To be guided by Ed Bearss on a battlefield tour was an experience no participant could ever forget. Walking at a pace that would exhaust a young man or woman, let alone as a septuagenarian tour leader, Ed led us through history with his booming, parade ground voice. Accompanied only by his swagger stick used to point out objects of interest. No notes were ever part of his presentations – narratives that were filled with dates, places, people of note, and quotations taxing even the most photographic of memories. One admiring follower called Bearss’ battlefield monologues “Sermons on the Mount.”
His tours covered the Civil War (his specialty) as well as the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812. He also gave tours covering the European and Pacific Theaters of World War II. Regardless of the era, you had the feeling that Ed had been there: with Benedict Arnold on his march to Quebec in 1775; at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812; on the fields of Gettysburg and Fredericksburg during the Civil War.
In fact, he had been on the field of fire as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II. He bore the wounds from a fire fight with the Japanese Army on New Britain Island in 1944. The young man, born and raised in Montana, returned home to recover from his wounds and complete his undergraduate education at Georgetown University. Soon after graduating from Georgetown, he received an M.A. degree in history from Indiana University. He joined the National Park Service where he served forty years before retiring from the position of Chief Historian in 1995.
His Park Service role, contributor to Ken Burns’ Civil War Series, and his many years of leading tours for the Smithsonian and other organizations have earned him the well-deserved honor of being referred to as a ”National Treasure” by legions of followers. My wife’s uncle, Preston Ewing, recounted when he had contacted author Bruce Catton to speak at the New York City Civil War Round Table in the early 1960’s, Catton responded that he was not available on the requested date, but that he highly recommended “a young man from the US Park Service who is very knowledgeable and an excellent speaker.” Preston followed up with the “young man” and Ed Bearss became a regular at the New York City Civil War Round Table and a life-long friend of Preston and his wife, Peggy.
My own experience with Ed was going on twenty-three guided tours covering seven states, the District of Columbia, and Canada. He also spent time with me providing invaluable guidance as I wrote my first book, Your Brother in Arms: A Union Soldier’s Odyssey.
Those of us who toured with Ed will never set foot on a battlefield in the future without hearing his memorable voice and its distinctive cadence. In his own words written decades ago, he said: “I am a man of the battlefields.” Farewell, Godspeed, and, of course, Semper Fi, Ed.