Ed Bearss possessed a wealth of knowledge most Civil War scholars can only dream about. He’d forgotten more about the conflict than many of us will ever know. To add insult to an already injurious 2020, the Civil War history community lost one of its brightest stars. Ed Bearss has passed on.
The booming baritone, crackling with a gravely growl, transfixed many of us during his sold-out battlefield tours. The man could give a three hour lecture on Gettysburg’s East Cavalry Field without breaking a sweat. If you were lucky enough to gain a spot on one these riveting excursions, it was something to behold and to always treasure. He continued traveling and lecturing well into his 90’s; a toughness, no doubt stemming from his combat experience in the Marines. Bearss always wanted his audiences to understand the experience of the common soldiers. When it came to telling a good story, Bearss never quit. He retired as Chief Historian of the National Park Service in 1995, focusing his energy on lectures, tours, and writing. Ken Burns’s Civil War series would have been benefited from more Bearss, less Shelby Foote.
We should never forget his scholarship. Bearss produced the definitive study of the Vicksburg campaign in 1986, a park where he first established himself in Civil War circles after discovering the wreck of the USS Cairo 30 years before. He also produced a two volume study of the Petersburg campaign. In 2006 he published Fields of Honor a concise summary of his personal connections to all the Civil War battlefields he tramped. It is extraordinary reading.
At a time when many are trying to revise or even rewrite Civil War history, Bearss is more relevant now than ever. Let us hope that his passing will expose a younger generation to his dedication and enthusiasm. There are stories to be told….