Monday, December 19, 2005

Favorite Historians and Guides, part one

Sunrise on Custer's Battlefield, photo by Richard Throssel (d. 1933); Created/Published 1911. Dramatic view of sunlit tombstones including a cross at Little Bighorn, Little Bighorn River, Montana. Site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn between the United States Cavalry and Native American Sioux (Lakota), Crow, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho and Arikara army scouts. Available at Library of Congress's American Memory web site.

With "blogger's prerogative," and the readers' indulgence, I'll begin a 2nd straight entry in the vicinity of Last Stand Hill, where troopers -- some of whom had survived many a close scrape on the battlefields of the Civil War -- found themselves without an "exit strategy" on June 25, 1876. On that day a barren, remote landscape, one that even in 2005 remains a long way from nowhere, became infused with American history for all time -- an iconic episode for which the enduring interest seems far out of proportion to the actual events that transpired there.

Some 47 years after the fight at the Little Bighorn, 33 years after Sitting Bull died -- Edwin Cole Bearss (pronounced BARs) was born in Billings. He was raised on a ranch near Hardin, Montana, mere miles from the scene of Custer's demise (there's the Civil War connection). The oft-told anecdotes relate -- and one National Park Service
biography affirms -- that he named the cows on his ranch after Civil War battles and generals, the milk cow Antietam being his favorite. Ed Bearss grew up to be the closest thing we have today to a "living legend" in Civil War studies, still going strong at age 82 as the foremost tour guide and speaker on the Civil War circuit. Turns out Antietam became one of his favorite fields to visit as well.

Like a number of men in his family, including his father, and another relative, Medal of Honor winner "Hiking Hiram" Bearss, Ed joined the Marine Corps. Since he graduated high school in May of 1941, his stint in the Marines was destined to be eventful. Far from the Rosebud and Bighorn Mountains of his youth, Bearss suffered four machine gun wounds -- two more bullets than felled Custer in Montana -- on the second day of the year 1944 (which, incidentally, was New Year's Day in the U.S.). While scouting ahead of his battalion on New Britain, seven days after the landing, he moved into the field of fire of a Japanese pillbox at "Suicide Creek." Grievously wounded, Ed was confined to naval hospitals for over two years, but lived to tell the tale. For a detailed account of his encounter with the Japanese, see this interview in the June 2002 issue of Naval History magazine:
"Nothing Stinks Like Blood."

In time, Ed attended Georgetown for his undergraduate degree, and completed a masters in History at Indiana. He started his storied National Park Service career at Vicksburg, the Confederacy's principal Mississippi River stronghold. Ed would spend 20 years there as historian, and regional researcher, drafting maps still much relied upon today, and penning the definitive 3-volume history of the
Vicksburg Campaign, over 2,000 pages. And, in the fulfillment of every red-blooded American boy's dream, he tracked down and salvaged an ironclad warship from the bottom of a muddy river.

. . . .
In 1981 Ed became Chief Historian of the National Park Service, and held that position until his "retirement" 14 years later. Now, as Historian Emeritus with the NPS, Ed spends virtually every weekend, and then some, guiding one group or another over the historic landscapes of this country, voice booming, swagger stick tucked under his arm, eyes closed tight as he envisions the events he is narrating. The commanding Bearss delivery is one-of-a-kind, and you can get a sense of it from his many talking head roles on The History Channel, or on Ken Burns's Civil War documentary. There is also a meaty Smithsonian Associates interview that can be heard on-line here. In this interview it is revealed that the calf of the milk cow Antietam was appropriately named Sharpsburg ("McClellan's Golden Opportunity Squandered" was obviously too unwieldy).

Ed has always been willing to encourage fresh research wherever he found it, and graciously lent his considerable credibility to our publishing projects from the very start. He contributed essays and innumerable introductions for Civil War Regiments and stand-alone volumes. Later, for SW's Peninsula Campaign series, he wrote a lengthy article on Stuart's ride around McClellan, for which I drew some maps (I'll insert one of those here, once I dig out the Illustrator file and convert it to pdf). As Ed relates in the linked interview, it was a biography of Stuart -- read aloud to him by his father -- that helped spark his life-long interest in the Civil War.

The editorial comments Ed penned onto galleys we sent him were sometimes astonishing: corrections to errors so far removed from common knowledge and standard references we wouldn't have known where to look it up even had we recognized the miscue. Frequently he made corrections to errors introduced by the most commonly cited texts of the time, texts that authors routinely relied upon with confidence. Likewise, his corrections to map drafts made us shake our heads in wonder. Regimental fronts were realigned, troop designations were corrected or rearranged, creek beds were redirected. It's unlikely he needed to consult a book while marking up the pages.

Certainly, an encyclopedic memory is one of Ed's most fascinating attributes. In Civil War Round Table folklore, tales were told about how one could blindfold Ed, randomly transport him to part of an obscure field of battle from the Civil War, give him a moment to get his bearings, and he would then proceed to narrate the action there in dramatic and detailed fashion, with plenty of asides to spotlight one little-known figure after another. After one attends a tour with Bearss, or hears him handle a Q&A session after a talk, it is soon understood that the Bearss battlefield mystique is not exaggerated. Even more remarkable, he brings the same breadth of knowledge to virtually any other era of American military history, from the Revolution and the Indian Wars to D-Day and the South Pacific.

Ed did a live conference in The Civil War Forum nearly 10 years ago, June 20, 1996. It is interesting to learn what battlefields stand out for someone who has studied and walked them all (since this session was conducted I imagine he's visited the scene of every notable action from the war). Additionally, we asked him to name some of the officers, apart from the big names, that impressed or intrigued him most in his readings. I'll excerpt his answers here:
Civil War Forum: You've tramped around more battlefields, more times, than just about anyone. What are a few of your favorite sites, and why? Are there any Civil War battle sites you've yet to visit?
Ed Bearss: Well, I've tramped all the major battlefields. There are a few I've missed, such as Pacheco Pass out in Arizona, and the newly discovered farthest-west battle at Stanwick Station. And Missouri has over 1,000 actions, a number of them very small, with a handful of partisans or soldiers engaged, and there are a number of them I've not seen. But of the 383 identified and evaluated by the Civil War Sites Study Commission, there are probably a 1/2 a dozen that I haven't been to, and I pick up a new one every so often -- like 3 weeks ago, I visited the site of the two Cabin Creek raids out in Oklahoma, which I'd not seen before.
My favorite ones. . . I'll break them into several categories: the battlefields that are maintained as parks by the Federal government, or some other public body, of these I would say in the East, Gettysburg and Antietam. If you're going to visit Gettysburg, you better be prepared to spend three days. In the West, my favorite park battlefields are Shiloh, and Perryville. Vicksburg -- I like the campaign. Most of the sites associated with the Vicksburg Campaign are outside the park. In the East, I particularly like the campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley. The country is wonderful, the road network is little changed, and there's a mix of battlefields, such as New Market, that are in quasi-public ownership -- such as with the Virginia Military Institute, and Fisher's Hill, of which 200-plus acres are owned by the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites [now merged with Civil War Trust]. There are a large number of others that are in various types of ownership, and I find these intriguing, and challenging to the intellect -- these battlefields that have not been developed. A wonderful site is Allatoona Pass, where I was last week, down in Georgia. I find particularly rewarding on visits to the non-big name battlefields, the great interest shown in them by the local people.
. . . .
Civil War Forum: In your many years studying the Civil War and the multitude of men who orchestrated the fighting, can you mention a few officers -- apart from the obvious icons like Grant and Lee -- who stand out to you as remarkable soldiers, or remarkable men.
Ed Bearss: I'm going to talk about military leaders rather than political leaders. The ones that particularly interest me, beyond the icons: I'm a great admirer of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest is a modern soldier, a genius who knew that war means fighting, and fighting means killing, and believed in getting the "skeer" on the enemy, and keeping him skeered. Then there is of course, [also] on the Confederate side, Patrick Cleburne, former corporal in the British Army, a dynamic leader whose advancement to possible corps command was stifled by his January, 1864 proposal to recruit African Americans into Confederate armies. A brilliant leader -- of Cleburne it was said that where his division defended, no one broke their line. And where they attacked, they only failed once -- and that was where Cleburne was killed.
. . . .
General Longstreet. . . of all the Confederate leaders in the war, his attacks were the most savage, and successful. Whether it is at 2nd Manassas, the 2nd Day at Gettysburg, Chickamauga, or at Wilderness on May 6th.
. . . .
My three favorite Union leaders that are not icons would be: Winfield Scott Hancock -- his nom de guerre, "Hancock the Superb" is earned. More than anybody else, he was responsible for turning back Lee's veterans at the Battle of Gettysburg. Phil Sheridan, like Bedford Forrest, a modern soldier. He and Forrest utilized cavalry as mounted infantry, using their mounts for mobility, and fighting afoot. They were the precursors of Erwin Rommel and George S. Patton in World War II.
John Wilder. . . Wilder, a forward-looking soldier, realized the importance of the Spencer 7-shot repeating rifle. Purchasing Spencers, he sold them to his command, the Lightning Brigade, and demonstrated their deadly effectiveness first at Hoover's Gap, Tennessee, on June 24, '63, at Chickamauga.

Here's a picture of Ed (left) and the late Brian Pohanka at the 4th annual Civil War Forum Battlefield Conference at Vicksburg (2000). Both Ed and Brian generously gave of their time and talents to help CWR get off the ground. Brian wrote the Union article for the 2nd issue -- an account of his beloved 5th New York and their tragic day along Young's Branch at 2nd Bull Run.

Photo by Rudy Perini. On the banks of the Mississippi River.

And returning once more to the Greasy Grass, one of the last labors of love Brian worked on before his death -- aside from his regimental history of the 5th New York, completed almost literally on his death bed -- was the "rephotography" project, Where Custer Fell. I'm going to buy myself that one for Christmas. And that brings us full circle, with the opportunity to include one more captivating Richard Throssel photo of Ed Bearss's childhood stomping grounds.

Sunrise on Custer Battle field, the Custer scouts are Indians who were with Custer the morning of the fight / copyright Richard Throssel. Created/Published, 1908. View at sunrise of tombstones and three mounted Native American Arapaho or Arikara scouts with rifles at the Little Bighorn Battlefield, Little Bighorn River, Montana, site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn between United States soldiers and Native American Lakota Sioux, Crow, Northern, and Cheyenne.

Ed Bearss will be conducting the battlefield tours for the 11th Annual Civil War Forum Battlefield Conference in March, 2007, covering Lee's Retreat and Appomattox. Details will be published here next summer. Meanwhile, you may want to catch his next Little Bighorn tour in August, 2006.

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