Ed Bearss

Edwin Cole Bearss (/ˈbɑːrs/; 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. He is a popular tour guide of historic battlefields for The Smithsonian Associates. He served as Chief Historian of the National Park Service from 1981 to 1994 and is currently Chief Historian Emeritus.

Ed Bearss
Ed Bearss leading a tour in 2005
Edwin Cole Bearss

(1923-06-26) June 26, 1923
Billings, Montana, U.S.
OccupationHistorian and author, Chief Historian of the National Park Service
Spouse(s)Margie Riddle Bearss (1958–2006, her death)

Early life

Bearss was born in Billings, Montana, the elder son of Omar Effinger Bearss and Virginia Louise Morse Bearss, and grew up on the family cattle ranch near Sarpy, Montana.[1] His father, a Marine in World War I, read accounts of military campaigns to Bearss, and his lifelong interest in military history was inspired by John Thomason's biography of Confederate cavalry general J.E.B. Stuart.

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 3rd 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.[2] 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,[3] 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,[4] and in May 2010, Gettysburg College awarded him an honorary doctorate of humane letters.[5]

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 (19252006), 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.[6] He also located two forgotten forts at Grand Gulf, Mississippi.[7] 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.[8]

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 1995.


A Washington Post reporter described Bearss' style as a guide 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."

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.[3] In addition, he has conducted tours for The Smithsonian Associates since 1977 for an estimated 16,000 participants. The majority of these tours focus on Civil War battlefields in the Washington, D.C. region, but have also covered other topics in American military history.

Popular Smithsonian Associates tours include his retelling of the Crossings of the Upper Potomac,[9] Battle of Antietam, Booth's Escape Route, Battle of Cold Harbor, and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign[10] to name a few.

At 90, Bearss continued to lead numerous tourstraveling as many as 200 days per yeararound the United States, the Pacific, and Europe.[11]

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[12]
  • Alvin Calman Award[12]
  • Bell I. Wiley Award[12]
  • 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[12][13]
  • Fellow of the Company of Military Historians
  • Nevins – Freeman Award from the Civil War Round Table of Chicago in 1980[14]
  • Distinguished Service Award from the Department of the Interior in 1983[13]
  • 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[15]
  • T. Harry Gatton Award, Raleigh Civil War Roundtable in 2008[15]
  • 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.[15][16]
  • Congressman Gerry Connolly (VA-11) has introduced a resolution to award Mr. Bearss a Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to the preservation of Civil War history. The resolution has over 100 cosponsors and is pending in the 114th Congress.[12][17]
  • Chambersburg Civil War Seminars and Tours annually gives the Ed Bearss Award in his honor[18]
  • The American Battlefield Trust presented its inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018 to Ed Bearss for his "many decades dedicated to researching and relating the nation’s past to millions of people, as well as his advocacy for battlefield preservation."[12][19]

Television commentary

Selected works

As sole author:

  • The Battle of Jenkin's Ferry, Grant County, Arkansas. 1961. OCLC 15869313.
  • Decision in Mississippi: Mississippi's important role in the War Between the States. Jackson: Mississippi Commission on the War Between the States. 1962. OCLC 498809.
  • Rebel Victory at Vicksburg. Vicksburg Centennial Commemoration Commission. 1963. OCLC 648107.
  • Hardluck Ironclad: the Sinking and Salvage of the Cairo. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 1966. ISBN 0807106844. OCLC 5726773.
  • Steele's Retreat from Camden and the Battle of Jenkins' Ferry. Arkansas Civil War Centennial Commission. 1967. OCLC 1843035.
  • Protecting Sherman's Lifeline: The Battles of Brice's Cross Roads and Tupelo 1864. 1971.
  • The Battle of Wilson's Creek. George Washington Carver Birthplace District Association. 1975. OCLC 11573662.
  • Forrest at Brice's Cross Roads. Morningside. 1979. OCLC 4919116.
  • The Battle of Jackson; The Siege of Jackson; and Three Other Post-Vicksburg Actions. 1981.
  • Vicksburg is the Key. Morningside. 1985. OCLC 13136056.
  • Grant Strikes a Fatal Blow. Morningside. 1986. OCLC 60271708.
  • Unvexed to the Sea. Morningside. 1986.
  • River of Lost Opportunities : The Civil War on the James River. 1995. ISBN 1561900788. OCLC 32509792.
  • Smithsonian's Great Battles and Battlefields of the Civil War. 1997.
  • Fields of Honor: Pivotal Battles of the Civil War. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic. 2006. ISBN 0792275683. OCLC 62697224.
  • Receding tide : Vicksburg and Gettysburg : the campaigns that changed the Civil War. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society. 2010. ISBN 1426205104. OCLC 436030174.

In collaboration:

  • with Dr. A. M. Gibson, Fort Smith: Little Gibraltar on the Arkansas, 1969
  • with Chris Calkins, The Battle of Five Forks, 1985
  • with Bryce A. Suderow, The Petersburg Campaign: The Eastern Front Battles, June–August 1864, Volume 1, 2011
  • with Steve Alexander, Believe in the bold : Custer and the Gettysburg campaign. Andrea Press. 2013. ISBN 8496658430. OCLC 865494726.

As editor, alone and in collaboration:

  • A Southern Record: History of the Third Louisiana Regiment, with Willie Tunnard, 1970
  • A Louisiana Confederate: Diary of Felix Pierre Poché, 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

As a contributor:


  1. "EDWIN COLE BEARSS: Biography". www.nps.gov. National Park Service. Retrieved 28 March 2016.
  2. Ripley, M. [Mary Ripley]. (2007, August 21). Edwin C. Bearss, USMC [video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfqis9SLCUA
  3. "History of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable". clevelandcivilwarroundtable.com.
  4. "Press Release". lincolncollege.edu. Archived from the original on 15 January 2006.
  5. "Gettysburg College – Honorary Degree Recipients". gettysburg.edu. Archived from the original on 2015-03-11. Retrieved 2015-03-15.
  6. "Edwin C. Bearss". cwea.net.
  7. "Civil War scholar visits Georgetown March 5".
  8. "Chief Historians of the National Park Service". National Park Service. Archived from the original on November 10, 2013. Retrieved March 15, 2015.
  9. "Strategic Civil War Crossings of the Upper Potomac All-Day Tour with Special Guest Ed Bearss – Smithsonian Associates". smithsonianassociates.org.
  10. "The Shenandoah Valley in the Civil War: A Closer Look Overnight Tour – The Smithsonian Associates".
  11. "Civil War guide Ed Bearss going strong into his ninth decade". Washington Post.
  12. "Edwin C. Bearss".
  13. "West Kentucky Star – Events".
  14. "The Civil War Round Table of Chicago – Annual Nevins Freeman Award".
  15. "Noted historian Ed Bearss to speak at local event". The Daily Gate City, Keokuk, Iowa.
  16. "Park honors historian, author Bearss," Vicksburg Post, October 4, 2009. Retrieved October 23, 2009.
  17. "H.R.2059 – 114th Congress (2015-2016): To award a Congressional Gold Medal to Edwin Cole".
  18. "Man wins award for Civil War studies".
  19. "Legendary Historian Edwin C. Bearss Recognized For Lifetime Achievements By American Battlefield Trust". "battlefields.org".
  20. "Ed Bearss". IMDb.


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