Thursday, October 12, 2006

Edwin Bearss - Civil War Expert

If you watched Ken Burns PBS documentary on the Civil War you can't have forgotten one of the talking heads.... Edwin Bearss. Did you know his father was a marine and his cousin was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor? That ED Bearrs followed in his fathers footsteps and was a Marine Raider in WWII and was seriously wounded and lost the use of an arm. He has a book out now and the following is an excerpt from a review of the book. Fields of Honor Pivotal Battles of the Civil War by Edwin C. Bearss National Geographic, 464 pp., $28

I don't think anyone knows who the first person was to earn a living as a guide to Civil War battlefields, but no member of that charmed profession has achieved the fame or longevity of Edwin C. Bearss (pronounced Barsssss), who captained his first lucky group of tourists around Vicksburg in 1955 and can still be found, from one weekend to the next, at one battlefield or another, leading a fanny-packed and be-visored platoon of customers into the pleasures of vicarious combat.

Over the last 50 years, like most enduring enterprises, Ed has diversified. This year alone he's taken several hundred people on tours of Anzio and Messina in Italy, the Oregon Trail in Idaho and Nez Perce encampments in Montana, scenes from the Mississippi floods of 1927 and from Abraham Lincoln's service in the Black Hawk War in the 1830s--on top of a schedule already filled with your basic Antietams, your Gettysburgs, your Shilohs and Chickamaugas and Spotsylvanias. He also found time to celebrate his 83rd birthday.

But Ed's first and last love is for the Civil War, and this, along with his standing in the trade, gives an air of inevitability to the publication of Fields of Honor. Somebody was going to have to put out this book sooner or later. For the last several years members of the self-named Bearss Brigades--a particularly tenacious species of the genus Civil War Buff--have armed themselves with tape recorders and gone chasing after Ed as he charges over the battlefields, hoping to preserve for the ages his incomparable observations and narrative spiel. Dozens of volunteers have transcribed the hundreds of hours of tape into thousands of pages of prose, and from these, culled and whittled, have come the 13 chapters of the book, offering definitive commentary on engagements from Fort Sumter to Appomattox. The literature of the Civil War is vast, of course, and nearly limitless in its variety of literary forms; but even so, I don't think there's another book quite like Fields of Honor.

And the reason is--forgive me if I sound like a Bearss Brigadier for a moment--there's never been a Civil War authority quite like Ed. Growing up on a ranch in Montana, he christened his favorite cows Antietam and Sharpsburg. His father was a Marine, and so was a cousin--"Hiking Hiram" Bearss, as the newspapers called him--who earned the Medal of Honor during the Philippines Insurrection and became, up to that time, the most decorated Marine in the history of the corps. Hearing their experiences led the boy to read every book he could get hold of about war. And when a real war made itself available, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Ed enlisted and became a Marine Raider. He was sent to the Pacific theater, moving from the Russell Islands to the Solomon Islands to the assault on New Britain. His fellow Marines remember him for his almost empty backpack, containing only a few grenades, extra ammunition, and a copy of the World Book of Knowledge.

On patrol in New Britain one January morning in 1944, he was nearly shot to pieces. Approaching a stream, he and another scout couldn't see the Japanese pillboxes dug in just below the lip of the declivity leading to the creek bed. I asked him once what his own battlefield experience had taught him as a guide, and he said, with a small grin, "The importance of terrain." And it's true. Walking a battlefield with Ed, you're struck by how intently he wants you to see the landscape as the combatants saw it: What ordinary soldiers could and couldn't see from any given position often determined the course of battle.

In 1944, a trick of the terrain enabled the Japanese gunners to catch him by surprise. He took bullets in his ribs, heel, buttocks, right shoulder, and left elbow. Marines who came to fetch him were pinned flat themselves but managed, after several hours, to pull him from the line of fire--dragging him with their toes. He was two years in hospital. His left hand and arm don't do him much good, other than to help balance the riding crop he uses as a pointer when he's on a tour.

"I'm a man of the battlefields," Ed likes to say--and a man of one battlefield in particular, in Gloucester Bay, New Britain. "I know how a battlefield feels, sounds, and smells."

To read the rest of the review click on the title above for a link)