Monday, March 20, 2006

109: “Word from the Great Ed Bearss”

Our friends at the Civil War Preservation Trust have issued a press information release regarding the great Civil War historian Ed Bearss. It states:


World-renowned historian and preservationist calls East Cavalry Field an ‘unsurpassed opportunity to walk in the footsteps of history.’

For Immediate Release
March 16, 2006

(Washington, D.C.) –World-renowned historian and preservationist Edwin C. Bearss issued the following statement today about the historic significance of East Cavalry Field, an important component of Gettysburg National Military Park. Bearss is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT).

In recent weeks, Chance Enterprises, the investment group trying to build a new casino within a mile of East Cavalry Field, has tried to diminish the historic significance of the East Cavalry Field site, in order to improve their chances of getting a license for a slots parlor. As a result of the casino controversy, last month CWPT identified Gettysburg as one of the ten most endangered battlefields in the nation. Bearss’ response follows:

“The East Cavalry Field fight is as much a part of Battle of Gettysburg as Little Round Top. The fight for East Cavalry Field underscored the coming of age of the Union cavalry. From here on in the Civil War, the Union cavalry in the east will achieve the same dominance over the Confederate cavalry that the Confederate cavalry heretofore had had over the Union.

“You can not divide the different parts of the segments of the Battle of Gettysburg. East Cavalry Field is as important to understanding the Battle of Gettysburg as the Angle or Little Round Top.

“The decision to include East Cavalry Field in the Gettysburg National Military Park was made by the veterans. Who has a better right to decide what was important and what was significant than those men who fought there? The fight on East Cavalry Field was a significant success for the Union horse soldiers and underscored that the Union cavalry could now meet the cavaliers in gray and best them. Henceforth in the Civil War, the Union cavalry in the east will become increasingly dominant over the Confederate cavalry.

“No place on the battlefield of Gettysburg possesses greater integrity to time and place than East Cavalry Field. You could bring one of Stuart’s horsemen, or one of Custer’s, back and he would recognize the landscape, the woods, the topography. And here today’s visitor has an unsurpassed opportunity to walk in the footsteps of history.”

Bearss is considered a national treasure. Tens of thousands of people, including many national figures, have toured battlefields and historic sites with Bearss, both here in America and overseas. He is an award winning author; having written or edited more than 20 books. In 1983, he received the Department of the Interior’s Distinguished Service Award, its highest honor. Bearss was also the first recipient of CWPT’s most prestigious national award, which is now named after him. In November 2005, he was identified in Smithsonian Magazine’s cover story, “35 Who Made a Difference.”

With 75,000 members, CWPT is the largest nonprofit battlefield preservation organization in the United States. Its mission is to preserve our nation’s remaining Civil War battlefields. Since 1987, the organization has saved more than 22,000 acres of hallowed ground, including 591 acres in Gettysburg. CWPT’s website is located at

Bloggernote: For those who may not be familiar with Ed Bearss, here is the Smithsonian Magazine article, which should let you know just what kind of a man (and hero) Ed Bearss really is:


By Adam Goodheart

November 2005
Smithsonian Magazine

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.

We're on a battlefield today, in fact. But now, unlike on a certain summer day 142 years ago, this corner of southern Pennsylvania is quiet, with fields of soybeans and corn drowsing under the midmorning haze. Quiet, that is, except for that voice: "George Armstro-o-ong Custerrr has been a brigadier general for all of five days. He's already got himself the larrrgest starrrs on his shoulders of any general in the Army. He's adopted a red neckerchief with a gold arro-o-ow stickpin in it. And he's just come within a hairrr of losing his life, 13 years before the Sioux Indians send him to the happy hunting grounds."

Several dozen listeners stand silent, transfixed. In Civil War circles, Bearss is nothing short of a rock star. One of the men in the tour group wears a baseball cap covered with commemorative buttons celebrating each of Bearss' birthdays for the past decade (the latest is for his 82nd), while others have been known to wear T-shirts depicting his face on Mount Rushmore or transposed onto Elvis' white jumpsuit with the simple legend: "THE KING."

What inspires such adulation? As historian and battlefield guide, Bearss' store of knowledge is prodigious. Today, he's spending several hours covering a brief, relatively minor sideshow to the Battle of Gettysburg. He's speaking without notes and admits it's been years since he's read a word about the skirmish on East Cavalry Field. Yet the details pour over us in a heady flow: Rebel cavalrymen on horses exhausted after a 200-mile trek from Virginia. Michigan troopers charging into battle to Custer's cry of "Come on, you Wolverines!" A Northern captain felled when a Confederate color-bearer drives the spear point of his guidon into the Yankee's open mouth.

As he talks, Bearss marches back and forth, brandishing a silver-headed swagger stick, tucking it from time to time under his withered left arm—a casualty of a bullet at a battlefield on the other side of the world in 1944. He keeps his eyes tightly closed while he lectures, and he later tells me that way he can see the events of 1863 unfolding before him.

Some might say that Bearss has spent most of his life in the 19th century. He grew up with kerosene lamps and horse-drawn plows in Montana. He remembers Civil War stories told firsthand by the hometown veteran, "Grandpa" Henderson, who "used to sit around the hotel lobby with his reunion ribbons on."

After serving in the Marines and earning degrees at Georgetown and Indiana universities, Bearss joined the National Park Service (where he is now chief historian emeritus) and devoted himself to the study of the American past, particularly the struggle between the blue and the gray. When he compares contemporary America to the 1860s, his allegiance is clear: "We're in an age of Teflon people now. People then were more original, more individual."

Yet when he has to, Bearss can stand squarely in the present, as he has proved rather often of late, enmeshed in one 21st-century battle after another—over the suburban development that has threatened to engulf Civil War battlefields. Here at Gettysburg, for instance, the idyllic vista before us is broken by a water tower that went up a few years ago, part of a new industrial park. Just to the right of it, investors want to build a casino with 3,000 slot machines.

It's a scenario that, in various permutations, has repeated itself at many sites over the past decade or so. Bearss is well-armed to support the preservationist side of the fight. He remembers visiting Manassas in 1941, when it was a sleepy rural area; now, when he leads bus tours there, they often end up stalled in shopping center traffic. At Petersburg in the early 1960s, he saw where an 1864 fort was bulldozed to make way for a mall; now the mall itself is nearly derelict. "The development is advancing more irresistibly than Grant's army did on Richmond," Bearss grumbles.

"Ed's name carries a lot of weight," says Dean Shultz, a leader in the land-conservation movement at Gettysburg. Some years ago, a preservation group was debating whether to help purchase easements on the ground where Custer gathered his men for the East Cavalry Field assault. There was concern about whether the site was truly historic. "So finally I said I'd talked to Ed Bearss, and he said it had historic significance," he says. "And they said, 'Well, if Ed Bearss says it's worth saving, it's worth saving.'"

Like Custer's men, preservationists now face a do-or-die moment, Bearss says. "The battles are going to be played out in the next 10 to 20 years, because by then the battlefield parks will be islands in urban corridors of the United States, in a sea of sprawling shopping malls."

On East Cavalry Field, our tour draws toward a close beneath a granite column topped by a statue of a Union cavalryman. "The trumpets are playing," Bearss intones. "Thirteen hundred sabers are drawn. They flash in the sun. The Confederates are coming toward them: five regiments, riding boot to spur. Men of Michigan, are you ready? Charrrrrrrge!" And suddenly he's off, his swagger stick flailing—a hunched figure racing across the soybean field, charging fearlessly forward into the past.

COPYRIGHT 2005, Smithsonian Institution

Jim Campi, Policy and Communications Director
Civil War Preservation Trust
1331 H Street NW
Suite 1001
Washington, DC 20005
Phone: (202) 367-1861

Always a pleasure to hear from our good friends at CWPT. Thanks, Jim. Ed Bearss is a National Treasure, as important as the Battlefield itself. Anyone who has ever been on a tour with Ed knows that he is very hard to keep up with on the Battlefield. He moves at an incredible pace, so if you ever fortunate enough to go with him, be forewarned, wear running shoes, and have a good ear because he will provide you with insights that few others are capable of providing.


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