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Historian tells Pa. audience of ancestors' Civil War fight

November 30, 1999

Edwin C. BearssBy RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




GREENCASTLE, Pa. - Nationally known Civil War historian Edwin C. Bearss brought the war back home to Greencastle Tuesday night when he told a local audience about their ancestors' role in the bloody 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, Va.

Bearss, 76, the author of 20 books, former chief historian for the National Park Service and regular commentator on the History Channel's "Civil War Journal," told about 125 members of the Allison-Antrim Museum Inc. and their guests how the 126th Pennsylvania Regiment, made up mostly of Franklin County residents, fought at Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862.

Soldiers from Fulton and Juniata counties also served in the 126th, Bearss said.

Most members of regiment's two companies, K and B, came from Antrim Township, he said.

Bearss' deep voice, distinctive diction and animated emphasis of points kept his audience hushed throughout his half-hour lecture. He spoke without notes, recounting the days and weeks that led up to the battle, peppering his remarks with anecdotes and names of the key players.

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Officers in the 126th at Fredericksburg included Lt. Col. David Watson Rowe and Maj. James Austen of Greencastle and Col. James Elder of St. Thomas, Pa. Elder was shot in the thigh, and Rowe took over command of the regiment, Bearss said.

It was one of the bloodiest days of the war with 12,600 Union casualties and 5,200 on the Confederate side. Bearss said the only reason Fredericksburg didn't surpass the Battle of Antietam as the war's bloodiest day was because the South's losses weren't as great as they were at Antietam. In that battle, on Sept. 17, 1862, the North had 12,500 casualties and the South 10,750.

His descriptions of the slaughter at Fredericksburg flourished with color. He called the looting of the town by Union soldiers, "an orgy of destruction." Bearss described a 400-yard stretch of flat ground that nine brigades of Union troops marched through under withering Confederate fire as "the greatest killing ground of the Civil War."

Yankee troops faced "sheets of flames" and "jets of fire" from the stone walls hiding the Rebel guns that "tore nine brigades to pieces."

Bearss said the attack on the wall was "more than human flesh could stand." The 126th reached a few feet beyond the Union "high water mark" before it was forced to turn back.

"The men of Antrim Township got their baptism of fire in one of the most terrible places," he said.

Bearss maintains a heavy lecture schedule. After Greencastle, he heads tonight to Courtland, Va., where he will speak on the World War II Battle of the Bulge. The next night will find him in Rocky Mount, N.C., then two days later in Murfreesboro, Tenn., to lead tours of the Battle of Stones River. On Sunday he returns to Virginia to lead a tour of the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Bearss was born in Montana and lives in Arlington, Va. He was with the Marines on Guadalcanal and was seriously wounded on Cape Gloucester. After the war he earned a bachelor's degree in foreign service followed by a master's in history. He worked for the Park Service for 40 years, retiring in 1995.

Bearss said high points in his life included his appearance on Ken Burns' "The Civil War" series on PBS television, working with Lyndon Johnson on the LBJ National Historical Park and his involvement in discovering and raising the Union ironclad Cairo.

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