with the Civil War Trust has been one of the delights of my career, and particularly working with Jim Lighthizer in the way we can promote and market these properties around Richmond. We’ve developed this really great relationship that he calls his “P.I.P.” Program. For Richmond, the Civil War Trust is engaged in the preservation and is our key partner in doing that work. Once it’s preserved, the expectation is that we will do as much as we can do as quickly as we can do it for interpretation. Then with that in place, the CWT is going to engage in the promotion, the last “P” in the P.I.P. They are going to do a full-court press promotional effort for the battlefields around Richmond that have a real identity challenge. We don’t have a Sunken Road, we don’t have Burnside’s Bridge, and we don’t have a Crater. What we have is a string of battlefields, many of which are difficult for people to comprehend where they fit in the context of the war and what’s outstanding about each battle. Cold Harbor probably has the best iconic connection to the American public, with the grand charge on the 3rd of June. Malvern Hill has some recognition.

But many people will see our signs on the interstate and come to the park. They may have heard of the name of the battle but they know little else. And the most unfortunate thing is that rarely will they see an interpretive ranger. So that is why our non-personal interpretation, our historical markers, are so important.

CHRIS MACKOWSKI: And because you’ve got the ‘62 layer and the ’64 layer superimposed over the same landscape, I’m sure that’s an extra level of confusion for people and an extra challenge for you.

DR: It is, particularly with Cold Harbor and Gaines’s Mill, where if you stand one direction you’re facing where the armies were in ’62 but if you turn 90 degrees, you’re facing where the army was on this same ground in ’64. It is very confusing.

And I would add that probably the most important Civil War property in the United States today lies out there, unpreserved—the most significant land at Cold Harbor and Gaines’ Mill, the infamous Adams Farm. I don’t think that’s just me; I think there are many others who believe that as well. There’s a huge effort on our part to preserve that land. That’s where ’62 and ’64 really do come together.

I must say it’s just been absolutely wonderful to watch the Gaines’s Mill battlefield grow from 60 acres to just under 500. Through these purchases, though, we did inherit several modern structures that we will have to deal with in this challenging budget world.

CM: Certainly having to maintain a house of any sort has its own set of challenges that are far removed from managing the rest of the property.

DR: Exactly. We’ve made some very difficult choices in that regard. The Crew House at Malvern Hill is an example where the Civil War Trust acquired this historical landmark of the battle. The house burned in 1866, and while it might have been nice to have despite the fact that the original structure was gone, we worked out an arrangement with Henrico County who agreed to accept it with the goal of ultimately turning it into a jointly operated county and NPS visitor center for the battlefield.

CM: Thinking about those things from a marketing view: they’re key tangible assets for telling the story and showing people where events took place, so I can see how they’re important for helping raise money.

DR: Absolutely. And the Rural Plains site is a perfect example of where, in a short amount of time, we had to sink $500,000 into just stabilizing it—and that’s not chump change. Competing for that funding took considerable effort on the part of the staff. And then, if you’re trying to open it up to the public, that’s an entirely different challenge in terms of staffing and funding.

So when you can’t do it alone, you turn to partners. In this case, we established the Rural Plains Foundation with a board that is focused on two efforts: raising funds to preserve the structure, and establishing a volunteer organization that can actually open it up to the public, which they do between March and November every year on weekends. Accepting historic homes can be a very difficult decision, but it was not difficult with Rural Plains. The circa 1725 structure is an iconic and superlative house for Virginia’s history. The continuum of when the Shelton family owned the property from the 1670’s up until when we acquired it in 2006 is just a great story. And there was a major 1864 battle that happened there, too [Totopotomoy Creek].

CM: One of the things I find remarkable, as this conversation unspools, is how you keep pulling out these little arrangements with all these groups. That has just got to be, first of all, a testament to your ability to “shake hands and kiss babies,” but also shows what a chess game it must all be with all these moving parts.

DR: It is, so I find myself working very closely with so many partners, and tourism is one of those. One of my great indirect partners is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Who would imagine it, but the director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is one of the most aggressive individuals I know out there finding money, and he knows many of the players, and so many of the great partnerships that we have nurtured have come through folks like him, ambassadors for our park.

We have these really great relationships with the people who manage the main attractions in the city, like the fine arts museum or the science museum. You’d think that’s not an immediate partnership opportunity for the National Park Service, but we work very closely with the science museum on exhibits relative to Maggie Walker and technology. The National Park Service centennial film premiered in their theater.

The Virginia Historical Society is another of those incredibly important partners for us. On many occasions, we have used their wonderful facility for interpretive programs. I find this part of my job to be incredibly fun, working with partners to find ways to see how we can best leverage what we do to help each other, and it is one of the things I will miss in retirement.

The other piece to our historical partnerships is the incredible Richmond NPS staff. Because of their historical knowledge, willingness to share information, and conducting some of the best interpretive programs on a variety of subjects, we have huge credibility in the community. They give up nights and weekends to do the things they love—interpreting for the public. [Historians] Mike Gorman, Bobby Krick, and Bert Dunkerly have engaged in tremendous research and continually share this with the public through their programs.

I think it became clear to me during the 150th anniversary commemoration just how capable and resilient our staff is. Many parks were dealing with a day-long battle or three days of fighting, but Fredericksburg and Richmond were different. Here our efforts began in 2011, and did not conclude until four years later—programs every year and, several years, we had week-long series of events. The quality of the programs, level of diversity of topics and stories, and a commemoration that was not marred by protests and controversy generated new community appreciation for the role of the park in the cultural fabric of Richmond.


With so much history to preserve and interpret, Richmond National Battlefield encompasses an incredible number of stories. Tomorrow, Dave will share a couple of his personal favorites.

A Conversation with Dave Ruth, Richmond’s Retiring Superintendent (part two)

(part two of five)

After a 44-year career with the National Park Service, Dave Ruth, superintendent at Richmond National Battlefield, retired at the beginning of this week. Dave spent the last twenty-six years of his career at Richmond, and during that time, he saw the park more than quadruple in size.

But as he told me during yesterday’s portion of the interview, “When we’ve gotten these properties, we’ve tried to do something with them as fast as we could in order for people to understand why we’re continuing the work of preservation.” Today, Dave talks more about the important relationship between preservation and interpretation. 

CHRIS MACKOWSKI: You came up through the ranks on the history and interpretation side of things, so from a big-picture administration point of view, those things have been a key priority for you, where they might not necessarily be for some other superintendent.

DAVE RUTH: Well, I think you’re absolutely right. I started working at Fredericksburg in ’73 under Bob Krick, and I was just a seasonal ranger at that time and learned very quickly to watch and look at how things are done and why. One of the things that Bob undertook was landscape interpretation. I watched as he converted Spotsylvania from primarily a forested woodland, where you couldn’t get a good grasp of the important landmarks and how the battle evolved, to a cleared landscape of open fields. I believe that was in 1977, and I don’t recall any Civil War battlefield undergoing landscape rehabilitation before Bob’s effort. His work payed huge dividends. For the first time, a visitor could begin to understand what happened on the land.

So when I got to these battlefields, one of the first major activities at Malvern Hill we undertook in partnership with the APCWS [Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites] in the mid-nineties was to emulate what happened at Spotsylvania. We rehabilitated about 55 acres by removing the trees that blocked the Confederate avenue of attack.

CM: Richmond National Battlefield has undergone tremendous expansion since then . . . .

DR: The planning for our new general management plan [GMP] and land protection plan started in 1991, when I first got here, and it was definitely one of the greatest challenges of my career. It was not an effort that was well received by local government or by many local citizens. It was at the height of the property rights movement. The “C-word,” as we called it, “condemnation” was a real problem in our legislation, as many folks thought we were just going to steal their land whether or not they wished to dispose of it. There was even an attempt to pass a state law blocking any expansion of our park and Shenandoah National Park, as well. The effort was unsuccessful, but this was an example of the kind of pressure placed on our national delegation to prevent us from expanding or just establishing a real boundary through a land protection plan. As a result of this opposition, we re-thought both our purpose and strategy and came up with two things that turned the tide and have been used in several park legislations since.

The first was to remove condemnation from the proposed language of our plan, and second, we stated that we would work with willing sellers only. These changes did not dissuade those who were staunch property-rights advocates, but it did bring county government around to supporting what we were trying to do.

At the time we began work on updating our GMP, the park owned a mere 754 acres. Our first task was to identify what we thought were both the critical and available lands, so we converted the superintendent’s office into a sort of “war room” and hung maps of all the battlefields on the walls. Bobby Krick, Mike Andress, Ed Sanders, and I would sit in here for untold hours and debate about where the acquisition lines should be drawn around the battlefields. Then we had to determine which specific parcels were within the lines. That became the basis for our land protection program and ultimately informed the park’s new legislation that was approved in the year 2000. That legislation allowed us to expand the park to just over 7300 acres.

Because of the major opposition to our park expansion at the time, we know we were extremely conservative in identifying all the historical significant lands. For example, there were no tracts involved in any of the Deep Bottom fighting included in the plan. Fortunately with the support of our local government, we were able to secure a minor boundary adjustment a couple of years ago to take in some properties that were left out.

The first successful attempt at any major acquisition at Richmond since the 1930’s was the effort spearheaded by Will Greene and the APCWS at Malvern Hill in 1996. The organization negotiated a huge deal that was very agreeable with the landowner. With that successful effort, the tide began to turn.

And then the recession hit. Land values not only slowed, but they sometimes decreased, so people came to realize that they may not see the value of their property escalating by a factor of 10, 20, 50, whatever—that perhaps land values may even decrease. It was a great opportunity for the reinvigorated Civil War Trust. Under Jim Lighthizer’s direction the organization began an aggressive program of contacting land owners to begin the conversations about the possibilities of acquisition. The Trust could make inroads with landowners where the government often failed, and they could make the deal happen quickly and efficiently.

So, the boundary that started at 754 acres now has expanded to just under 4,000. With the projects that are in place, even up to this very morning, we will hopefully exceed beyond 4,000 acres that the National Park Service will own and manage. And there are other properties outside our boundary that are owned by CWT and other preservation organizations.

CM: Do you know about how much that is?

DR: There are 500 acres owned by 501(c)(3) organizations and 1,450 by state and local governments. So that’s nearly 2,000 acres that are historically significant properties above the 3,700 that we currently own in fee—almost 6,000 acres owned right around Richmond. Again, when we began this campaign, the total was 754 acres.

CM: Considering what I would assume is a lot development pressure as Richmond continues to expand, property has to be a pretty high commodity around here, being the state capital and all.

DR: The fortunate thing about the development process is that Richmond largely moved northwest and west. As a result of that, a lot of the lands, particularly associated with the Seven Days and the Overland Campaign have not been subjected to development. Richmond’s western growth and the slowing of housing developments have bought us time.

It doesn’t mean that we’re not constantly on the lookout! Each month I review every development proposal for each county, so we are able to express our concerns before they even get to the planning commission. When there is a proposed impact on battlefields or any Civil War resource such as earthworks, we try to be a voice for conservation. We’ve had many successes, but put simply, we just can’t save everything in an area where nearly every inch of ground was marched on, camped on, or fought on. But we really do try our best to influence decisions made by the counties and often seek mitigation strategies that are often compromises.

But like I said, things are starting to gear up as the economy is turning around. We’ve found that the area southeast of Richmond has the potential to really become a place where our local government want to protect the view sheds, protect the property, protect any kind of landscape impacts, and see it as a potential economic draw for our community.

At Malvern Hill, for example—it looks like we’re closing on property, right now, in partnership with Henrico County. Our collaboration will hopefully result in the preservation of a 1,000-acre farm that will be subdivided, with Henrico County owning the least historically significant portion and the NPS owning the 425 acres that were closely associated with the battle. I never could have imagined this type of collaboration in 1993, but it does indicate the level of trust that has been fostered through the years.


Preservation and interpretation are just the first two steps of a three-step process, Dave says. When our interview continues tomorrow, he’ll explain the crucial third step.


A Conversation with Dave Ruth, Richmond’s Retiring Superintendent (part one)

Ruth, Dave-NPS(part one of five)

I recently heard Dave Ruth described as “the last of the great, old-guard superintendents.” For more than thirty years, Dave has made Richmond National Battlefield his life’s work, overseeing the park’s growth from 754 acres to just under 4,000.

With stories from the 1862 Peninsula Campaign overlapping with stories from the 1864 Overland Campaign and Bermuda Hundred Campaign—plus stories related to the city’s position as the capital of the Confederacy—Richmond National Battlefield preserves and interprets a complex historical tapestry.

After a distinguished career of more than four decades, Dave retires today—January 2, 2018. During his last weeks on the job, I had the privilege of sitting down with Dave to talk with him about his remarkable run. I’ve lightly edited our conversation for clarity, with Dave’s approval. 

CHRIS MACKOWSKI: I know you said you started, once upon a time, at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania under Bob Krick, and then you went to Fort Sumter. Could you just sketch your career out for me a little bit?

DAVE RUTH: During summers in college I was working in a slaughterhouse in Pennsylvania, and participating in reenactments with a fife and drum corps on weekends. At an event, I was approached about participating in a living history program at Chancellorsville portraying a Confederate musician—and it didn’t take but three seconds to figure that working on a kill floor was something I would give up immediately to do Civil War living history! So in June of 1973, I showed up at Chancellorsville and was indoctrinated into a 24/7 experiential living history program, which was really cutting edge interpretation. We felt like we were breaking new ground, and in many ways it is interesting to think back at what we did accomplish.

I worked for several seasons at Fredericksburg, until 1977, in various capacities in maintenance and interpretation. Then in 1977, I transferred to Fort Sumter as a seasonal ranger, and spent a few months there before going to Philadelphia for my first permanent NPS position. My tenure there was short, and my wife has it timed down to the hour—but my memory is that I spent 5 months, 2 weeks, and a couple days working at various sites at Independence park. Then one day I got that call: “We have a job open at Manassas—you interested?” I was on the next moving van south.

Manassas was probably one of my most fun assignments, doing historical interpretation in one of the greatest Civil War parks and working with folks who would become life-long friends. That assignment, which began in 1978 lasted until 1981.

The only thing that could tear me from Manassas was the chance for a promotion, and that came at Fort Sumter where I returned for my second tour as interpretive chief. Working in Charleston and exploring all facets of the siege history was incredibly fun, but another opportunity for advancement came in 1991, which is when I transferred to Richmond, where I’ve been ever since.

CM: So when you made the decision to retire, how’d that feel?

DR: I actually made the decision while walking the fields of Spotsylvania this past fall. I came to the conclusion that I really wanted to do more writing and tours, and the role of superintendent had taken me from what I really enjoyed doing. Life is short, and I really want to engage in more historical scholarship.

CM: Because the job of superintendent is administration.

DR: Well, it’s administration, but it’s also 24/7 management and collaboration. In this park, we work with close to 50 full-time partners, whether they’re in government, the 501(c)(3) world, or land acquisition, and we have a very engaged public. This weekend, for instance, I got a frantic call from a neighbor who wants to sell his property immediately, and it’s very key tract at Cold Harbor. Those calls can’t be ignored. And then it’s the night meetings and special events, sometimes three or four times a week. It is demanding, but there can be an incredible return in your investment. These partners really want to help us get to where we want to go. But it is a drain on your time and energy.

Richmond is like a new start-up park—because of the major expansion—and the superintendent has to be totally committed to nurturing those partnerships. This also includes the governmental side because we have three counties [Chesterfield, Hanover, and Henrico] and also the city of Richmond, all of whom take great interest in what we are up to. It takes an enormous amount of time to sustain positive relationships. I have county supervisors and city councilmen and women on speed dial. Oh yeah, and then there’s the administrative stuff. We won’t get into that! (laughs)

So that trip to Spotsylvania was sort of a trip back in time, to really connect with the resources and stories. I try to get out into the park here, but often to deal with this problem and that problem, and it doesn’t always allow the chance to really connect to the meaning of the resources. That’s what I always loved. It’s why I became part of the National Park Service. But I also realized, when I was stationed at Fort Sumter, that in order to be successful in my career, I needed to move into a managerial role. That’s why I’m in Richmond.

CM: So when you go out into the park today, are you able to look at it as a park or more as, “Here’s this problem we’re having to deal with” or “Here’s that problem we’re dealing with, and here’s this issue”? Or can you go out like you did at Spotsy and be like, “Ahhh, the field . . . .”

DR: There are a few places that I can do that. Malvern Hill is the best example because there are few modern intrusions and it is one of the best-preserved battlefields anywhere. I feel like I can go there and really separate from the challenges of managing it.

Cold Harbor or Gaines’s Mill, both places I find moving, are a different story. I get frustrated because key lands associated with the fighting are still in private ownership. We have some great trails there and try to do the best with what we have, but my impatience really comes out when taking folks around those battlefields. We’re seeing acquisitions happen, but there are still many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that are inaccessible except by permission. Then when we do get property, I probably drive my staff crazy by placing urgency on new trails and parking lots.

One of the things that I never figured out was how to deal with my impatience. I just cannot be comfortable saying, “We acquired it, we achieved our 100% goal,” because unless someone can truly understand these landscapes, then we’ve only been partially successful. So, one of the things we’ve done with the help of this incredible staff is when we’ve gotten these properties, we’ve tried to do something with them as fast as we could in order for people to understand why we’re continuing the work of preservation—not just for the sake of preservation, but for the sake of what the story and the resource represents.

A couple of years ago we acquired a key parcel at Cold Harbor through our great partners, the Richmond Battlefield Associates and the Civil War Trust. Because of the location of this tract, for the first time we could interpret the first day of Cold Harbor. Within a year of acquiring the property, we had a full parking lot, interpretive signs, and a trail taking visitors to where key events occurred. For the first time, people could really get an understanding of what happened there when the battle opened and how it evolved into the fateful day of June 3rd, 1864.

The same thing is true for Gaines’s Mill. Last summer, the Civil War Trust transferred an important tract to us that had the potential to interpret an important episode in that 1862 battle. So once again the maintenance staff designed a parking lot and our chief historian, Bobby Krick, worked with the renowned artist Keith Rocco to produce a paining that shows the Confederate grand attack at the climax of the battle on the 27th of June. (And Keith painted Bobby into the scene!) We hope to have the interpretive node finished in late winter 2018.

That’s also what I think makes the job fun. I still dabble in that world of history and interpretation, at least to some degree.


Dave’s background as a historian has heavily influenced the way he approaches his job as an administrator. We’ll talk more about that tomorrow when my conversation with Dave continues.