Thursday, September 17, 2020

Edwin Cole Bearss (1923-2020) - A Great American Life

Like everyone else, I was greeted yesterday morning with the sad news of Ed Bearss's passing. Unfortunately, I will have to leave the more personalized stories and memoriams to others as I never had the distinct honor of spending any time with him (or even tagging along on one of his legendary tours). Nevertheless, he had a great impact on shaping my own Civil War path.

With the possible exception of his 3-volume history of the Vicksburg Campaign, it is probably safe to say that Bearss's great many written contributions tend to get overshadowed a bit by his towering public persona (both in person and on screen), his extreme generosity in helping colleagues and causes, his unmatched tour guide career (it's been said that he regularly spent up to 200 days a year on the road), and his utterly indispensable role in preserving Civil War places and objects for posterity. His work on the written page had a profound influence from afar on cultivating my own Civil War interests. Even though I've lived west of the Mississippi my entire life, like nearly everyone else my Civil War reading started with the eastern theater. However, an early encounter with Bearss's books on Wilson's Creek and the 1864 Camden Expedition along with his series of journal articles published in Arkansas Historical Quarterly and elsewhere made me a Trans-Mississippi student for life. His work, often in conjunction with Warren Grabau, on the Vicksburg campaign and his lead involvement in the discovery, raising, and preservation of the USS Cairo sparked similarly strong interests in Vicksburg and in the many other inland waterway operations conducted during the Civil War. Indeed, so many of Ed's written contributions (including his major work on Petersburg) would stand for many decades before being addressed again at anything approaching similar levels. Other topics he wrote about years ago have never been looked at in any additional depth since, and his map studies and monographs created during his long NPS career remain invaluable foundational research tools. It's quite a body of work.

Ed Bearss. Marine. Public Historian. Author. Preservationist. Battlefield Guide extraordinaire. By all accounts a life well lived. Even though U.S. flags across the country will not be flown at half-staff in honor of this great American's lifelong public service, they certainly are in the hearts of everyone in the Civil War community.

7 comments:

  1. What a wonderful tribute to Ed, Drew. I was fortunate to have Ed on several tours. The last one involved Petersburg. He and the late Richard Sommers were co-leaders. It is hard to imagine a more "odd couple" or "Felix and Oscar" than those two, but they made it a memorable experience. On that trip, Ed inscribed my 3 volumes of his Vicksburg Campaign in a very nice, personal manner. The tour group had a raffle and one of the items was a hat belonging to Ed that he donated. I still wear it proudly. A giant in the Civil War field the likes of which I will never see again.

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    1. Nice. I think I only have one book signed by Ed, "Rebel Victory at Vicksburg."

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  2. Very nice, Drew. I learned yesterday President Trump is sending a letter of condolences to his daughter/family. So no half-mast flags, but a pretty good sign of his importance to the country.

    I had thought this went through three years ago, but it looks as if it did not.

    https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/1225/all-actions

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    1. That's very disappointing. I remember hearing about that way back when and just assumed that it passed.

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  3. I have two solid connections to the WH and West Wing and brought this up, and I am going to try to get it going again.

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  4. Having been privileged to experienced over the last 30 years, several dozen lectures and tours with the Great Man, Edwin C. Bearss. His gift of promoting and preserving America's Civil War sites will be his legacy.
    To quote General Daniel "Dan The Man Sickles" when asked why there was no monument to him at Gettysburg, he replied: "The whole damn battlefield is my monument!" In Edwin C. Bearss case, place's from Appomattox to Vicksburg is ED's monument!

    ps: Ed does have a monument at Champion Hill Battlefield!

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  5. Excellent, Drew. Ed's influence on all of us Civil Warriors is immeasurable.

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