ECW Honors Dave Ruth for Service in Civil War Public History

Dave Ruth-sm
Dave Ruth at Rural Plains

Emerging Civil War is pleased to honor Dave Ruth, former superintendent of Richmond National Battlefield Park, as the recipient of this year’s Emerging Civil War Award for Service in Civil War Public History.

Emerging Civil War’s Award for Service in Civil War Public History recognizes the work of an individual or organization that has made a significant impact on the field of public history in a way that better helps the general public connect with America’s defining event. “We have a strong public history mission at ECW, and we want to recognize—and offer our gratitude to—the work of others who share that same mission,” explains ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski.

Ruth retired as superintendent of Richmond National Battlefield Park in 2018 after 44 years with the National Park Service. During his tenure at Richmond, the battlefield park grew from 754 acres to just under 4,000.

“Anyone who is familiar with Richmond Battlefield Park knows Dave Ruth,” says ECW Chief Historian Chris Kolakowski. “In his various capacities there and at other parks, Dave has been a superb interpreter and preservationist. Richmond is a better park because of his work and leadership over the years.”

Mackowski added, “Dave’s work at Richmond exemplified the importance of working partnerships that resulted in wins for everyone involved. In doing so, he helped Richmond better appreciate and preserve its unique and complex Civil War history, to the benefit of us all.”

A native of Pennsylvania, Ruth grew up in a family totally immersed in history, particularly the French and Indian and Civil War eras. “It seemed preordained that I would absorb that interest,” he said, “and many summer trips to the Virginia battlefields with my father at an early age sealed the deal.”

Ruth first started working for the National Park Service in 1973 as a fifer in a Confederate camp at Chancellorsville where he also spent the next few summers honing his historian and interpretive skills. In 1975, he graduated from Virginia Tech with a history degree in honors and had the privilege of working with Dr. James I. Robertson who served as his advisor for several independent studies and his honors thesis that explored the Battle of Salem Church.

Ruth and his wife moved from park to park to gain experience and was finally rewarded with a permanent NPS position in 1977 in Philadelphia. After that assignment, he was sent to Manassas Battlefield and then to Fort Sumter in 1981, where he served as both park historian and chief ranger. In 1991, he relocated to Richmond where he initially served as chief of interpretation, then assistant superintendent, and in 2008 was promoted to park superintendent. He retired from that position in 2018 with 44 years of government service.

History remains at the forefront in Ruth’s post-NPS career. In July 2018, Governor Ralph Northam appointed Ruth to the Virginia Board of Historic Resources for a four-year term.  In 2019, he was appointed to the Leadership Board of St. John’s Church, where in 1775 Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Give Me Liberty” speech. He also serves on the boards of the Manassas Battlefield Foundation and the Hanover Tavern Foundation.

During his career he had the opportunity to work on several historical productions including North and South and Glory, and served as the on-camera commentator for Civil War Journal’s Fort Sumter episode.  He has written several book reviews, and in 2014 Ruth and two of his colleagues published No Turning Back: A Guide to the 1864 Overland Campaign, part of the Emerging Civil War Series. He is now in the research phase of a book that will examine the cavalry operations of the early phase of the Overland Campaign leading to Phil Sheridan’s Richmond Raid and the mortal wounding of Jeb Stuart.

“Throughout Dave Ruth’s career, he focused on interpretive improvements to National Park sites, and fostered relationships with partners,” says ECW’s Robert Dunkerly, who worked for Ruth at Richmond National Battlefield Park. “Perhaps Dave’s best work was done at Richmond, where he oversaw new exhibits, new historic markers on the landscape, encouraged programming with partners, and expanded park properties.”

ECW’s Doug Crenshaw volunteered at Richmond National Battlefield Park when Ruth was superintendent. “Dave was instrumental in working with preservation groups, and under his tenure the Park grew from about 750 acres to nearly 4,000. Truly amazing,” Crenshaw says. “He was also really good at public relations in terms of working with other groups in the city. When I think of Dave, I remember the saying ‘You never forget how someone makes you feel.’ Dave always made the volunteers feel special and important. I still remember a volunteers meeting I attended when Dave pulled out my first book and asked me to sign it in front of everyone. That was a big deal to me.”

In 2018, to mark Ruth’s retirement, Mackowski sat down for an extended conversation with him about his work. You can read that interview here.

More recently, Mackowski interviewed Ruth for ECW’s 2020 virtual symposium. That interview is available on the ECW YouTube page.

Previous recipients of the Emerging Civil War Award for Service in Civil War Public History include Ted Alexander, former historian at Antietam National Battlefield; Dave Roth, publisher of Blue & Gray magazine; D. P. Newton, founder of the White Oak Civil War Museum; and John Coski, historian at the American Civil War Museum.

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