America’s premier battlefield storyteller was born on June 26, 1923, in Billings, Montana. He grew up on a ranch where he caught the Civil War bug early and – true story – named the animals after Civil War generals and battles.
Like his father in World War I, Ed also served as a Marine. He enlisted in April, 1942, and saw action in the Pacific, including with the legendary Marine Raiders at Guadalcanal. A severe wound from enemy machine-gun fire in early January, 1944, sent him back to the United States for over two years of recuperation.
After his return to civilian life, the GI bill saw Ed to Georgetown University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Foreign Service. A master’s degree in history followed at Indiana University (his thesis was on Confederate Major General Patrick Ronayne Cleburne). Soon after, Ed was persuaded to become a battlefield historian.
The rest, as they say, is history. And what a history: Foremost Civil War expert. Locator, excavator and preserver – with Warren Grabau and Don Jacks – of the Union ironclad, U.S.S. Cairo, which, thanks to their efforts is on display for all to see at Vicksburg National Military Park. Chief Historian of the National Park Service, Chief Historian Emeritus, today. Author. And interpreter extraordinaire, as those privileged to experience Ed in person know so well.
Aside from his lifelong passion for understanding and preserving the Civil War, there’s another ingredient that’s helped make Ed a national treasure in his chosen profession – he’s never forgotten what it’s like for the soldier – or Marine – on the ground.
In “Receding Tide,” a book the Blue and Gray Education Society was fortunate to collaborate on with Ed and Parker Hills, Ed reflects on this connection. It comes in the context of a very special audience of soldiers from Walter Reed – veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq – who’d made the journey to Gettysburg to understand, as Ed put it, “what this battlefield means to America and Americans.”
Surely, it was a knowledge these soldiers instinctively knew – and shared – with their guide. For battlefields, as Ed writes, “are reminders of the very high cost of our democracy.”
Indeed, Ed writes about this group who, on account of their injuries, might have stayed on the bus. But, instead, he writes, whether they had to struggle or not, “these soldiers came. Battlefields are special places, where ordinary people become extraordinary. They don’t ask for the attention, and most are motivated to serve by the most basic of instincts – patriotic love and respect for their country. I know that feeling because it inspired me to join the United States Marine Corps. It binds me to them to this day.”
We – and generations to come – are beneficiaries of Ed Bearss’ tireless work to illuminate that powerful bond as it existed yesterday and as it exists today.
Happy Birthday, Ed! And here’s to many more!