“Revered” might be too strong a word to describe the way Edwin Cole Bearss is regarded by the legions of Civil War students, professional and lay — but not by much.
Mr. Bearss (pronounced “bars”) retired as chief historian of the National Park Service in 1995 after half a century of federal service, but that hardly has slowed the pace — he celebrated his 80th birthday this month — of his work in preservation, interpretation and preaching the gospel, as it were, of historic remembrance. He is vastly knowledgeable about America’s wars, with an alarmingly capacious memory and vivid style; his voice can knock a bird off a branch at 50 paces.
James M. McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of “Battle Cry of Freedom” and a host of Civil War studies, writes in the foreword: “As anyone who has been on a tour with Ed is aware, he knows everything — and I mean literally everything — about Civil War battles and about a great many other areas of history as well.”
Tributory biographies can founder on the shoals of well-intended amateurism. This one does not because it is written by John C. Waugh, a one-time newspaperman who saw the light and turned to history (“The Class of 1854” at West Point is among his books.)
From the perspective of three-quarters of a century and to Americans who today are overwhelmingly urban, Ed Bearss’ early life might seem idyllic. He was raised on a 10,000-acre Montana cattle ranch where lack of electricity and indoor plumbing were simply how things were in much of the West then. He comes from a family in which “The ancestors on both sides tended to possess qualities of concrete reinforced by rods of steel,” Mr. Waugh writes.
Mr. Bearss’ father, Omar, was an enlisted Marine before World War I and was commissioned in what used to be called “the Great War,” then returned to service after Pearl Harbor. His military background inclined him to read to his sons about wars and warriors, and Ed Bearss vividly remembers his father reading to them a biography of J.E.B. Stuart.
It emerged early that Mr. Bearss possessed one of those phenomenal memories that can retain astounding amounts of information, recalled at will. As a schoolboy, he won statewide contests in geography, history and current events. Current events in the 1930s were bearing down fiercely on America and the world, of course.
Mr. Bearss graduated from high school in Hardin, Mont., in the spring of 1941. War was in the wind. When it came on Dec. 7, 1941, he told his parents that evening that he was going to enlist in the Marines — what else, because his father’s tales to his sons had often centered on the Corps, and a cousin, Hiram Bearss, had won the Medal of Honor and had been one of the most decorated Marines of his era. (Hiram was killed in a car wreck in 1938 “while with a woman not his wife,” as the family puts it in a phrase that must puzzle current generations.)
Mr. Bearss went through boot camp in San Diego, was sent to the Pacific and volunteered for a newly forming battalion of the fabled Marine Raiders. In January 1943, the Raiders went ashore in the Russell Islands, but the Japanese had evacuated. Shortly afterward, Mr. Bearss came down with malaria and after hospitalization was assigned to the 7th Marine Regiment of the 1st Marine Division, which had fought the “war to the knife and the knife to the hilt” (as Mr. Bearss puts it) on Guadalcanal.
On Jan. 2, 1944, during the battle for New Britain, Mr. Bearss’ company collided with the Japanese at a stream that would be known as Suicide Creek. In the firefight, Mr. Bearss was struck first in the left arm and right shoulder, then in the foot. He lay bleeding for an hour before he could be dragged to relative safety. He was evacuated and spent 26 months recuperating in military hospitals.
(Mr. Bearss has called his four years as a Marine “defining” in his life. His son, Ed Jr., and youngest daughter, Jenny, also have worn the Globe and Anchor.)
After discharge, Mr. Bearss headed for college like the vast multitudes of ex-GIs, graduated from Georgetown University in 1949 and went to work for the Navy in Washington as a geographer. By 1953, after living what sounds like a fast-lane bachelor’s life in the capital, he enrolled in graduate school at the University of Indiana.
During his time in Washington, Mr. Bearss frequently visited the Civil War battlefields in the region. His epiphany, however, came while he was researching his master’s thesis — on Gen. Patrick Cleburne, “the Stonewall of the West.” Visiting Shiloh, he spent six hours walking the battlefield with the park ranger. Shortly after, he was hired by the National Park Service and assigned to the National Battlefield Park at Vicksburg, Miss. He spent three years there and then became regional historian in 1958.
His credo: “The best interpreter was a person with a vast store of knowledge of sites, related sites, and historic themes — and a burning desire to share this information with a visitor.”
In 1958, Mr. Bearss married Margie Riddle, a teacher in Brandon, Miss., who also was deeply interested in the Civil War. Her great-grandfather had fought in the 9th Alabama, and her father “would take me out and show me springs where the soldiers drank, where Sherman’s Yankees filled their canteens.” She met Ed Bearss on a visit to the Vicksburg battlefield, and on his second trip to see her, he came bearing gifts — a cannonball and three volumes of the “Official Records” of the Civil War. A historian and writer herself, Mrs. Bearss would be “indispensable” to her husband’s career, editing all of the 19 books he has written or edited or to which he has contributed.
Mr. Bearss early acquired a reputation for locating forgotten Civil War sites and lost relics. At Vicksburg, he struck pay dirt. The Union ironclad Cairo had been sunk by Confederate torpedoes in December 1862 and long lost in the mud of the Yazoo River. Mr. Bearss set out to find the vessel and, with the aid of colleagues and local residents, did just that.
It wasn’t until 1960 and the approach of the centennial of the war that a nonprofit organization was chartered to raise and preserve the warship. The cost was steep, $300,000, and there was no federal financing. When contributions ran short, Mr. Bearss went on a television quiz show and won $20,000 to keep the work going.
To shorten Mr. Waugh’s fascinating account, the USS Cairo finally was pulled out of the Yazoo mud in 1964, and then the work of reconstruction and salvage began. Mrs. Bearss would inventory and catalog the 10,000 artifacts found — her husband estimates that she spent 3,000 hours just washing off mud and spray-varnishing the articles.
In 1966, the new director of the National Park Service, George B. Hartzog, decided to put together a top-notch team of research historians in Washington. Mr. Bearss’ name quickly came up. With his encyclopedic knowledge, dynamic energy and style, he “became the Park Service’s superstar,” Mr. Waugh writes of the man who is also intimately familiar with the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars and World Wars I and II.
In 1981, the slot of NPS chief historian opened, and Mr. Bearss was the logical candidate. He was, colleagues asserted, “relentlessly upbeat” and had “amazing optimism.” He also had a temper that could ignite occasionally.
One of his chores was to work with Congress on park service and historical issues. A highly publicized campaign in which he walked point was in the late 1980s when a Northern Virginia developer bought 580 acres adjacent to the Manassas National Battlefield for an intended shopping mall, corporate park and a multitude of houses. The land had figured prominently in both Bull Run battles, and Mr. Bearss enlisted prominent historians and preservationists to testify before Sen. Dale Bumpers’ national parks subcommittee. That, with the tidal wave of public attention, propelled legislation to purchase the threatened land for the park.
“Ed Bearss is sui generis,” one of a kind, says Mr. McPherson, a friend and fellow historian. It is always inspiriting to read about an individual who so briskly and passionately has climbed every mountain he intended to and still looks for further peaks — for the sake of sustaining the American past. “Continue the march” still echoes from his years as a young Marine.
(All proceeds from sale of this book are to be used for battlefield preservation. Copies can be obtained from www.civilwar.org or www.historyamerica.com.)
Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.