Remarks at Soldiers and Sailors Monument Re-Dedication (May 27, 2019)


Good afternoon.

There are so many thank-yous in order for this wonderful re-dedication ceremony, but in the interest of time I shall make no effort to be comprehensive. I do, however, need mention a few:

Thank you to the West Virginia Division of Culture and History and to Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith and West Virginia Independence Hall Site Manager Debbie Jones.

Thank you to Wheeling Heritage, the Ohio County Commission, the Wheeling Park Commission, and the West Virginia Independence Hall Foundation for your contributions to this project.

Thank you to current City Council as well as the Council preceding it for efforts and contributions as well.

And thank you to the many local historians and civic-minded patrons who made the case for this relocation—none more so than Margaret Brennan.

Thank you as well to Marc Harshman, who has now twice taught me that it is not a wise thing to follow him at any speaking engagement.

Today is a special day for me, not only as an opportunity to pay respect to those who gave their lives in service to our nation, but also to play a small role in the re-dedication of this magnificent work of art that was erected in honor of those who died in our nation’s most internally divisive conflict. No State played a more dispositive role in that costly Civil War than ours which was born of it. And no City altered the course of that consequential history more than ours which gave rise to it.

What I would not give to have seen firsthand the dedication of this monument in 1883. The Civil War itself had ended less than two decades prior. The large crowd that gathered just one city block from where we gather today included veterans not only from that most recent war but from conflicts dating to the War of 1812. What a site it would have been to behold. And what a reminder it is to us today of the interconnection of Wheeling history with American history.

While the sentiments reflected on this monument are timeless, its original placement Downtown was not. For 60 years it sat atop the hill at Wheeling Park in a site rich in beauty but light on visitors. As a young boy I would ride my bike from my grandparents’ nearby home to the base of this monument and gaze in wonder. I knew not what those two sedentary men and one soaring woman had done to earn such distinction, but I assumed it to have been of consequence. I had no real appreciation of the role that my hometown—and indeed my home state—had played in defending the “union” referenced thereon. I just felt that whoever had put that statue there had wanted me to see it.

Years later, when I learned of its true origin and significance, it was not hard to find sympathy with the arguments of those committed to relocating it to Downtown Wheeling. A monument of this importance was meant to be seen. It was meant to teach, to cause us to reflect, to remind us that we must never forget the sacrifices of those who gave everything to preserve the liberties and freedoms we have long enjoyed. And where better to serve that purpose than precisely where we gather today—just several feet removed from the birthplace of our state, where this restored work of art can be seen, appreciated, and celebrated by residents and visitors for decades to come.

At the original dedication of this monument nearly 136 years ago, Mr. William Leighton, an English immigrant, glass worker, and poet took the stage to read a poem he had composed in its honor. Entitled The Price of the Present: Paid by the Past, this beautiful poem reads in part:

…May this carved granite, happily,

Proclaim our honored ones enduringly;

Or if time levels all that mankind rears,

May this fair stone endure as many years,

As the lone Sphinx has sat in Egypt’s sand,

Or as the oldest pyramid shall stand.

Let us hope, ladies and gentlemen, that this fourth stop on this traveling monument’s tour is its final one.

It is now my honor to introduce today’s next speaker. Randall Reid-Smith has served as the Commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History since 2006—a tenure that has spanned three West Virginia governors and seen considerable progress made in our State’s embrace of the arts and its cultural heritage. Indeed, major improvements to our beloved Independence Hall were commissioned under his leadership, as was the placement of the Francis Pierpont statue just around the corner. We know that we are very lucky in the City of Wheeling to have such a critical friend in our State government.

Those who were here last year when the large pieces of this monument were first assembled onsite for their restoration had the opportunity to see another side of Commissioner Reid-Smith, who, long before his current appointment spent years in Europe as an opera singer. As a small crowd gathered around the site for the placement of the time capsule, eyes grew larger and ears delighted as the Commissioner delivered an enchanting a cappella rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. It was a delightful experience that I shall never forget.

Commissioner Reid-Smith, for nearly 136 years now the City of Wheeling has been charged with the custody and care of this priceless monument. At our next meeting of City Council, we will be voting on a resolution that formally transfers its stewardship to the Division of Culture and History, so that it may remain on this site for time immemorial as a reminder of the sacrifices that made our State and our nation possible.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith.

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