Revelling in the Bearss Facts of the US Civil War

Article excerpt

Byline: PETER ELSON

MEETING Edward Cole Bearss is like having an audience with a blend of those legendary characters, the Ancient Mariner and actor Vincent Price. As a venerated US Civil War historian, he easily fulfils your expectations, delivering his lectures in deep, measured, swinging cadences that have a rhythm of their own. Bearss is a consummate US Civil War tour guide. For decades, he has conveyed the excitement of history to people all over the world, who benefit from his encyclo-peadic memory and talks peppered with richly-wrought anecdotes. The Washington Post described his style as providing "Homeric monolo gues".

Historian Dennis Frye went further, describing a battlefield tour with Bearss as a "transcendental experience".

Born in 1923, in Montana, deep in former Sioux territory, but living latterly in Virginia, Bearss served in the US Marines during WWII and was wounded in action.

How wonderful, then, to find him at Wirral Museum (formerly Birkenhead Town Hall) to inaugurate the Wirral Waterfront as only the second place outside the US to achieve a Designation of American Civil War Heritage Site Status, awarded by the US Civil War Preservation Trust.

This high honour recognises Wirral and Liverpool's strong historical links in the American Civil War. These include Laird's shipyard no 4 dry dock, at Birkenhead, the 1862 birthplace of the notorious raider CSS Alabama, and Merseyside as the place of surrender for the CSS Shenandoah, on November 6, 1865, the last act of the American Civil War. The Argyle Rooms, Birkenhead, were a meeting place for the anti-slavery lobby.

Wirral Museum is staging a US Civil War exhibition, organised by Colin Simpson, curator of Williamson Art Gallery & Museum, including a fine Laird's model of Alabama and paintings by the leading Merseyside marine artist, Ted Walker.

"This is my first visit to Birkenhead and this area. I've been very impressed by what I've seen on both sides of the Mersey," s Bearss, who was US National Park Service chief historian and is now NPS chief historian emeritus. "I am honoured to help promote tourism here by identifying sites associated with the US Civil War on Merseyside and it gives me pleasure as a representative of the Civil War Trust to designate Birkenhead as our second site abroad after Cherbourg. …