Ed Bearss: The man who can inspire us all

Gregg Clemmer
DC Civil War Heritage Examiner
December 14, 2011

If you visit the battlefields that dot our land, you will surely hear of him. You see, Arlington resident Edwin Cole Bearss is America’s foremost military field historian. Having visited virtually every battlefield in North America—many, numerous times—Ed walks the ground to tell the story, leading dozens of battlefield tours for the Smithsonian and other tour organizers every year.

Joining the National Park Service in 1955 as park historian for Vicksburg National Military Park, Ed was instrumental in the discovery, raising, and preservation of the ironclad gunboat U. S. S. Cairo, the first vessel ever sunk by mines. With the approach of the Civil War Centennial, Ed piloted the development and inclusion of the Pea Ridge and Wilson’s Creek battlefields into the NPS, a preservation expertise he would employ again and again, from historic military sites such as Tennessee’s Fort Donelson, South Carolina’s Fort Moultrie, and Arkansas’ Fort Smith to presidential properties like LBJ’s ranch in Texas, the Eisenhower Farm in Pennsylvania, and William Howard Taft’s home in Ohio. But Ed did more than this.

In addition to serving as NPS Chief Historian from 1981 to 1994, he authored more than 18 books, including Hardluck Ironclad: The Sinking and Salvage of the Cairo, the definitive trilogy on the Vicksburg Campaign, and Fields of Honor: Pivotal Battles of the Civil War. Since 1989, he has served as assistant editor of Gettysburg Magazine. But it seems after retiring from the NPS, Ed was only getting started.

"He’s the least-boring historian you could ever run into," states Robert E. L. Krick, a leading Civil War author and historian with Richmond National Battlefield Park.

Len Riedel, executive director of the Blue and Gray Education Society in Danville, Virginia, concurs. "The guy is a priceless treasure. We’ll not see his like again in our lifetime." Indeed, Ed Bearss was spearheading the saving of historic sites a half century ago, way before he helped defeat gambling at Gettysburg and deny a Walmarted Wilderness. It is no wonder Riedel considers Bearss "the father of the modern battlefield-preservation movement."

Now in his golden years as NPS Chief Historian Emeritus, Ed continues to pursue his passion for America’s military past. Blessed with an encyclopedic memory and fueled by a curiosity that is only sated by his lust to read and explore, Ed leads tours more than 200 days a year—that’s right, you read it correctly—not only to historic sites across America, but to those storied fields beyond our shores. Yes, he’s just as knowledgeable pointing out the highlights of Waterloo and Omaha Beach as he is guiding folks through Fort Necessity and Fort McHenry or striding the storied slopes up Little Round Top and Little Bighorn. Indeed, to encompass Ed Bearss’ vast interpretative talents, think not only Valley Forge and Vicksburg, but also Verdun. But also know that this man is more than that.

He is a prodigious storyteller. Indeed, for those who teach … especially those who strive to bring the past alive … storytelling is the foremost of necessary talents. And when Ed Bearss is where it happened, he goes vivid, coloring his detailed backstory with enticingly arcane, yet accurate anecdotes. Afire on site, his voice swells into a commanding growl, punctuated by anticipatory, visceral pauses, yet all presented without notes, with eyes closed, so—as he once confided to this writer, “I can see it better.”

“It’s about real events, real people,” he confided one afternoon in Gettysburg, “it’s the story of people … and their trials and tribulations. It’s far more interesting than a novel, I find.”

Ed Bearss has been styled “a cross between a good-natured platoon sergeant and Walter Cronkite,” which means he will candidly speak his mind … and you will believe him. "We’re in an age of Teflon people now,” he will tell you. “People years ago were more original, more individual." As an approaching nonagenarian, historian Bearss easily makes his point, striding across Pickett’s Charge faster than half the folks who’ve just gotten off the bus.

Yet in the tours he leads, Ed himself has become a source of inspiration. At Gettysburg, his tour will be booked full at 42, but once he gets started, the curious and attentive will triple the numbers. Although he has won a number of awards over the years, posterity will remember him for the award that bears his name, given by the Civil War Trust for outstanding achievement in historic preservation. In showing and teaching Americans about war, he has spent his career bringing to life the stories of the young soldiers who sacrificed so much for the rest of us, decades, even centuries before we were born.

So, where does our Northern Virginia neighbor get such passion for his purpose? Why is he so good at it?

Seventy years ago, when 18-year-old Edwin Cole Bearss first heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he resolved to serve his country. The following spring he left the family ranch in Sarpy, Montana, to enlist in the United States Marine Corps. Three months later he was on his way into the Pacific, seeing action first at Guadacanal, then in the Russell Islands. Then on 2 January 1944, while advancing across Suicide Creek near Point Gloucester in New Britain, he was hit four times by Japanese machine gun fire. He would spend the next 26 months recovering in various hospitals … and to fill the hours he began reading Douglas Southall Freeman’s just released Lee’s Lieutenants.

Ed Bearss has never stopped learning and sharing. He is a soaring example of what made (and continues to make) our greatest generation just that. Semper Fi.

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