Thursday, September 17, 2020

Remembering Ed Bearss: Marine veteran, Civil War historian, author, speaker and one-of-a-kind Pied Piper of the battlefield

Bearss at Allatoona Pass, Ga., in 2010 (Georgia Battlefields Assn)

Whether leading a battlefield tour, giving a lecture or appearing on Ken Burns’ 1990 PBS miniseries “The Civil War,” historian Ed Bearss commanded attention.

Edwin Cole Bearss, who died Tuesday at age 97, was a legendary figure in the Civil War world. Tour participants hung on his every word as he walked the grounds and gave precise details of what happened there, usually without notes. His voice, itself riveting, was described as thunderous or booming.

The historian incredibly led tours until late last year, when it became evident his health would not permit him to continue. Charlie Crawford, president of the Georgia Battlefields Association, told the Picket then that no other expert could emulate Bearss.

The American Battlefield Trust this week detailed his career as a decorated Marine severely wounded during World War II, National Park Service historian, author, preservationist and lecturer. Among his accomplishments with the NPS was the discovery and raising of the USS Cairo in the 1960s, when Bearss was historian at Vicksburg National Military Park. 

The Picket asked Crawford for a memory relating to Bearss. Here is his response:

(American Battlefield Trust)

"As you know, stories about Ed are legion. Jack Waugh's 2003 biography of Ed
is titled "History's Pied Piper," and we witnessed this effect many times in the years that Ed led Georgia Battlefields Association tours and when we would attend American Battlefield Trust events where Ed led tours.

In the last few years, Ed asked that we request a wheelchair and meet him at the airport arrival gate when he came to Atlanta to lead one of our tours. Ed realized he was having trouble navigating the crowded airport corridors, even though he didn't use a wheelchair when he was on a battlefield.

At Utoy Creek in 2018 (GBA)
Bill (-----) usually had the task -- more of an honor than a task -- of meeting Ed, and Ed would often engage the wheelchair attendant in conversation while transiting from the gate to baggage claim. Ed's knowledge would amuse and amaze the attendant, and Bill would notice that other travelers would adjust their pace so that they could hear what Ed was saying.

Of course, they didn't have to be too close to Ed because he had a "trumpet voice," to use his own characterization. So the crowd around Ed would grow as he transited. Some people would approach Bill at baggage claim and ask the identity of the man in the wheelchair and how it was that he knew so much.

Occasionally, someone would recognize Ed and ask if he remembered a tour they were on years ago. Of course, he always did and usually responded with an anecdote about that specific tour. He truly was a pied piper."

Bearss, after living 50 years in Arlington, Va., had recently moved to Mississippi, where he has family, according to the trust and the funeral home in Pearl handling his arrangements.


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  2. Thank you for sharing. My dad and I went on many tours with Ed. I have wonderful memories.