Civil War Wiki
File:Ed Bearss 2005.jpg

Ed Bearss leading a tour in 2005

Edwin Cole Bearss (born June 26, 1923), a United States Marine Corps veteran of World War II, is a military historian and author known for his work on the American Civil War and World War II eras and is a popular tour guide of historic battlefields. He served as Chief Historian of the National Park Service from 1981 to 1994.

Early life[]

Bearss (Template:PronEng) was born in Billings, Montana, the elder son of Omar Effinger Bearss and Virginia Louise Morse Bearss. He grew up on the rugged family cattle ranch, the "E bar S", near Sarpy, Montana, through the depths of the Great Depression. His father, a Marine in World War I, read accounts of military campaigns to young Ed and his brother, but Ed's lifelong interest in military history was jump-started by a biography of the dashing Confederate cavalry general J.E.B. Stuart by John Thomason. Ed named many of the ranch animals after famous general and battles; his favorite milk cow was Antietam.

World War II[]

Bearss graduated from Hardin High School in May 1941 and hitchhiked around the United States, visiting his first Civil War battlefields. He enlisted in the Marine Corps on April 28, 1942, and by July was on a troop transport to the Pacific War. He was with the 3d Marine Raider Battalion in the invasion of Guadalcanal and the Russell Islands and 7th Regiment, 1st Marine Division, in New Britain.

On January 2, 1944, Bearss was severely wounded at "Suicide Creek" (Cape Gloucester, New Britain) by Japanese machine gun fire. He was evacuated to California, and spent 26 months recovering in various hospitals. He was honorably discharged from the Marines as a corporal on March 15, 1946, and returned home to Montana.

Postwar education[]

Bearss used the G.I. Bill to finance his education at Georgetown University, from which he obtained a B.S. degree in Foreign Service studies in 1949. He worked for three years in the United States Navy Hydrographic Office in Maryland and used his spare time to visit numerous Civil War battlefields in the East. He received his M.A. in history from Indiana University in 1955, writing his thesis on Confederate General Patrick Cleburne. As part of his research, he visited the Western Theater battlefields on which Cleburne fought, telling friends, "You can't describe a battlefield unless you walk it." In February 2005, Lincoln College awarded Bearss an honorary doctorate,[1] and in May 2010, Gettysburg College awarded him an honorary doctorate of humane letters.[2]

On the battlefield of Shiloh in 1954, he made a career decision inspired by the park historian he met, Charles E. (Pete) Shedd: interpretation of battles in the field was far more interesting than the academic study of history in an office. Although attracted to a National Park Service career, he first joined the Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army, but soon took work as an historian at Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, Mississippi. It was at Vicksburg that he met his wife, Margie Riddle Bearss (1925–2006), also a Civil War historian; they were married on July 30, 1958. They first lived in the Leila Luckett House in Vicksburg formerly occupied by then-Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's soldiers in 1863, and eventually had three children: Sara Beth, Edwin Cole, Jr., and Mary Virginia (Jenny).

National Park Service[]

At Vicksburg, Bearss did the research leading him and two friends to the long-lost Union gunboat U.S.S. Cairo. He also located two forgotten forts at Grand Gulf, Mississippi. He was promoted in 1958 to Southeast regional historian, working out of Vicksburg, but he spent the majority of his time on the road, visiting virtually every battlefield in the country. As popular interest in the Civil War increased with the centennial celebrations starting in 1961, Bearss was recognized as more knowledgeable on the battlefields than virtually anyone else and he was enlisted to develop a variety of new parks, including Pea Ridge and Wilson's Creek. During his long NPS career, he also led efforts in Fort Smith; Stones River, Fort Donelson; battlefields around Richmond, Bighorn Canyon; the Eisenhower Farm at Gettysburg; the gold miners' route over Chilkoot Pass; President Lyndon B. Johnson's Ranch; Fort Moultrie; Fort Point; William Howard Taft House; Fort Hancock at the Boston Navy Yard; and the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site.

In 1966 Bearss was transferred to Washington, D.C. On November 1, 1981, he was named Chief Historian of the National Park Service, a position he held until 1994. From 1994 to 1995 he served as special assistant to the director. After his retirement in 1995, he received the title Chief Historian Emeritus, which he holds to this day.[3]

Sea Research Society[]

In 1972 Bearss became a founding member of the Board of Advisors of Sea Research Society and participated in the creation of its College of Marine Arts. He was active in the Society's efforts to raise the wreck of the Civil War submarine Hunley, which had been found off Charleston, South Carolina, in 1970.


Bearss is a consummate tour guide, bringing history alive to visitors of all knowledge levels, revealing encyclopedic stores of memory and enormous personal energy, but always with rich and colorful anecdotes. A Washington Post reporter described his style as "Homeric monologues." The Wall Street Journal wrote that he evokes "almost hallucinatory sensations." Historian Dennis Frye said a "battlefield [tour] with Ed Bearss [is a] transcendental experience." Admirers have suggested that, if the United States ever recognizes Living National Treasures, as Japan and Australia do, Bearss should be an immediate honoree.

Bearss started interpretative touring as part of his official duties in Vicksburg, leading eight one-hour tours a day. Although he was no longer required to do so after 1958, he kept it up as an avocation on weekends. He attracted ROTC classes, active-duty military officers and VIPs, and other historians. Beginning in 1961, he began annual tours for the prestigious Chicago Civil War Roundtable. One of his greatest challenges was his annual tours of Vicksburg for the Louisiana School for the Blind and Deaf. He is a lifetime honorary member of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable, to which he has spoken many times, beginning in 1962 and as recently as 2004.

Currently, Bearss, in his eighties, continues to lead numerous tours—traveling as many as 200 days per year—around the United States, the Pacific, and Europe. He routinely outpaces his much younger guests in charging over rough terrain, recreating the color of famous infantry and cavalry attacks.

Bearss lives in Arlington County, Virginia.


Bearss has received a number of awards and honors in the field of history and preservation:

  • Bruce Catton Award
  • Alvin Calman Award
  • Bell I. Wiley Award
  • T. Harry Williams Award
  • Man of the Year at Vicksburg in 1963
  • Harry S. Truman Award for Meritorious Service in the field of Civil War History
  • Fellow of the Company of Military Historians
  • Distinguished Service Award from the Department of Interior in 1983
  • Commendation from the Secretary of the Army in 1985
  • The Civil War Preservation Trust created the Ed Bearss Award for achievements in historic preservation and made him the first recipient in 2001
  • Texas Star Award from the Texas Civil War Preservation Seminar in 2002
  • A portrait bust of Bearss by Arthur Downey, a Washington, D.C., artist, was unveiled near the USS Cairo in the Vicksburg National Military Park on October 3, 2009.[4]

Television commentary[]

  • The Civil War, PBS series by Ken Burns
  • Civil War Journal, A&E Network
  • Civil War Combat, History Channel
  • Smithsonian's Great Battles of the Civil War, TLC

Selected works[]

  • Decision in Mississippi, 1962
  • Rebel Victory at Vicksburg, 1963
  • Hardluck Ironclad: the Sinking and Salvage of the Cairo, 1966
  • Steele's Retreat from Camden and the Battle of Jenkins' Ferry, 1967
  • Fort Smith: Little Gibraltar on the Arkansas, with Dr. A. M. Gibson, 1969
  • Protecting Sherman's Lifeline: The Battles of Brice's Cross Roads and Tupelo 1864, 1971
  • The Battle of Wilson's Creek, 1975
  • Forrest at Brice's Cross Roads, 1975
  • The Battle of Jackson; The Siege of Jackson; and Three Other Post-Vicksburg Actions, 1981
  • The Battle of Five Forks, with Chris Calkins, 1985
  • Vicksburg is the Key, (Volume I of Vicksburg Campaign trilogy), 1985
  • Grant Strikes a Fatal Blow, (Volume II), 1986
  • Unvexed to the Sea, (Volume III), 1986
  • River of Lost Opportunities — The Civil War on the James River, 1995
  • Smithsonian's Great Battles and Battlefields of the Civil War, with Jay Wertz, 1997
  • Fields of Honor: Pivotal Battles of the Civil War, 2006
  • Receding Tide: Vicksburg and Gettysburg, with J. Parker Hills, 2010

As editor:

  • A Southern Record: History of the Third Louisiana Regiment, with Willie Tunnard, 1970
  • A Louisiana Confederate: Diary of Felix Pierre Poché, 1972
  • Memoirs of a Confederate, Historic and Personal Campaigns of the First Manassas Confederate Brigade, 1972
  • Your Affectionate Husband, J. F. Culver: Letters Written during the Civil War, with Leslie W. Dunlap, 1978
  • The Gettysburg Magazine, assistant editor since 1989




External links[]