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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

National Cemetery Administration (NCA): 150th Anniversary of the Civil War
Washington, DC
December 6, 2011

Ron [Walters, NCA], thank you for that kind introduction. Let me also acknowledge:

  • Under Secretary Steve Muro. Steve, thank you for hosting today's launch of NCA's observance of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War;

  • Admiral Bollow, German Defense Attaché. The historical tie between our Nations extends back in time to the birth of this country. Thank you for participating in today's ceremony honoring our shared history during our American Civil War;

  • Distinguished members of today's panel: NCA Historian, Sara Leach, historian, Alec Bennett, conservator, Justine Bello, and sculptor, Nick Benson;

  • Reverend Perdita Johnson-Abercrombie and Janine Coleman, thank you for helping to officiate today's ceremony;

  • VA colleagues, fellow Veterans, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Good afternoon, everyone, thank you for being here today. I am honored to help NCA launch its year-long commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. It is both our opportunity and our obligation to reflect on the significance of that most destructive conflict in our Nation's history. Better known by the names of some of its individual battles, the devastating as well as the obscure—Antietam, Balls Bluff, Bull Run, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Shiloh—the Civil War changed the course of this country. It became the wellspring for what we do here at VA, even today, to care "for [those] who have borne the battle."

Few have captured the impacts of that war, in detail, nuance, and influence, more eloquently than the author, Shelby Foote. After years of penning his most famous history of that war, Foote once observed, "it was the Civil War which made our country what it is. The revolution started us out, but the Civil War declared which way we were going." And the course that it set for the Nation led us along a better, more just path in important ways:

  • The war put an end to slavery—not injustice, but the legality of practiced denial of human rights. In its aftermath, we moved closer to the ideal which led to our Nation's independence, that all people "are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The war did not achieve that ideal, but it moved America purposefully in that direction. And that journey continues.

  • It changed the nature of the way we view our Nation. As Shelby Foote asserted, "before the war, it was often said 'the United States are' … And after the war, it was always 'the United States is,'" underscoring the war's real outcome—"one Nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all."

  • It revolutionized the delivery of our military medical care;

  • It provided balance between strong federal government and the rights of states;

  • And, through the wisdom of President Lincoln's own subtle understanding of war and its aftermath, our commitment remains, today, his vision for a divided Nation to heal itself by caring for those who had "borne the battle," in our hospitals and in our cemeteries.

The Civil War took a hideous toll of death, destruction, and suffering. Roughly as many Soldiers died in this war as in all other American wars combined. Because of it, we began the 150-year journey of providing better and faster medical care to the wounded; developing a world-class healthcare system to deal with the aftermath of battle, including lifelong care for the catastrophically injured; and, creating a cemetery administration where the fallen and their brethren are finally laid in eternal rest. Today, that mission continues, unabated, unwavering, and undiminished.

God bless you all in the coming Holiday Season, and God bless all our men and women who serve, and have served, the Nation in both peace and war.