Here is a long video about The battle of Wilderness Ed gives a talk on National Park Service Chief Historian Emeritus Ed Bearss lectured on the Battle of the Wilderness, his "favorite subject of the Civil War," for an American Civil War Museum audience at Hanover Tavern on May 9, 2014.
By pure coincidence last night I was watching a lecture on YouTube by the Gettysburg National Park about the history of licensed battlefield guides. Naturally the speaker touched on the best and most famous guides through the years. I asked myself who would be represented from our generation?
I was fortunate to go on one of his tours during the 150th Appomattox events. He was literally a walking encyclopedia of Civil War knowledge! Photo is Ed giving us the "full story" on the tour. RIP sir!
He was badly shot up by the Japanese on New Britain in the South Pacific in 1944. He nearly lost that arm to amputation, and while the doctors were able to save it, it was mostly useless for the rest of his life. His arm was much like Bob Dole's. Ed spent 8 months in the hospital after being shot up. He told me the story one day--it was spellbinding.
...Many good times with Ed...most memorable was his 75th. birthday weekend spent with BGES Second Day Tour of Gettysburg with Len Reidel at the helm...3 days of tramping...Saturday evening, there at Herr Ridge Tavern/Inn, Ed separated the men from the boys over shots...I ended up "under the table" ...experience and cunning will defeat youth and BS every time...see you soon my friend.
Thank you for your service to our country and your willingness to give of your Civil War knowledge to so many others over the years. Rest well, Mr. Bearss. You will be sorely missed but never forgotten!!!
Living history volunteers at Stones River, Chickamauga & Kennesaw Battlefields refer to "our side of the rope." When we form on our cannon for a demonstration, the visitors are in a safety zone behind a real or imagined rope. Inside the rope, a very different set of rules applies. The saying also refers to the fact that volunteers get access to features of the parks & historic artifacts that visitors never do. I was fortunate to be on Ed Bearss side of the rope.
Ed called me "The Local Guy." I might be the only person whose name he did not know. He called me that at every encounter for years. When his last few bus tours came through on Stones River-Tullahoma Campaign, I would ride along because he wanted someone who was familiar with the recent road conditions. If you want to get some feel for an Ed Bearss bus tour, take the remnants of the historic road through Hoover's Gap with one lane bridges & rollercoaster grades. I had driven through there in a small pickup truck, I never dreamed of taking a humongous tour bus through there. Ed had a driver that he trusted & away we went. The look of absolute open mouthed astonishment on the faces of a family as we passed their house is unforgettable.
Many of us in the Civil War orbit would be surprised that Ed's great love was Western History. His knowledge of the Indian Wars was encyclopedic. During a leisurely breakfast on our screen porch, we had a rambling discussion about Custer's Black Hills Expedition. I had a South Dakota high school kids understanding of what had happened coupled with week long hiking trips that left me with an intimate knowledge of the terrain. It was great. He put all the bits & pieces, all the personal puzzle pieces together for me. It was so very different from his public persona that I had seen so many times.
Ed taught me something that has been very useful ever since. During a lecture that our local Civil War Round Table had sponsored on the 150th Anniversary of Forrest's July 1862 raid on Murfreesboro, he did something that I had noticed but never understood before. In the audience at the beautiful restored Rutherford County Courthouse, was a group of what a friend of mine called the Forrest worshipers. I know a couple of them & during the middle ages they would have been burnt at the stake for the sin of idol worship. To hear them tell it, Forrest was the Paul Bunion / Albert Einstein of the Civil War. One of them asked Ed a question that I know he didn't want to hear the answer to. That is when Ed did his thing.
He cocked his head to the side, raised his chin & closed his eyes. Instead of directly telling them what they did not want to hear, he began to list off a series of facts related to the subject. Ed's brain must have been something like a library card file cabinet. It was an astonishing performance. His litany left the audience awed... unless you happened to know a whole lot about Forrest's campaign in West Tennessee during the fall of 1864, there was no way to understand what he was getting at. He has finessed what would have been a very uncomfortable situation. The lesson is, when faced with someone who is wedded to counterfactual preconceptions, just stick to the facts. They speak for themselves.
After breakfast at out place, I drove Ed to Nashville following the route his next bus tour was going to take. Along the way I asked him what the real answer to the Forrest worshiper's question was. He wanted to know which had the most impact, the destruction of part of the Johnsonville Depot or the capture of some riverboats at the same time. Ed's answer was that everything that Forrest did in West Tennessee was a complete waste of an invaluable resource. The War was down in Georgia, there was nothing in West Tennessee that couldn't be recouped if Hood won. If he lost, it wouldn't matter at all.
He went on to explain in detail how the Confederate Cavalry in the West had sucked up vital resources without a consummate return. He stated that the Battle of Milton in the spring of 1863 was the watershed, the tipping point, from that point on the cavalry was a net loss for the AotT. It was a way of looking at things that it took me years of research to fully understand what that meant.
In person, revisiting his old haunts around the Stones River Battlefield area where he began his career, Ed was funny & personable in a way that his public persona was not. Like all celebrities, Ed had a bubble that surrounded when he was on display. People loved to see him do his memory tricks. It was really something to stand next to him looking out at all those worshipful faces. It was eerily like the celebrities that I associated with in my work, he thrived on that contact with people. However, just like country music stars, he had a bright line (what we call our side of the rope) that separated the fans from the band & the roadies.
I was privileged to be one of Ed's roadies. His like will never come our way again.