In Memoriam: Ed Bearss

Ed Bearss, in ballcap, with ECW’s Chris Kolakowski and Edward Alexander (right) and Ethan Rafuse (left)

The Civil War community was rocked today by the news of the passing of legendary historian Ed Bearss. Ed suffered a heart attack over the weekend and died surrounded by family on Tuesday. He was 97.

“Ed’s career is unmatched in the Civil War community—from his discovery of the USS Cairo in the Yazoo River to his role as chief historian emeritus of the National Park Service,” said American Battlefield Trust President Jim Lighthizer in announcing the news the afternoon. “For many of us, our love of history and preservation was nurtured through battlefield tours led by Ed and his appearance on Ken Burns’ series The Civil War. His knowledge of history was encyclopedic—and his ability to convey that knowledge in a relatable way mesmerized his audiences for generations.” (Click here to see the Trust’s online memorial.)

Members of the Emerging Civil War community wanted to share their own memories of Ed. We also pass along our condolences to Ed’s family.

Edward Alexander: When I was first doing interpretive training, everyone, myself included, wanted to channel their inner Ed Bearss—mimicking his booming style, gruff confidence, and the way he overemphasized a general’s middle name. In trying to be the next Ed Bearss, we need to remember the work that forged his ability to drop onto any battlefield, find out which direction was north, and then immediately dive into leading a tour.

The mapping studies he created over half a century ago for the NPS battlefields fueled that knowledge. Popular as his style was, he wouldn’t have become the voice of Civil War tours without first doing the legwork in developing that memory bank. And I think that’s the approach that future battlefield tour guides should emulate. Furthermore, that research is still the primary map resource at many sites.

Sarah Kay Bierle, ECW Managing Editor: Ed was a legend in the history field…. I’m grieved that I never had the chance to meet this American hero, historian, and preservationist and say “thank you.” As a kid in California, I tried to save up enough money to go on one of his tours because I wanted to learn in one of his battlefield master classes. May we be inspired by his life and legacy to continue the mission of public history and saving hallowed ground.

Caroline Davis: I am thoroughly heartbroken by this news. It’s taken me a few hours to let it sink in. I was supposed to do an oral history project for Vicksburg this summer with Ed, but due to his declining health, we pushed it back with hopes of being able to next summer or even this fall.

Back in 2013, I had just graduated from Ball State University, and I was lucky enough to return to Fredericksburg as a spring intern at the park. A coworker offered me a ticket to the Rappahannock Valley Civil War Roundtable meeting that spring. This particular meeting was special as it was their yearly fundraising meeting. As an intern, I had come to the realization that there was no way I could afford to go, so I quite literally jumped at the opportunity.

The speaker that night was none other than Ed Bearss. As I got to the meeting, I choose a seat right up front and spent the next hour listening to Ed speak about the same topic I had just spent the last year writing about for my senior thesis: the trade routes between Mexico and the Confederacy. I had struggled writing on this subject because there just wasn’t much out there on it. As I listened to Ed speak, I could quite literally tick off each resource I had used for my paper as Ed used them in his presentation.

Needless to say, I was starstruck. After he had concluded his talk, the same coworker who had invited me to the meeting pulled me aside and introduced me to Ed. I was able to talk with him about my research, and then he signed my copy of Fields of Honor. When I got home that night, I looked at the autograph and saw that he had written “to my fellow historian.” To this day, I hold those words close to me. Ed Bearss called me a “historian.”

Since this past summer, I have been working at Vicksburg National Military Battlefield, each morning waking up to the USS Cairo—which Ed had done so much to help save—practically in my front yard. Ed Bearss is a legend and has left an eternal mark on American History.

Ed Bearss (left), Dan Vermilya (center), and Ted Alexander (right) at the 2015 Chambersburg Civil War Symposium

Jon-Erik Gilot: Between Bud Robertson, Ted Alexander, and now Ed Bearss, the Civil War community has lost some giants in the past year. Like many of my generation, I was introduced to Ed through the Ken Burns series. His gravelly voice was infectious, and I quickly started to scoop up all of his books I could get my hands on. Fast forward to 2005 during an internship with the American Battlefield Trust (then the Civil War Preservation Trust). I would occasionally hear the office door open. In would walk Ed Bearss like he owned the place, calling out “Where’s Lighthizer?” as he tramped through the office. I enjoyed getting to know Ed that summer during his regular visits.

Over the years I had the opportunity to hear Ed speak on numerous occasions, the last being just a few years ago. The West Virginia Independence Hall Foundation brought him in as a keynote speaker to help raise funds to restore West Virginia’s largest Civil War monument here in Wheeling. I was able to spend some one-on-one time with Ed during his visit, and he recounted earlier visits to Wheeling, and how speaking under the gaslights in the courtroom at Independence Hall had been one of his favorite venues.

I guess these experiences sum up what I most appreciated about Ed Bearss: his accessibility. To Civil War enthusiasts he was a celebrity, a rock star, yet he was always accessible for a conversation, a tour, a book signing, and always a good laugh. It seems like all of us have an Ed Bearss story or encounter. I appreciated the brief opportunities I had with him and am grateful for the profound influence he had on my interest in Civil War history.

Steward Henderson: I extend my deepest sympathy to the family of Ed Bearss. I met Ed at the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center in 2006, and every time I saw Ed after that, he remembered the last conversation that we had. I was fascinated by his memory. I was present at his Memorial Day speech at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery when he discussed his wounding and his career in Civil War history. He was a great man, as well as an excellent historian. We will miss him dearly!

Chris Kolakowski, ECW Chief Historian: Ed Bearss was a national treasure. He left a towering legacy at many battlefields and historic sites all over the United States—and not just those associated with the Civil War, although that was always his first love. Ed’s command of information and engaging style brought history to life for countless Americans. His silenced voice will be greatly missed.

I have known Ed for many years, and learned from him starting as a young historian. I found him generous, supportive, and quite approachable. He was one of the people who helped me define my ideal of what a public historian should be. His death affects me deeply, and I shall miss him greatly.

Well done, thy good and faithful servant, and Semper Fi.

Ed Bearss (center) flanked by Chris and Kris

Chris Mackowski, ECW Editor-in-Chief: My first Ed Bearss encounter came in the Wilderness. Kris White and I were leading a group of interns on a tour across Widow Tapp Field when we heard a voice booming across the battlefield as loud as William Poague’s artillery. As we advanced into the field, we finally saw the source: Ed, ringed by a tour group, growled out the story of Longstreet’s fortuitous arrival on the field. I felt like ours had been the fortuitous arrival, because I finally had the chance to hear Ed in person, on the field. I’d seen him on TV, most notably on the Ken Burns series (where I felt Burns had unfortunately tethered Ed to a chair that could barely contain him), and everyone I knew seemed to have an Ed Bearss story of some sort or another. I’d felt like I was missing out.

A few years later, Kris and I gave a talk on the battle of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church for a Chambersburg Civil War Seminar program. Ed, in attendance, came up after and told us it was one of the best talks he had ever heard (and there were witnesses, too!). The next day, he tagged along on our tour, nodding along appreciatively as Kris or I would tell a part of the story that Ed apparently enjoyed as if it were an old favorite tale. I felt like I’d been given a gift to be able to spend some time with Ed in that way, as if we were somehow old friends passing the day in a shared pasttime.

As a historian, writer, speaker, and tour guide, Ed served as the very model of an exceptional public historian in all ways, including his passion and accessibility. He set a high bar for all of us, and then inspired us to reach it.

Kristen Pawlak: Historian. Marine Corps hero. Preservationist. Storyteller. Ed Bearss was truly unlike any other in this field, having always found a way to serve his country and community—most of it being either fighting on or preserving a battlefield. Ever since I saw Ken Burns’ The Civil War when I was in my youth, I had always been greatly moved by Ed Bearss. His passion for the Civil War, the way he spoke, the stories he told, and the visible scars he bore from his service in the Second World War. Meeting him years later at the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College in 2010 was a moment of my life I would never forget. I walked up to Mr. Bearss, shook his hand, and told him “Semper Fi” and that it was a true honor to meet him. I remember his humble laugh as he grabbed my hand, telling me “Thank you.” I soon after went on a tour with him at Gettysburg and was incredibly moved by being there in his presence. I look back on that moment, knowing now it was my only and last time meeting him personally. Today, hearing of his passing, I will never forget him and his incredible work in preservation. I know each and every one reading this will never forget him either. He is truly an American legend and hero. Rest easy and Semper Fidelis, Mr. Bearss.

Ryan Quint: My earliest recollections of Ed Bearss was watching him on various History Channel programs with his distinct growly voice. As a present to myself when I graduated from college, I bought his famed Vicksburg trilogy and happily got him to sign the set when he spoke to a local round table. I considered myself extremely fortunate to be able to take part in a panel hosted at the Monocacy battlefield where Ed was the keynote speaker. To go from watching him on tv programs as a kid interested in the Civil War to be able to then take part in the same panel was very humbling. Ed will forever remain a quintessential example of what a historian is, and we are all the better for having his path to follow. If we accomplish even half of what Ed did in his long life, we can consider ourselves fortunate.

Sean Michael Chick: Ed Bearss certainly had friends and colleagues who knew him better personally. They can leave a far better memorial. I can, however, speak about my experiences with him and thoughts on his legacy.

As one of the few Civil War historians and buffs I know under forty, I did not have as much opportunity to see Bearss or meet him. My first exposure was the handful of spots he did on Ken Burns’ The Civil War, which were really too few. In terms of screen charisma, he was Shelby Foote’s best competition. The part where he describes the Battle of the Wilderness is burned into my memory. I also saw him on Civil War Journal.

I only saw Bearss once. It was Spotsylvania in 2008. I was leaving the “Bloody Angle” when I saw him in the distance, walking cane in his hand, leading a tour group. Naturally I would not linger too close for too long, but I wanted to walk by him just close enough to see him and hear him, not knowing when I would again. I often say “strike when the iron is hot,” and I am glad I did. Bearss had three scheduled talks in New Orleans, where I live, from 2017-2019. I missed the first due to a prior commitment. In 2018 he fell. In 2019 his talk was cancelled due to the weather.

By 2015, I had added to the literature on Petersburg. Before Thomas Howe, Gordon Rhea, and I, Bearss had written about the fighting there on June 15 and 18, 1864. I wanted him to sign his first Petersburg book, which Savas Beatie published with aid from Bryce Suderow. Also, by then I was a tour guide, and Bearss is considered a great guide even by the few of my New Orleans colleagues who know of him.

The other reason I wanted to see him was his status as a World War II veteran of the South Pacific. The Pacific War interests me more than the European Theater, at least since I saw Tora! Tora! Tora! in 2003. My grandfather, James Leonard Chick, was there, and like Bearss had to spend months recovering in a California hospital, although he was there due to illness. My grandfather was, by all accounts, a broken man after 1944. Bearss, by contrast, became one of the most universally respected men I have ever encountered. I wanted to see a man who had fought in a great and terrible war and who, more than most, would know something of what my grandfather went through. I would never ask him, of course; that is as rude as people asking me about Hurricane Katrina out of the blue.

We have lost a lot in his passing. Another connection to World War II. A great tour guide. A solid writer who composed important works on Vicksburg, Petersburg, and other battles. He was a man of the increasingly dying reconciliation interpretation of the Civil War. It was an interpretation partially forged in the fires of two world wars and the Depression, where the descendants of the Civil War generation fought together against Germany and Japan, wars that were embraced in the South. James Leonard Chick’s grandfather, Samuel, fought for the Confederacy at Shiloh and Perryville before deserting. His grandson James was no 1942 draftee, but enlisted on May 15. As to my father, who grew up in World War II New Orleans, he recalled seeing an ancient Confederate veteran who was brought out to make a speech after Japan surrendered. He said New Orleans never partied harder than it did in August 1945.

In my experience, both reading and writing, veterans are not as tempted by broad and glib declarations about the experiences of soldiers and their morality. Bearss certainly was not. As a combat veteran, he could speak to an experience I can only perceive by reading military memoirs. I cannot know the visceral feeling of combat, but I will read and listen. One cannot take a tour with Bearss anymore, but his books are there, his appearances on television are recorded, and stories of him will live on long after his death. The country, the scholarship, and the lives of most of us are all the better for what he did as a Marine, historian, and guide.

ECW encourages our readers to share their own Ed Bearss memories in the comments section below.

This entry was posted in Civil War Events, Personalities and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to In Memoriam: Ed Bearss

  1. Matthew J. Waters says:

    Semper Fi Ed!

  2. Matthew J. Waters says:

    Also, excellent article. This was by far the best way to honor this great man. A collective remembrance and praising. Well done ECW. To commemorate him I suggest we all donate some to the American Battlefield Trust, in his memory. I think it would be something that he would certainly support and be proud of… saving history in his name.

  3. Mike Maxwell says:

    A cherished member of the community who will be sorely missed…

  4. 14corps says:

    A moving commentary on the great man.

  5. John Maginn says:

    In August of last year, I was preparing to greet a ‘Civil War Tour’ group at the Warren Lasch Conservatory, home of the Confederate Submarine, H.L. Hunley, in Charleston, SC. Assigned as their tour guide, I was greeting the tour staff when I encountered Ed, the historical legend. I had met him before but spent the next hour or so with him at my side. He was elated at the progress that had been made on the preservation of the submarine, the interactive exhibit hall, tour guide staffing, the excellent flow of tourists, etc. When we were finished, I wished him and his group an enjoyable tour of Charleston, knowing that someday, this legend would pass into history. I have met a number of wonderful historians, great presenters, but know of none as captivating and accommodating as Ed Bearss. Rest in peace, dear friend, your legacy endures. Take your place of honor among your fellow Maines. I will never forget you.

  6. John Brown…John Brown…I’ve watched Ken Burns’ The Civil War probably a thousand times over the years. I just loved the way Ed Bearss spoke. I’ve studied the Civil War since I was in the third grade and I’m almost sixty. I just never get enough of it. I wanted to do a tour guided by Mr. Bearss, unfortunately I was never able to make that happen. I’ll always regret it.
    Ed Bearss taught me so much about not only the Civil War over the years, but about life. He taught me about how people recover from seemingly insurmountable odds, about how to truly be yourself, and most assuredly about all things Civil War. I admired Ed Bearss, as I do so many who have been able to live their dreams out on the battlefields of our long departed ancestors. Rest in Peace Mr. Bearss…may there always be one more story to tell in Heaven…

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!