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Ed Bearss a rock star among battlefield guides

Ed Bearss a rock star among battlefield guides

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WILDERNESS If a history book could talk, it would sound like Ed Bearss.

But it would have to be a really good history book.

One of America's preeminent public historians, Bearss (pronounced BARS) displays an uncommon flair for storytelling and an unmatched energy and enthusiasm as he charges across Civil War battlefields, which he knows probably better than anyone. The chief historian emeritus of the National Park Service, still dynamic at 86, is in great demand, leading tours or giving speeches upwards of 300 days a year, a daunting schedule for someone half his age.

"It keeps me young," says the old Marine.

He has achieved rock-star status, if there is such a thing in the world of battlefield guides, as fans wear T-shirts bearing his likeness and fill his tours quickly when tickets go on sale. At one of his favorite places, Gettysburg National Military Park, Bearss was leading a tour group of 50 or so. As he talked and walked, like a pied piper he attracted more and more followers, the crowd swelling to maybe 500.

"Somebody says, 'It's like Christ on the mountain!'" recalled Bearss, a smile curling beneath his thin, white mustache. "Which is good for your morale."

But his is not a superficial fame. He possesses an unsurpassed knowledge, an extraordinary memory and an abiding, deeply rooted love of his subject; trying to impress his future wife on one of their first dates, he presented her with a cannonball. He also has the heart of a performer, enabled by his genial growl of a voice that carries well in open spaces, a cross between a good-natured platoon sergeant and Walter Cronkite. Bearss tells you the way it was with an amiable roar.

On a recent morning, standing not far from where the Battle of the Wilderness was fought in May 1864 and where a modern, bloodless one is being waged, Bearss launched into a vivid description of what transpired here almost 146 years ago -- the beginning of the end of the Civil War:

"So, as darkness closes in on the evening of the 7th down at the intersection of the Brock and Plank roads, where the ground fires are still burning from the previous day and you have the blackened corpses of soldiers . . . and the Union army comes to the crossroads and the men who have heretofore done the dying and the suffering know they are not turning back. They are going on. The Confederates will be correspondingly discouraged."

Some people talk in clipped phrases; others in complete sentences. Bearss talks in full, mesmerizing chapters. Without notes.

"He's the least-boring historian you could ever run into," said Bob Krick, himself a revered Civil War historian with Richmond National Battlefield Park.

Said Len Riedel, executive director of the Blue and Gray Education Society in Danville, "The guy is a priceless treasure. We'll not see his like again in our lifetime."

Riedel considers Bearss "the father of the modern battlefield-preservation movement." For more than half a century, Bearss has walked and documented America's battlefields, telling the stories of the people who lived, fought and died there.

It's not surprising then to learn that Bearss, early in his career as a historian at Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi, led an effort in the 1950s and 1960s to find and raise a Union gunboat that had been sunk a century earlier in the mud of the Yazoo River. He even went on a television game show to win money to finance the operation.

So, when preservation issues arise, Bearss is the man to see, from the preservationists' point of view. Recently, in between trips to North Carolina, Texas and who knows where else, Bearss drove from his home in Arlington County to spend a day at the Wilderness battlefield in Orange County and to talk about the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter the company wants to build near the entrance to the battlefield.

He is against the plan, not so much because of the store itself, which would be constructed near the intersection of state Routes 3 and 20, but because of what likely would follow. More traffic. More development. He's seen this movie before.

"The battlefield becomes an island," he said, "the hole in the doughnut with development around it."

The proposed Wal-Mart site is not on the battlefield per se, but Bearss said it would be in the area where Union troops camped. Wal-Mart proponents welcome the jobs and tax revenue the store would bring, and point out that a strip mall, a McDonald's and a Sheetz already inhabit that intersection. But Bearss believes the scale of Wal-Mart would change everything.

Why should we care, particularly since the National Park Service has acquired more land in recent decades to increase the protected acreage of the battlefield? It's a matter of history, heritage and respect, Bearss said. Congested highways and big-box retailers on the doorstep of battlefields irrevocably change the landscape and threaten to cheapen the sacrifices made there, he said.

"As Lincoln says in the Gettysburg Address, that land has been consecrated with their [soldiers'] blood," Bearss said. "People were wounded and died there."

Bearss considers the Wilderness one of the four most important Civil War battlefields in America because of Gen. Ulysses Grant's decision after the bloody battle to pursue Gen. Robert E. Lee toward Richmond, which signaled a change in Union tactics and led to the end of the war. (The other battles he considers the most important include Fort Donelson, Antietam, and Gettysburg and Vicksburg, which he couples together because they occurred at the same time.)

The Orange County Board of Supervisors last summer approved a special-use permit allowing Wal-Mart to build. Two preservation groups and a half-dozen residents filed suit against the board, claiming the decision was unlawful. A judge is considering whether to allow the suit to go forward.

Growing up on a ranch in Montana, Bearss' love of history came naturally. His knowledge and appreciation of the nuances of battlefields were harder earned. In a Marine assault on the Japanese-held South Pacific island of New Britain during World War II, Bearss was shot in both arms and his foot. He survived by managing to slide himself over the lip of a knoll, out of the line of fire.

If the ground had been level, he recalled, he would have been dead.

"The terrain pretty well dictates who's going to win and who's going to lose, who's going to die and who's going to live," Bearss said, explaining why he has always put such a premium on walking battlefields as a way to understand the fighting that went on there.

Bearss spent more than two years recuperating from his wounds. While laid up, he did a lot of reading, including Douglas Southall Freeman's books about Lee and his lieutenants. Later, while researching his master's thesis on Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne, Bearss had a life-changing experience when he visited the battlefield at Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee and fell under the spell of a park historian named Charles Shedd who gave a riveting tour, according to John Waugh, author of a Bearss biography, "Edwin Cole Bearss: History's Pied Piper."

Bearss' encounter with Shedd led him to consider a park service career.

As he talked last month, Bearss was sitting in the partially restored Ellwood Manor, a late 18th-century home that was used as a Confederate field hospital after the Battle of Chancellorsville and later was in the middle of the Battle of the Wilderness. Grant made headquarters just a few hundred yards from the house, and Union Gens. Gouverneur Warren and Ambrose Burnside set up offices in Ellwood. A short walk from the house is the family cemetery where Stonewall Jackson's amputated left arm is buried, marked by an uncut chunk of granite, perhaps a mile as the crow flies from the proposed Wal-Mart site.

Bearss was clearly revved up by being at Ellwood and talking about the Wilderness.

"My adrenaline pumps on a battlefield," he said. "I get on a high."

And when he gets rolling with Civil War stories, he's like a runaway train, weaving names and dates with colorful scenes and the tiniest details, all in a tapestry of historical context.

"Usually he'll just close his eyes and go," said Dwight Mottet, past president of the Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield and one of the plaintiffs in the suit against Orange County. "He can out-walk, out-talk and out-think just about anybody on the planet."

His intelligence includes more than a touch of pragmatism. The Civil War remains a highly polarizing subject for some, so Bearss is careful to lay out the facts and the stories on his tours and in his talks and books -- without taking sides.

Working more than 40 years for the National Park Service taught him the value of impartiality. A friend who was very obviously pro-Union and worked as a private guide at Gettysburg taught him, too. The friend was once hired by a group to give a tour while riding in their car around the battlefield. Members of the group apparently harbored Confederate sympathies, and near the Lee statue they ran out of patience with the guide's perspective and put him out of the car. It was a long walk back to the visitor center.

Which explains Bearss' motivation for playing it down the middle:

"I didn't want to be kicked out of the car."

Contact Bill Lohmann at (804) 649-6639 or

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