He has groupies who wear special "Bearss Brigade" badges on the tours. He has people who have ridden with him 40 times or more. He has couples who first met on the bus, got engaged and then invited him to their wedding and he went. He will talk for 12 hours straight on one of his Civil War field trips, and then during the lunch break his class of Smithsonian Associates-his friends and fans-will spend the whole time talking about him.
"Ed Bearss is a national treasure," says one Associate on a one-day tour that I've joined. We are following the path of James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart in the days leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg. The young and flamboyant cavalry commander had made a disastrous end run around the Union Army, literally an ego trip that may well have cost the Confederates America's most celebrated battle.
Edwin Cole Bearss, of the National Park Service, has been running tours to battle sites of the Civil War, plus a few of the Revolution and of the War of 1812, for the NPS since 1955. He was their chief historian for 13 years and now serves, at age 72, as the director's special assistant for military sites.
Our first stop is Rowser's Ford on the Potomac River, where the 39 of us stand by the canal lock and hear how Stuart brought his 6,000 troopers across the river during high water, hand-carrying shells and using up most of the night at a time when speed was essential.
Before long we are all transported back to 1863. It is the end of June and Gen. Robert E. Lee is moving north to invade Pennsylvania. He absolutely must know where the Union Army is: Is it still twiddling its thumbs in Virginia or coming after him into Maryland?
On the morning of June 25 Jeb Stuart's plans to ride around the Union Army are foiled when he encounters Union troops on the very road he intended to use. A courier is dispatched to warn Lee that the Union Army is on the move, but the courier never makes it. Now, because the Yankees occupy the road, Stuart must first ride farther south and east before heading north. For a full week, Stuart's cavalry remains cut off from the Army of the Potomac, and Lee is deprived of intelligence he desperately needs.
Our bus speeds past the pompous mansions in the ritzy Washington, D.C. suburb of Potomac and then through the modest Maryland countryside above Olney, but Bearss makes us see instead Jeb Stuart's column: horsemen trotting in fours, a line ten miles long including 125 forage wagons Stuart has captured, plus ambulances, ordnance wagons and artillery. "He has orders to disrupt the enemy's movement and collect supplies," Bearss tells us; "this, he does, but it shows poor judgment, because he forgets that his primary mission is to move as rapidly as possible and to reestablish contact with Lee's army once he knows the Union Army is across the Potomac."
Stopping at Westminster, Union Mills and other points-there are to be close to a dozen during the day-we debark and gather around our leader as he paces back and forth in our midst, eyes mostly closed, silver-knobbed Royal Marine swagger stick under his arm, drawing the picture. Full names of generals, colonels, even captains; verbatim dialogue; shrewd analysis of his characters' mental state; even gestures recorded in someone's memoirs: Bearss goes on like this all day, nonstop, and never glances at his notes.
I know a fair amount about the Civil War, but this is all new to me. How the excessively gentle Lee, when Stuart finally reports to him at 2 p.m. on July 2, long after his army had blindly blundered into battle at Gettysburg, actually raised a fist as if to strike the man who was supposed to be his "eyes and ears." How on July 3, at Gettysburg, George Custer, only six days a general, charged at the head of his adopted Michigan cavalry with the yell, "Come on, you Wolverines!" How the Grass Hotel at Hunterstown, Pennsylvania (a private house now), used to look, and which wounded soldier was treated by which Army surgeon there, and what his wound was, and how it looked, and how the surgeon treated it. . . In Hanover, Pennsylvania, we visit the site where a man fell into a tanning vat (Bearss reports his name, rank and middle initial-Lt. Col. William H. Payne, 2d North Carolina Cavalry) and the site of the silver maple tree under which Custer tied his horse.
This was amazing material. But for me the best part of the day was the way Bearss' regulars clustered around to tell me about him. After lunch at the Altland House in Abbottstown, Pennsylvania, I got an earful.