Around the Mall & Beyond

The Smithsonian Associates have a ‘national treasure’ in their midst, but shhh, don’t tell…

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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.

"You hear about the Mud March?" asked Gary Carpenter of Silver Spring, Maryland, a Bearss trooper since 1985. I knew of the Union Army's infamous aborted winter march after Fredericksburg, but this was rather more recent. It seems in early March one wet spring, Bearss walked his group over the open ground of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. "It was so soggy that people sank to their ankles. One woman lost her shoes. We'll never forget that day."

There was the time the bus broke down at Cold Harbor, Virginia, and during the six-hour wait for a replacement the group sent out for pizza and beer and had a walloping party.

There was the time the bus got stuck in a ditch at Fishers Hill, and local farmers brought out pots of coffee. Another time the bus stalled on the railroad tracks at Manassas, and neighbors called the railroad to stop the soon-due train.

That all happened before Paulie Ward became Bearss' permanent bus driver two years ago. "Last year we were down in the Fredericksburg area and Ed said, 'Paulie, I want to go see this house,' and he pointed down in the woods where there was nothing but two tracks in the dirt. So I took it down in there; the bus was tilting, the trees were scraping the windows. I said, 'Ed, we going to be able to turn this bus around?' No problem. We got down within a hundred yards of that house, I turned her around and got out and joined the tour." You can bet that Paulie Ward knows a fair bit now about what Ed Bearss knows.

"Don't encourage people to discover him," pleaded Paul Davis, a Washington native who discovered Bearss two years ago. "As it is, you have to sign up two months in advance."

Once Bearss lost his trademark swagger stick down a storm drain, and George Evans of Annandale, Virginia, and Paul Sposito of nearby Springfield rescued it with coat hangers.

"We love him," Sposito said simply. "We have badges showing we were at his 70th and 71st birthday parties." Oh yes, the fans help him celebrate every June 26, wherever the tour may be.

"You don't bring things to read on Ed's trips," remarked George Stevens of Alexandria, Virginia, whose wife Roberta was the volunteer in charge of us all, counting heads after every stop. She's a special assistant in cultural affairs at the Library of Congress.

And then there was that time at Little Round Top, the climax of Gettysburg Day Two, when Bearss was lecturing atop a large bare rock and hundreds of tourists joined the group to listen.

"The whole hillside was covered with people," someone said. "It was like the Sermon on the Mount."

Well. Not to carry this too far, but suffice it to say that Edwin C. Bearss is a very special sort of historian.

Born in Billings, Montana, he was raised on a ranch 40 miles from Hardin and a bike ride away from the Little Bighorn battlefield.

"But I got interested in the Civil War in the seventh grade. My father was a marine in World War I. He liked to read aloud, war books. Then I got a biography of Jeb Stuart and that was it."

He named the cattle on his father's ranch after generals and battles, his favorite cow being "Antietam." In World War II he signed up as a marine, of course. PFC Bearss fought at Guadalcanal and New Britain, where he suffered gunshot wounds to the left arm and foot, right shoulder and back. He was 26 months in the hospital. After his discharge in 1946 he took a B.S. degree in foreign service at Georgetown University and later took his M.A. in history at Indiana University with a thesis on Gen. Pat Cleburne, "the Stonewall Jackson of the West."

"When I was at Indiana University," he said, "I visited Cleburne's battle sites, Shiloh and Stones River, and the historian at Shiloh spent the day with me. I like Shiloh: it looks the way it did, not so many monuments, and you can feel alone out there, 80 miles from anywhere."

In 1955 he took a Park Service job as park historian at Vicksburg, transferring 11 years later to Washington. While at Vicksburg he did the research that led to the recovery of the Union gunboat Cairo, long lost in the Yazoo River. He also found two forgotten forts and helped make Grand Gulf in Mississippi, the site of a Civil War engagement, into a state military monument.

"I gave my first tour for the Smithsonian in October 1977. They didn't do much with tours then. I did Antietam and must have had good reports, because they wanted me to continue."

The next year he gave a tour of Gettysburg, out and back from Washington in one day. "The restaurant took two hours to serve us. We were really late."

Now Bearss takes six days and three separate tours to cover Gettysburg: one for the preliminaries at Brandy Station and elsewhere, one for Stuart's gallivanting ride, one for Lee's retreat and three for the days of the battle itself.

He appears on television (in the Ken Burns Civil War series, for one) and lectures to Civil War round tables and writes books, 14 to date, ranging from monographs to 1,200-page, three-volume histories. He has another one coming out this summer, on events of 1862 on the James River. He and his wife, Margie, have three children: Edwin jr., a marine; Mary Virginia, a former marine; Sara Beth, a historian.

One detail he had mentioned-the fact that horses usually don't urinate on the run, preferring to stop, which was yet another reason for Stuart's slow progress-stuck in my mind. I asked Bearss where this bit of arcanum had come from, expecting a technical reference to some history of warfare.

"Oh, I used to ride six miles home from school, and I was always in a terrible hurry because I didn't want to miss my radio programs, Little Orphan Annie, Tom Mix, Terry and the Pirates. That's when you learn that speed counts."

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