Historian draws big crowd to roundtable

Ed Bearss illuminates Civil War battle

February 24, 2011|By KATE S. ALEXANDER |
  • Military historian and author Ed Bearss speaks Thursday prior to the Hagerstown Civil War Round Table gathering at the Hagerstown Hotel and Convention Center.
By Colleen McGrath, Staff Photographer

Ed Bearss has been described as the "Homer of the American Civil War," a historian armed with an encyclopedic mind whose tours are a "transcendental experience."

At 87 years old, he still recalls the names of the streets soldiers marched en route to war nearly 150 years ago, lesser officers who carried out orders and the boats that sat offshore when the first shots of the war were fired on Fort Sumter, S.C. in 1861.

"The man is a national treasure," said Lynn Moats of Fayetteville, Pa.  

As U.S. Marine Corps veteran of World War II, an author, and chief historian emeritus of the National Park Service, Bearss has had many adjectives assigned to his name.

But to the audience enraptured by his tale Thursday about the Battle of Shiloh, he is anything but boring.

"Anything you ever wanted to know about the Civil War is in that man's mind," Moats said.

Moats traveled to Hagerstown Thursday to hear Bearss speak to the Hagerstown Civil War Round Table.

On a night Bearss speaks, attendance often doubles, round table President Mary Jo Reed said.  Reed said Bearss has spoken to the round table many times, stopping by about every other year.

An average of 35-45 people generally attend the eight dinner meetings hosted by the round table each year, she said.

But on Thursday, 64 people sat down for dinner, and about 20 more came later for Bearss' presentation.

Among those in attendance was 15-year-old Daniel Harsh of Williamsport.

Harsh had never heard Bearss speak, let alone recognized his name, but he said the talk on Shiloh was something that sounded like it would interest him.

Daniel said he came with his grandfather, Robert Harsh, of Williamsport, as guests of Dr. Richard Bell, a member of the round table.

Living in an area rich with Civil War history provides unique opportunities for learning, Daniel said.

"I like how it was started, and how it still affects us today," Daniel said of the war. "I think it's so cool that something so simple as slavery, well, not simple really, but I guess singular, could start a war."

Ask Bearss about the start of the war and his tale is far from simple.

As he unloads information from the library shelves in his mind into a fluid story, Bearss uses a style all his own, putting exaggerated emphasis on key words, leaning his weight onto an empty podium — no notes required — and flashing a smile as he wittily nails the ironies of history.

"Shiloh, the Confederate name for the battle, is the first in the Civil War that brings home to all American people what a bloody, miserable war this is going to be," he said.

More people were killed and wounded on the banks of the Tennessee River during the April 1862 battle than in all the preceding American wars, he said.

Bearss does not simply talk of the battle and what happened on those fateful days. He backs his tale up to the days before, detailing key conversations between generals, movements of troops and all the minutiae that played a part in the outcome at Shiloh, or the Battle of Pittsburg Landing.

Despite Bearss' celebrity status among Civil War buffs, Dennis Graham, secretary for the round table, described Bearss as "so approachable."

"He leads so many tours and, at 87 (years of age), he can outlast anyone," Graham said.

That, he said, is Bearss' appeal.  

Not only can Bearss take you on a detailed journey through history using only what is stashed in his memory, he does so with an unparalleled energy.

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