Historian knows forest and trees of Civil War

September 04, 2007|By TAMELA BAKER

SHARPSBURG - A long-ago conflict came to life Monday for a dozen or so members of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who huddled around famed Civil War historian Edwin C. Bearss at Antietam National Battlefield.

Hanging on every word as Bearss described the opening clashes of what would be a long day of bitter battle and bloodshed, they were treated to the kind of detail one doesn't always get in history books.

Evoking, perhaps, an image of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Bearss waved a well-worn baton to show the direction from which the troops of either side advanced for the inevitable confrontation.

But happily, the only advancing troops on this Labor Day were a few joggers and other tourists. And the closest thing to caissons were farm vehicles.


In the community of Civil War historians, Bearss is an icon. Chief Historian Emeritus for the National Park Service, he has conducted these battlefield tours as if it were a full-time job since retiring in the mid-1990s.

"I wouldn't do this 300 days a year if I didn't enjoy it," Bearss said.

The members of this particular group have traveled from all over the country - Chicago, Kentucky, California - to spend a week on a "Civil War Journey" with Bearss. Their tour continues in Gettysburg, Pa., and concludes Thursday in Washington, where it began Friday. Also included was a tour of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and lectures on the Battle of South Mountain in southern Washington County.

During Saturday's activities, including a lecture by local historian Tom Clemens at the 18th-century home of Brien and Chase Poffenberger in Sharpsburg, Bearss was treated "like a rock star," tour director Fran Boronski said. He signed autographs and answered questions from people who either knew him from his reputation or recognized him from Ken Burns' PBS documentary "The Civil War." Bearss also was a consultant for the film "Gods and Generals," shot locally.

Clearly relishing the opportunity to spread his knowledge of history, he treated his students to an extemporaneous review of the developing battle as well as those not-so-obvious tidbits that can transform history from dull facts to engrossing story.

For example, while noting the monument near the Joseph Poffenberger farm that commemorates Clara Barton's service during the battle, Bearss explained the nurse's unusual presence on the battlefield evolved in part from a personality conflict.

In Washington, Dorothea Dix was the Union's superintendent of nursing. But "strong-willed people do not like each other," Bearss noted, and "Clara Barton was a lone ranger." So she got permission from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to serve with the troops, he said.

At each stop, Bearss encouraged questions from the group.

"He's never been stumped that I know of," a visitor from South Dakota said.

Bearss credits that to "a good memory." And he credits his grandmother, a teacher, with engendering his love of history. His early interest was in the travels of Lewis and Clark, he said, but his interest in Civil War history began "in 1937, when I was in the sixth grade," he said.

A World War II veteran wounded in 1944, Bearss said he believes his service in the field gives him credibility that other historians might not have.

"I've been shot at and hit," he said. "I hope I'm an amalgamation of book historian and battlefield historian."

And of all the fields he's visited and all the tours he's given, he said his favorite one-day tours are Antietam and the battlefield at Perryville, Ky.

"They both have maintained their handsome, pastoral character," he said.

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