Bearss an Iconic Force in History Preservation; at Age 80, His Knowledge, Energy Abound

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 28, 2003 | Go to article overview

Bearss an Iconic Force in History Preservation; at Age 80, His Knowledge, Energy Abound


Byline: Woody West, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

"Revered" might be too strong a word to describe the way Edwin Cole Bearss is regarded by the legions of Civil War students, professional and lay but not by much.

Mr. Bearss (pronounced "bars") retired as chief historian of the National Park Service in 1995 after half a century of federal service, but that hardly has slowed the pace he celebrated his 80th birthday this month of his work in preservation, interpretation and preaching the gospel, as it were, of historic remembrance. He is vastly knowledgeable about America's wars, with an alarmingly capacious memory and vivid style; his voice can knock a bird off a branch at 50 paces.

James M. McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of "Battle Cry of Freedom" and a host of Civil War studies, writes in the foreword: "As anyone who has been on a tour with Ed is aware, he knows everything and I mean literally everything about Civil War battles and about a great many other areas of history as well."

Tributory biographies can founder on the shoals of well-intended amateurism. This one does not because it is written by John C. Waugh, a one-time newspaperman who saw the light and turned to history ("The Class of 1854" at West Point is among his books.)

From the perspective of three-quarters of a century and to Americans who today are overwhelmingly urban, Ed Bearss' early life might seem idyllic. He was raised on a 10,000-acre Montana cattle ranch where lack of electricity and indoor plumbing were simply how things were in much of the West then. He comes from a family in which "The ancestors on both sides tended to possess qualities of concrete reinforced by rods of steel," Mr. Waugh writes.

Mr. Bearss' father, Omar, was an enlisted Marine before World War I and was commissioned in what used to be called "the Great War," then returned to service after Pearl Harbor. His military background inclined him to read to his sons about wars and warriors, and Ed Bearss vividly remembers his father reading to them a biography of J.E.B. Stuart.

It emerged early that Mr. Bearss possessed one of those phenomenal memories that can retain astounding amounts of information, recalled at will. As a schoolboy, he won statewide contests in geography, history and current events. Current events in the 1930s were bearing down fiercely on America and the world, of course.

Mr. Bearss graduated from high school in Hardin, Mont., in the spring of 1941. War was in the wind. When it came on Dec. 7, 1941, he told his parents that evening that he was going to enlist in the Marines what else, because his father's tales to his sons had often centered on the Corps, and a cousin, Hiram Bearss, had won the Medal of Honor and had been one of the most decorated Marines of his era. (Hiram was killed in a car wreck in 1938 "while with a woman not his wife," as the family puts it in a phrase that must puzzle current generations.)

Mr. Bearss went through boot camp in San Diego, was sent to the Pacific and volunteered for a newly forming battalion of the fabled Marine Raiders. In January 1943, the Raiders went ashore in the Russell Islands, but the Japanese had evacuated. Shortly afterward, Mr. Bearss came down with malaria and after hospitalization was assigned to the 7th Marine Regiment of the 1st Marine Division, which had fought the "war to the knife and the knife to the hilt" (as Mr. Bearss puts it) on Guadalcanal.

On Jan. 2, 1944, during the battle for New Britain, Mr. Bearss' company collided with the Japanese at a stream that would be known as Suicide Creek. In the firefight, Mr. Bearss was struck first in the left arm and right shoulder, then in the foot. He lay bleeding for an hour before he could be dragged to relative safety. He was evacuated and spent 26 months recuperating in military hospitals.

(Mr. Bearss has called his four years as a Marine "defining" in his life. …

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