Port Hudson/Louisiana National Cemetery Dedication

By:  Eric Shinseki
Date: March 24, 2012
Location: Zachary, LA

Steve Muro, thank you for that kind introduction. As Steve noted, 28 years ago, Port Hudson was his first posting as a cemetery director. Today, he serves us all as the Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs, leading our National Cemetery Administration. Steve, welcome home; I'm honored to join you here on this historic occasion.

Let me also acknowledge:

* General Russ Honoré, whom I've known for a long time--great leader, magnificent soldier;

* Rex Kern--Director of the Port Hudson National Cemetery;

* Lane Carson--Louisiana Secretary of Veterans Affairs;

* Joey Strickland--Arizona Director of Veterans Services;

* State representatives--Ken Havard and Dalton Honoré;

* Members of congressional staffs;

* Mayors David Amrhein and Harold Rideau;

* Other state and local officials;

* Representatives of our Veterans Service Organizations;

* Fellow Veterans, VA colleagues, including Julie Catelier and Mark Balogna, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

Good morning, everyone. Thank you for joining us for this important dedication.

At the end of the Civil War, the families and friends of the fallen--parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, North and South--knelt by the graves of their loved ones and laid flowers and prayed. From Louisiana to Maine, Kansas to Virginia, these sad yet solemn tributes were the final acts of a nation wearied by the fighting.

Few small towns were spared such pain. Port Hudson was no exception. So vital was the Mississippi River to the strategies of both sides that Port Hudson, then a small trading dock, quickly gained geographical significance.

Like Vicksburg to the north, Port Hudson became strategically important. Despite its modest footprint, Port Hudson was crucial logistically--a huge objective. For forty-eight continuous days, it was subjected to a relentless siege--the longest in American history--and the casualties on both sides were enormous.

The ridges and ravines surrounding Port Hudson and Zachary, and the banks of the Mississippi below the bluffs, were soaked with the blood of more than 10,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. The fighting and the shelling, from both land batteries and ships, were horrendous enough, but men from the opposing armies were lost to starvation, scurvy, dysentery, malaria, and sunstroke as well. The suffering from siege warfare was unimaginable.

Fortifications with names like "The Citadel," "The Bull Pen," "Fort Desperate," and "Devil's Elbow" were defended and assaulted repeatedly by both artillery and rifle fire.

Enormous heroism and sacrifice, on both land and river, was displayed by troops of both sides. Generals and admirals, with names like Banks, Farragut, and Gardner, fought tenaciously, day after day, and often through the night. In the end, the surrender of Port Hudson came only after the surrender of Vicksburg made clear the reality that nothing, but more carnage would result from further resistance at Port Hudson.

Where we now stand is sacred ground--clay and dirt sanctified by a previous generation of Americans with its own blood. The soldiers of the Blue and the Gray who fought, suffered, and died during the siege are memorialized not only in our national history, but also in the legacy of courage and honor they have left to us.

Vicksburg surrendered on 4 July 1863, and Port Hudson, five days later. Hundreds of miles to the north, a great battle in a small Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg just days before marked a turning point in the Civil War. The combined effect of these battles preserved our Nation, at a terrible price.

In today's dedication of the Louisiana National Cemetery, a much-needed annex to the Port Hudson National Cemetery, we acknowledge Port Hudson's 146-year legacy as the final resting place for the Pelican State's heroes. Since 1866, Port Hudson's grounds have honored more than 14,000 departed Veterans and their family members with dignity.

From the siege of Port Hudson, to the battlefields of Europe, the Pacific, the Korean Peninsula, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Louisianans have answered the calls to duty with courage and, always, with great sacrifice.

Though Port Hudson will close to new interments later this summer, the annex we are dedicating today will enable us to keep faith with Louisiana's Veterans and their families for many years to come.

At solemn ceremonies like this one, especially in places with such historic significance, it is difficult to find adequate words. Almost 148 years ago, President Lincoln faced the same challenge, and his words, then, are eloquent and timeless today:

"In a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract."

I began my remarks with the images of post-Civil War family members tending to the graves of their dead--scenes which led to the mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Civil War took a hideous toll of death, destruction, and suffering. Roughly as many soldiers died during it 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 are finally laid in eternal rest. Today, that mission continues unabated, unwavering, and undiminished.

The Louisiana National Cemetery is at the heart of that mission. As the annex to Port Hudson, this cemetery will provide proper honors for Louisiana's Veterans and their families for generations to come. When finished, it will provide a final resting place for approximately 293,000 eligible Veterans from the surrounding areas.

We have begun construction on the first 17 acres of nearly 104 acres reserved for this cemetery; our goal is to accelerate this first phase and seamlessly take up the mission of Port Hudson before that cemetery can no longer accommodate casketed burials.

Just as we have provided for those who fell in the Civil War, and as we have for the fallen in every war since, the Louisiana National Cemetery, with its hushed beauty, full of gentle landscapes and quiet corners, awaits future generations of Veterans and their families as a final resting place: a last bivouac.

From generation to generation, across the years, Americans have answered their calls to duty. The America we know today would not have been possible were it not for the men and women we honor in places such as this.

Louisiana has been blessed with an abundance of such men and women, whose collective courage and commitment have allowed us to flourish as a people.

May God bless all who serve and have served our Nation in uniform, and may He continue to bless this wonderful country of ours.

Thank you.

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