Edwin Cole (Ed) Bearss (1923–2020)
Edwin Cole Bearss was a public historian and preservationist who conducted some of the seminal research and writing on the Civil War in Arkansas and who facilitated the establishment of three National Park Service units in the state.
Edwin Cole Bearss was born on June 26, 1923, in Billings, Montana, to Omar and Virginia Bearss. He grew up on the E—S (E bar S) ranch and had an affinity for Civil War history from an early age, naming his cattle for Civil War battles and generals. After attending a one-room school in Sarpy, Montana, Bearss attended the St. Johns Military Academy in Delaplaine, Wisconsin, in 1937. He graduated from Hardin High School in Montana in 1941 and spent the summer hitchhiking across the United States to visit battlefields.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 led the United States to enter World War II, Bearss emulated his World War I–veteran father and an older cousin who had received a Medal of Honor during the Philippine–American War and joined the U.S. Marine Corps. While serving with the Third Battalion, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division on January 2, 1944, in the fighting for Cape Gloucester, he was severely wounded by machine gun fire at Suicide Creek. Bearss would spend twenty-six months in military hospitals recovering from his wounds.
Following World War II, Bearss used the GI Bill to enroll in Georgetown University, where he received a BS in foreign service in 1949. He then attended Indiana University, earning an MA in 1955 with a thesis on Major General Patrick Cleburne. Bearss joined the National Park Service (NPS) as the historian for Vicksburg National Military Park that same year, a position he would hold for eleven years. It was there that he met schoolteacher Margie Riddle; they married on July 30, 1958, and had two daughters and a son. While at Vicksburg, Bearss and two friends located the sunken gunboat USS Cairo; Bearss competed on television’s The $64,000 Challenge to get funds to help raise the vessel, which was put on display at the park.
Bearss began conducting historical studies that helped three Arkansas sites gain status as units of the NPS: Arkansas Post National Memorial, dedicated in 1960; Pea Ridge National Military Park, dedicated in 1963, and Fort Smith National Historic Site, dedicated in 1964. Bearss was a speaker at the Arkansas Historical Association conferences at Arkadelphia (Clark County) in 1957 and Fort Smith (Sebastian County) in 1983 and addressed a two-day conference during the state’s sesquicentennial celebration. He led several bus tours of Arkansas Civil War sites, including one in 2014 during the Civil War Sesquicentennial. His last Arkansas appearance was in October 2018 at the Old State House Museum in Little Rock (Pulaski County).
Bearss also did his most significant research and writing on Arkansas’s Civil War history throughout the 1960s. He submitted articles to the Washington County Historical Society’s Flashback and the Ouachita County Historical Quarterly, but most significantly, between 1959 and 1970, he wrote nineteen articles for the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, including in-depth studies of military activities around Fort Smith and the battles of Pea Ridge, Arkansas Post, and Pine Bluff. He also wrote Steele’s Retreat from Camden and the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry (1967), the first major work on the 1864 Camden Expedition, and, with A. M. Gibson, Fort Smith: Little Gibraltar on the Arkansas (1969). In all, he wrote twenty-five books—including a three-volume history of the Vicksburg Campaign—and at least 100 scholarly articles.
In 1966, Bearss began service as a research historian with the NPS in Washington DC. He was named chief historian of the NPS in November 1981 and would serve in that role until July 1994, after which he became the NPS director’s special assistant for military sites before retiring on October 1, 1995.
After his retirement, Bearss continued lecturing and writing. He became best known, however, as a guide to Civil War battlefields and other historic sites. Smithsonian Magazine, proclaiming Bearss as a “rock star,” described him in a 2005 profile: “Ed Bearss has what might best be called a battlefield voice, a kind of booming growl, like an ancient wax-cylinder record amplified to full volume—about the way you’d imagine William Tecumseh Sherman sounding the day he burned Atlanta, with a touch of Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill.” He would continue to lead tours until late 2019.
Bearss was also active in the battlefield preservation movement, serving as an ex officio member of the federal Civil War Sites Advisory Commission and a lifetime trustee of the American Battlefield Trust, an organization that named its lifetime achievement award in his honor. His many tributes included the Department of the Interior’s Distinguished Service Award, a commendation from the Secretary of the Army, and honorary degrees from Lincoln College and Gettysburg College.
Bearss died on September 15, 2020, and is buried in Bethel Baptist Cemetery in Brandon, Mississippi.
For additional information:
Bearss, Edwin C. Walking the Ground: Making American History. New York: Nova Science, 2020.
Christ, Mark K. “Edwin Cole Bearss (1923–2020): An Appreciation.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 79 (Winter 2020): 366–369.
Goodheart, Adam. “What Made Ed Bearss a Rock Star of Civil War History.” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2005. Online at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/35-who-made-a-difference-ed-bearss-113147798/ (accessed October 22, 2021).
“History and Preservation Community Mourns the Loss of Legendary Historian Edwin Cole Bearss.” American Battlefield Trust. https://www.battlefields.org/news/history-and-preservation-community-mourns-loss-legendary-historian-edwin-cole-bearss (accessed October 22, 2021).
“History’s Storyteller: The Life of WWII Marine Ed Bearss.” World War 2 History Short Stories. https://www.ww2history.org/war-in-the-pacific/historys-storyteller-the-life-of-wwii-marine-ed-bearss/ (accessed October 22, 2021).
Waugh, John C. Edwin Cole Bearss: History’s Pied Piper. Dallas, TX: History America Tours, 2003.
Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System
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