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Legendary historian shines in 'Fields of Honor'

December 2, 2006 12:50 am

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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.

Since his retirement from government service, Bearss has continued to lead tours of Civil War battlefields for a variety of groups, including the Smithsonian Institution and the Blue and Gray Education Society. His tours have many repeat attendees, who call themselves the Bearss Brigade. Not unlike a rock star, Bearss has his own band of groupies. Some of the latter have taped his battlefield lectures, some of which have been edited and published here as "Fields of Honor."

The book opens with Bearss' account of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, then proceeds to Fort Sumter and First Manassas in 1861. For 1862, we have Shiloh and Antietam (Sharpsburg). The omission of Fredericksburg will be seen by some as a major flaw in the book, although others might regard this decision as a nod in the direction of historians Bob Krick and Frank O'Reilly, who have that subject well covered.

For 1863, Bearss gives us his takes on Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga. For 1864, we have the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. For the war's last gasp, we have Sherman's Carolinas campaign and Lee's retreat from Five Forks to Appomattox. There is also an epilogue on the salvaging of the USS Cairo.

Each chapter bears the Bearss imprint, that ability to present the essence of a given situation with a minimum of truly descriptive words. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Maybe so, but being on a battlefield with Ed Bearss there to tell you what happened raises historical description to a new art form. "Fields of Honor" may give its readers some sense of this experience.

The National Geographic Society has produced a volume truly worthy of its author. Maps and illustrations are well placed, although a list of the maps and their page locations would have made their use more convenient for the reader. But this is a minor criticism. Those of us who know Ed Bearss' abilities can only hope that this volume of major gems will be followed by others recounting what happened on lesser-known battlefields. "Fields of Honor" deserves a place in the library of everyone interested in America's great civil conflict.

DANE HARTGROVE formerly of Stafford County, is a freelance writer living in Salisbury, N.C. Send e-mail to his attention to
Email: gwoolf@freelancestar.com.





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