Edwin Cole Bearss (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 and is a popular tour guide of historic battlefields. He served as Chief Historian of the National Park Service from 1981 to 1994.
Bearss (pronounced “bars “) was born in Billings, Montana , the elder son of Omar Effinger Bearss and Virginia Louise Morse Bearss. He grew up on the rugged family cattle ranch, the "E bar S", near Sarpy, Montana, through the depths of the Great Depression. His father, a Marine in World War I, read accounts of military campaigns to young Ed and his brother, but Ed's lifelong interest in military history was jump-started by a biography of the dashing Confederate cavalry general J.E.B. Stuart by John Thomason. Ed named many of the ranch animals after famous generals and battles. His favorite milk cow was called, “Antietam.”
Ed had a rather unusual education. The nearest school was a one-roomer in Sarpy, six miles from the ranch. Of course, there were no school busses then; and Ed’s mom thought it too far for a first grader to ride twelve miles a day all alone on horseback. So she sent him to the Deaconess School in Helena for first grade. His grandmother lived in Helena, and Ed was able to spend weekends with her. He hated the school, however. Most of all he detested the fact that they made him take a daily nap, which went entirely against Ed’s nature. “I hate naps,” he said, “and have a phobia against anybody who takes a nap. I have never willingly taken a nap.”
Recognizing that he didn’t like Deaconess, his parents sent him to Hardin, the town nearest to Sarpy, for the following three years. There he passed the second, third, and fourth grades while boarding with a family there named the McAllisters. During those years, he was closer to them than his own parents.
When it came time for Ed to start fifth grade, Ed’s younger brother Pat was old enough for first grade. The family moved for a time to Billings, because they couldn’t afford to board both boys. Ed and Pat attended McKinley grade school in Billings.
Midway through sixth grade the family moved back to the ranch. Ed and Pat were deemed old enough now to ride the six miles together on horseback to the school in Sarpy where grades one through eight were taught in the same room.”We rode there and back in all kinds of weather,” Pat recalls. “Only one time did the weather keep us home, when it got down to 57 degrees below zero.” There were sixteen kids in that one room school house, all taught by a single young female teacher.
These were Ed’s formative years, and Ed’s unique character was forming. People recognized that he had an extraordinary memory for detail, that he loved hearing and reading about war, and that he was hyperactive – always needing something to occupy his body and his mind.
After the eighth grade, there was no more schooling available in Sarpy, and Ed’s parents thought he needed some discipline. His freshman and sophomore years of high school (1937 to 1939) were spent at St. Johns Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin. Although it was a tough school, it taught good study habits and had an excellent history department.
In 1939 the Bearrs family was suffering from the Great Depressions, so they brought Ed back to Hardin, Montana, once again for his last two years of high school. During his junior year he once again boarded with the McAllisters. During his senior year he moved out into a rooming house with other students and young adults where he could have more freedom, have more fun, and get into more trouble. He had been somewhat shy, retiring and reticent at St. Johns, but he overcame those traits his last two years in high school. He became somewhat of a rough customer. He still did well in school, however, winning first in Montana competition his junior year for his knowledge of current events and again first in state for his knowledge of American history his senior year.
Bearss graduated from Hardin High School in May 1941 and set out hitch-hiking across the United States. From Montana he hitched through Texas, across the South, and up to Washington, DC. In the Shenandoah Valley, he stood for the first time on a Civil War battlefield. He visited other battlefields in the area, including Manassas, before heading up to New York City and then on to Canada. As winter approached, Ed was back in the U.S. and flat broke. He wired home for money and caught a bus back to Sarpy.
On December 7, 1941 Ed was listening to a static-filled radio broadcast of the Chicago Bears playing the Chicago Cardinals in football. It was a brisk but peaceful Sunday afternoon on the ranch. At halftime, an announcer broke in with the news that the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor. “At first, we didn’t believe it,” Ed remembers. “We thought it was a hoax like, Orson Welles’ famous ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast in 1938-39 that scared everybody. But in the second half, the broadcast was periodically interrupted for updates, and we were finally convinced it was for real.”
Ed was immediately angry and resolved right then and there to “join the Marines and get back at the Japs.” When he heard President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech and the call for the declaration of war, he knew he had to enlist. In Ed’s mind, there was only one place for him in this war – in the Marines and on the front lines. Unfortunately, he was too young and enlisting required his parents’ approval.
Ed’s parents made him a deal. They would sign his papers, but only after he tended the ranch for about two months while they took a planned extended vacation to New Orleans. Upon their return, Ed could join the Marines and go to war. Ed was held hostage and had no choice but to agree to their deal.
On New Year’s Day 1942 Ed was listening to the Rose Bowl Game on the radio when he realized that one of the cows who was about to calve had wandered off. There was a foot and a half of snow under a heavy crust, drifting to six feet. Under those conditions Ed didn’t think she would have traveled too far; so, rather than saddle a horse, he set off on foot to fetch her. After about 2 ½ miles of wading through the snow, he finally fetched the cow and led her back. But he had also frozen his shins, which quickly turned into a severe skin infection in both ankles. By the time his mother and father returned from their vacation in early March, he was still medically unready for the Marines. Going to war would have to be delayed until late the following month.
Ed Bearss 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 3d Marine Raider Battalion in the invasion of Guadalcanal and the Russell Islands and with the 7th Regiment, 1st Marine Division, in New Britain.
On January 2, 1944, Bearss was severely wounded in the dense jungle at "Suicide Creek" (Cape Gloucester, New Britain) by Japanese Machine gun fire. The first bullet struck his left arm just below the elbow. The second shot hit his right shoulder, and he fell – both arms shattered. As he wriggled around on the ground trying to rise, a third bullet grazed his butt and a fourth hit his foot. He was dragged by a lieutenant and corpsman for thirty yards as they crawled on their bellies. When they were able to crawl on their hands and knees, they dragged him another fifty yards to safety. 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, and returned home to Montana.
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, and in May 2010, Gettysburg College awarded him an honorary doctorate of humane letters.
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 in Vicksburg, Mississippi. It was at Vicksburg that he met his wife, Margie Riddle Bearss (1925–2006), 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). Worth noting is the fact that Sara grew up to become a historian, while both Cole and Jenny became U.S. Marines.
At Vicksburg, Bearss did the research leading him and two friends to the long-lost Union gunboat U.S.S. Cairo. He also located two forgotten forts at Grand Gulf Mississippi.He was promoted in 1958 to Southeast regional research 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 commemorations 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 at 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, DC. 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.
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 1970.
Bearss is a consummate tour guide, bringing history alive to visitors of all knowledge levels, revealing encyclopedic stores of memory and enormous personal energy, but always with rich and colorful anecdotes. A “Washington Post” reporter described his style 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." Admirers have suggested that, if the United States ever recognizes Living National Treasures, as Japan and Australia do, Bearss should be an immediate honoree. Still another reporter said that Ed (while narrating a bus tour) “...sounded like a cross between Paul Harvey and a pirate ship captain.”
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 Rountable. 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.
Currently, Bearss, in his late eighties, continues to lead numerous tours - traveling as many as 200 days per year - around the United States, the Pacific, and Europe. He routinely outpaces his much younger guests in charging over rough terrain, recreating the color of famous infantry and cavalry attacks.
Bearss now lives in Arlington County, Virginia – across the Potomac River from Washington DC. He has been a good friend to Warren and Daisy as well as a member of our museum for many years. Daisy Motts recalls that while rushing out of his house to lead a battlefield tour, he tipped, fell and broke his arm. He got up and finished the tour before going to a local hospital to have his arm X-rayed and stabilized. Truly, everyone who has ever met or toured with Edwin Bearss says he is walking history, and man who leaves a legacy that is unparalleled.