What Made Ed Bearss a Rock Star of Civil War History

On any battlefield, he struck the mystic chords of memory

Ed Bearss
Ed Bearss on a Smithsonian Associates tour of the Antietam battlefield. Courtesy of Judd Kessler
Editor's Note, September 21, 2020: On September 15, 2020, Ed Bearss died at the age of 97. In 2005, we profiled Bearss has part of a special section called "35 Who Made a Difference."

Ed Bearss has what might best be called a battlefield voice, a kind of booming growl, like an ancient wax-cylinder record amplified to full volume—about the way you'd imagine William Tecumseh Sherman sounding the day he burned Atlanta, with a touch of Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill.

We're on a battlefield today, in fact. But now, unlike on a certain summer day 142 years ago, this corner of southern Pennsylvania is quiet, with fields of soybeans and corn drowsing under the midmorning haze. Quiet, that is, except for that voice: "George Armstro-o-ong Custerrr has been a brigadier general for all of five days. He's already got himself the larrrgest starrrs on his shoulders of any general in the Army. He's adopted a red neckerchief with a gold arro-o-ow stickpin in it. And he's just come within a hairrr of losing his life, 13 years before the Sioux Indians send him to the happy hunting grounds."

Several dozen listeners stand silent, transfixed. In Civil War circles, Bearss is nothing short of a rock star. One of the men in the tour group wears a baseball cap covered with commemorative buttons celebrating each of Bearss' birthdays for the past decade (the latest is for his 82nd), while others have been known to wear T-shirts depicting his face on Mount Rushmore or transposed onto Elvis' white jumpsuit with the simple legend: "THE KING."

What inspires such adulation? As historian and battlefield guide, Bearss' store of knowledge is prodigious. Today, he's spending several hours covering a brief, relatively minor sideshow to the Battle of Gettysburg. He's speaking without notes and admits it's been years since he's read a word about the skirmish on East Cavalry Field. Yet the details pour over us in a heady flow: Rebel cavalrymen on horses exhausted after a 200-mile trek from Virginia. Michigan troopers charging into battle to Custer's cry of "Come on, you Wolverines!" A Northern captain felled when a Confederate color-bearer drives the spear point of his guidon into the Yankee's open mouth.

As he talks, Bearss marches back and forth, brandishing a silver-headed swagger stick, tucking it from time to time under his withered left arm—a casualty of a bullet at a battlefield on the other side of the world in 1944. He keeps his eyes tightly closed while he lectures, and he later tells me that way he can see the events of 1863 unfolding before him.

Some might say that Bearss has spent most of his life in the 19th century. He grew up with kerosene lamps and horse-drawn plows in Montana. He remembers Civil War stories told firsthand by the hometown veteran, "Grandpa" Henderson, who "used to sit around the hotel lobby with his reunion ribbons on."

After serving in the Marines and earning degrees at Georgetown and Indiana universities, Bearss joined the National Park Service (where he is now chief historian emeritus) and devoted himself to the study of the American past, particularly the struggle between the blue and the gray. When he compares contemporary America to the 1860s, his allegiance is clear: "We're in an age of Teflon people now. People then were more original, more individual."

Yet when he has to, Bearss can stand squarely in the present, as he has proved rather often of late, enmeshed in one 21st-century battle after another—over the suburban development that has threatened to engulf Civil War battlefields. Here at Gettysburg, for instance, the idyllic vista before us is broken by a water tower that went up a few years ago, part of a new industrial park. Just to the right of it, investors want to build a casino with 3,000 slot machines.

It's a scenario that, in various permutations, has repeated itself at many sites over the past decade or so. Bearss is well-armed to support the preservationist side of the fight. He remembers visiting Manassas in 1941, when it was a sleepy rural area; now, when he leads bus tours there, they often end up stalled in shopping center traffic. At Petersburg in the early 1960s, he saw where an 1864 fort was bulldozed to make way for a mall; now the mall itself is nearly derelict. "The development is advancing more irresistibly than Grant's army did on Richmond," Bearss grumbles.

"Ed's name carries a lot of weight," says Dean Shultz, a leader in the land-conservation movement at Gettysburg. Some years ago, a preservation group was debating whether to help purchase easements on the ground where Custer gathered his men for the East Cavalry Field assault. There was concern about whether the site was truly historic. "So finally I said I'd talked to Ed Bearss, and he said it had historic significance," he says. "And they said, 'Well, if Ed Bearss says it's worth saving, it's worth saving.'"

Like Custer's men, preservationists now face a do-or-die moment, Bearss says. "The battles are going to be played out in the next 10 to 20 years, because by then the battlefield parks will be islands in urban corridors of the United States, in a sea of sprawling shopping malls."

On East Cavalry Field, our tour draws toward a close beneath a granite column topped by a statue of a Union cavalryman. "The trumpets are playing," Bearss intones. "Thirteen hundred sabers are drawn. They flash in the sun. The Confederates are coming toward them: five regiments, riding boot to spur. Men of Michigan, are you ready? Charrrrrrrge!" And suddenly he's off, his swagger stick flailing—a hunched figure racing across the soybean field, charging fearlessly forward into the past.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.