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Legendary historian shines in 'Fields of Honor'
Memorable battlefield talks by Ed Bearss are now available in book form. By Dane Hartgrove

Visit the Photo Place
Date published: 12/2/2006

FIELDS OF HONOR: PIVOTAL BATTLES OF THE CIVIL WAR, by Edwin C. Bearss. National Geographic. 448 pages. Maps, illustrations, index. $28.

E DWIN COLE BEARSS, former chief historian of the National Park Service, is a legend in the Civil War community. Born and brought up in Montana, he began reading about the Late Unpleasantness at an early age, and named cows on his father's ranch after Civil War battles and generals.

A Marine during World War II, Bearss was seriously wounded on New Britain Island in the Pacific, and spent 26 months recuperating in hospitals--and reading about the Civil War.

After his discharge, Bearss went to Georgetown University on the GI Bill, worked as a geographer at the Naval Hydrographic Office in Washington and visited Civil War battlefields. He received a master's degree in history from Indiana University for a thesis on Confederate Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne. Perhaps most importantly, he became convinced that one cannot really understand a Civil War battle without walking the ground on which it was fought.

A visit to the battlefield at Shiloh proved pivotal in helping him decide to join the National Park Service as a historian. He began working at Vicksburg National Military Park in 1955. Bearss has written at least five major books on the Vicksburg campaign, including a three-volume compendium that many consider the standard work on the subject. His years in Vicksburg also included the raising of the ironclad USS Cairo from its watery grave in the Yazoo River and the establishment within the park of a museum devoted to the vessel.

The author of 13 books and a vast number of smaller works, Bearss has also studied other American conflicts, including the Revolutionary War and the Indian wars. His memory is legendary. It is said that he is capable of stepping out of a vehicle at the site of any battle that has taken place on this continent and leading a knowledgeable tour for those accompanying him. But perhaps his most important contribution to the historical profession is not unlike that of an Old Testament prophet, having trained disciples who have carried the message of the need to walk battlefields in order to understand what took place there into every corner of the National Park Service.

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