- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 5, 2002

It's getting so people think Ed Bearss may have been in the Civil War. Not so, he says, though he will admit to meeting a few survivors.
Mr. Bearss the legendary and now retired chief historian of the National Park Service is aging well; some Park Service staff members might even say he isn't aging at all. At a recent birthday party, he gave out buttons that read, "79 and feeling fine."
Just a few weeks ago, he was on the battlefield at Antietam, leading with customary gusto a tour organized by National Geographic Expeditions just before the battle re-enactment and 140th anniversary.
Antietam remains a pastoral scene; the names of the farms are the same as on Sept. 17, 1862 German immigrant names such as Mumma and Poffenberger. The old German evangelical Dunker Church is still there, rebuilt after falling in a severe storm in 1921, and looking as pure white and absurdly peaceful as ever. Brown cows lounge lazily in the meadows, and the Miller cornfield crop, though parched from the drought, stands as tall as it did on the morning of the battle.
Mr. Bearss (pronounced "Bars," as in Stars and Bars) takes his group to the cornfield, the sunken road (Bloody Lane) and Burnside's bridge, and as you listen, you realize that even if you thought you knew this battlefield, with Mr. Bearrs, you get to know it truly, sadly, deeply.
There is, first, the crackerjack phrasing. Staring down from the North Woods onto the Miller cornfield, Mr. Bearss notes Gen. Joseph Hooker's mistakes at Antietam failing to tell the rest of the Army he was attacking at dawn, failing to send any troops to chase Rebel artillery off Nicodemus Heights and concludes tartly, "As an Army commander at Chancellorsville, Hooker plans well and fights poorly; as a corps commander at Antietam, unfortunately, he plans poorly but fights well." It's the luck of the Army of the Potomac, in a nutshell.
Mr. Bearss also illuminates the geography of the battlefield. On the crest of ridge next to the Dunker Church, the land slopes down to Antietam Creek off to the east not much, but just enough for an advantage to where much of the Union Army was.
"Lee had chosen an excellent defensive position," Mr. Bearss says. "His back was to the Potomac, showing his high confidence in his army, plus the Yankees cannot see him."
Mr. Bearss pauses for effect and says, with a quieter emphasis than usual, "It is important to be on a battlefield to see what they saw and to see what they couldn't see."
Mr. Bearss has a kind of cult the "Bearss brigade" it is sometimes called that follows him. Its members are Civil War buffs mesmerized by his down-home charisma. On some tours, there are veterans of other battlefield excursions. At Antietam, the National Geographic tour has first-timers, but like all his seasoned fans, they, too, are eager to hear him talk.
Most are men, though there are several woman and one youngster with his mother. Mr. Bearss makes an effort to draw them in with the tale of Clara Barton, "the only person man, woman or child, North or South not afraid of Edwin McMaster Stanton," Lincoln's secretary of war.
It was her first time on a battlefield caring for the wounded, Mr. Bearss notes, although she had been near others before. He takes special relish in recounting how as she was cradling a soldier in her arms, a Minie ball just missed hitting her, cutting through the loose, flowing sleeves of her dress.
Mr. Bearss is a maelstrom of words and details. Holding a silver-knobbed regimental swagger stick under his arm, drawing the picture with his hands, he is, though an American original, like Shakespeare's Welsh chieftain and medicine man in "Henry IV," Owen Glendower: He "can call spirits from the vasty deep." Mr. Bearss conjures the regiments out of the cornfield and brings them animatedly to life.
His voice is a cross between a Western drawl (organically grown on the range during his youth in Montana, near Little Big Horn, whose battlefield he knows well) and a gravelly, stentorian growl. He has the tic, or gift, of stopping at odd moments, midsentence, his eyes closed, which only serves to draw his audience in closer.
Mr. Bearss knows war firsthand. A Marine in World War II, he fought at Guadalcanal and New Britain, where he was severely wounded in the left arm. At the Dunker Church, used as a field hospital for the Antietam wounded, Mr. Bearss halts a moment when discussing the risks of death after amputation during the Civil War and acknowledges his own wound. "It's really good to have practical experience in these things," he says somberly.
Mr. Bearss joined the National Park Service in 1955 and over the years honed his rhetorical gift, though he also admits (his face sour at the memory) to being "a traffic cop" at centennial events in the 1960s. He has written 15 books, earned advanced degrees from Georgetown and Indiana universities (his master's thesis was on Pat Cleburne, a Confederate from Ireland called the "Stonewall of the West") and appeared on such programs as A&E;'s "Civil War Journal" and PBS' "The Civil War" although he is quick to see that as one of his less successful outings.
"People told me Ken Burns made a mistake in forcing me to sit down in a dark room," Mr. Bearss says. He knows he needs to act, to stalk, to stage live theater, to become what in hip circles is called a "performance artist." Most of all, Mr. Bearss needs the outdoors, the battlefield, to weave his spells. Maybe it is almost better, one thinks, that Mr. Bearss was unable to schedule a cameo role in the upcoming film "Gods and Generals," even though he might have been well-cast as the old, barrel-voiced and irascible Union commander Edwin "Bull" Sumner.
In person, Mr. Bearss is a magnet for re-enactors. Antietam is crawling with them (mostly Confederate and mostly Texan there in force, it seems, to rejoin the issue). When they see Mr. Bearss, though, they stop to listen as he gently joshes them about their uniforms or regiments though he always concludes with a heartfelt "Good job."
It is a strange episode in the history of celebrity; with a Robert E. Lee look-alike reaching down from his horse to shake Mr. Bearss' hand, it is almost as if the past is paying homage to the present, not vice versa.
Mr. Bearss' tours cover not only multiple locations from the Civil War (both in Virginia and on the Western front), but also Little Big Horn and Minnesota (the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862), plus sites from the War of 1812 and in Boston from the American Revolution. Every "cultural tourism" institution with the past to sell the Smithsonian Institution, National Geographic and others wants a piece of Bearrs, the "franchise player."
Not only is he busy all year long, but he also keeps his tour members busy all hours of the day. He lectures them during their breakfast at 7 a.m. on some apt topic (e.g., was Gettysburg really the high tide of the Confederacy? Or Antietam?); he then lectures on the bus that takes off at 8 a.m.; and then he starts lecturing on the field at 8:30.
The schedule is not quite as dire as it was for soldiers or even camp-out re-enactors. (Our Texas friends, with Park Service permission, camped out near the Bloody Lane and are mostly asleep when the bus comes by at 9:30 p.m.) But Mr. Bearss keeps his troops busy.
There is no unfilled time, and late one afternoon the Antietam group even squeezes in a stop for lemonade in downtown Sharpsburg at where else? a 1780s house being renovated by modern-day Poffenbergers.
Guest speakers are featured, but Mr. Bearss is always ready to chime in with friendly kibitzing or a telling detail. Sometimes you think he might be the solution to the energy crisis.
Mr. Bearss "retired" from the government about a decade ago, just in time for what marketers call "heritage tourism." He is, however, both a real historian and the real McCoy, a package of authentic eccentricity for an age in search of the heroic past. He is the bard without a beer hall (though one or two of his tours have been known to stop thereabouts). He is our storyteller, the reincarnation of an ancient voice regaling us with vivid tales of bygone honor. Everywhere he goes, he makes his audience smarter and makes it smile.
Literature has never really done justice to the Civil War. There are some poems, of course (even some by Herman Melville and Walt Whitman), the short novel "Red Badge of Courage" and the short story (and ultracynical) "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." There have been, yes, some good historical novels lately, as well as the old soap opera "Gone With the Wind."
There is nothing monumental, though. Maybe it had to be left to the oral tradition, in which the names of officers such as Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana roll grandly off Mr. Bearss' tongue. Every epic deserves a Homer. In Ed Bearss, the Civil War finally may have gotten one.
Tom O'Brien is a Washington writer.

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