Some of my more dedicated readers might remember my fondness for Ed Bearss and taking his history tours through the Smithsonian, exploring Civil War battlefields. Ed passed away on September 16 at the ripe age of 97. I remember seeing him speaking in public and taking that tour with him in 2017 when at the age of 94, he was still leading groups with more energy than many people I know half his age. He used that microphone and mini-speaker he had not because his voice was weak but because his crowds of groupies on his tours would regularly number over 50 people, and he needed the boost so the folks in the back could hear. I can still hear the echoes of his narration in my head… “And, MISTER Lincoln… “. Semper Fi, Ed, and know that you’ll never be forgotten. I have linked to his obituary
If you’ve been following along and paying attention to my blog, you know I’m a huge history fan, especially with regards to the US Civil War. I have had the great opportunity and privilege to attend perhaps a dozen tours through the Smithsonian Associates program led by Ed Bearss. Ed is the Chief Historian Emeritus of the United States Park Service, a combat-wounded World War 2 veteran, and even today at 93 he is still leading history tours over 160 days a year. He has an inimitable speaking style, a beyond encyclopedic knowledge of US history (especially military history), and a boundless energy rarely found in people less than half his age.
The trip where I took these photos was in the early spring of this year, to visit a lesser-known early battle of the Civil War, known as Kelly’s Ford. The battlefield is just down the road from Brandy Station, where JEB Stuart faced off against a now-competitive Union cavalry, and Robert E. Lee’s son Rooney was injured in the leg.
Kelly’s Ford was a smaller engagement and marked the beginning of the rise of Union cavalry, where previously Confederate cavalry had utterly dominated the field. Despite the relative minor character of the engagement, Ed, with his signature presentation and his admonition “if you want to understand the battle, you have to walk the battlefield”, manages to make such minor events and historical footnotes compelling.
I love this last photo of Ed as it really captures his spirit and personality.
Here’s another photo of Ed Bearss I took on the Ball’s Bluff tour, as he’s describing the battle in front of the sign at the park entrance, armed with one of his US Marine Corps- themed swagger sticks.
He’s always carrying one to point and gesture with while he talks, for emphasis.
One of the great privileges of living in Washington DC is access to cultural institutions. As part of the Smithsonian Resident Associates program, I get to take part in lectures and tours on art, politics, and history. As you can tell from my blog postings about my antique image collecting, I’m a big Civil War history fan. The Smithsonian Resident Associates program offers a wonderful series of lecture tours on the Civil War, the best of which are led by the inimitable Ed Bearss. Ed is a national treasure – he’s a combat-wounded WW II veteran, Chief Historian Emeritus of the US Park Service, responsible for raising and restoring the Union ironclad ship on display at Vicksburg, Mississippi (which he’ll say was a study in how NOT to raise a sunken ironclad), brilliant raconteur, and at 91, still leading tours 200+ days a year. And even at 91, he’s the first one off the bus and leading the charge across the field, the entire day. If you’re a Civil War fan, you probably know who Ed is – he’s one of the historians on-camera in Ken Burns’ The Civil War, and was a regular on History Channel’s “Civil War Diaries”.
This is a somewhat rare image of him on tour, as he’s got his eyes open. Often when he’s narrating the events of a battle, he’ll close his eyes. It’s not because of a vision problem – when asked, he explained that “it helps me picture the story in my head”. I feel so privileged to get to walk battlefields with Ed and listen to him tell the stories of the events as only he can, with his unique cadence and stentorian voice.
I’m a member of the Smithsonian Resident Associates program – its a whole collection of educational and entertaining activities offered throughout the year ranging from evening lectures to hands-on arts and crafts courses to day tours and even week-long study trips, as well as a certificate program in Art History taught in conjunction with The Corcoran School of Art and George Washington University. A couple weekends ago I went on one of their history tours to Manassas Battlefield for the battle of First Manassas, with Ed Bearss as the tour leader. For those who don’t know, Ed is an underappreciated national treasure. He turns 90 in a month and a bit, was combat wounded in WW II (hit five times by a Japanese machine gun), is the Chief Historian Emeritus of the US Park Service, and appeared in Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary as well as a regular on the History Channel’s Civil War Journal. He has forgotten more about the Civil War than any of us will ever know. Ed, at 90, still leads tours over 250 days a year. I’ve taken five of his tours now (maybe six?), but he has some die-hard groupies out there that make me look like a slacker wanna-be fan (I’ve been on tours before where other folks have proudly announced they’ve taken every tour he offers through the Smithsonian, sometimes more than once).
Ed is a marvelous story-teller. He recounted the tale of how Stonewall Jackson got his nom-de-guerre:
“And General Bee, upon seeing Thomas Jonathan Jackson with his troops in the edge of the woods, called out to his men “There stands Jackson like a stone wall; rally behind the Virginians”. He may not have meant it as a compliment, however. It all depends, you see, on whether or not he said those two phrases in the same breath. Bee, you see, was a South Carolinian, and may not have held Jackson in particularly high regard. One version has it that he said the two comments an hour apart – if he said them together, it’s a compliment. But if he said them separately, “there stands Jackson like a stone wall” comes off as rather a put-down. The only way we’ll know for sure what General Bee meant is if one of us dies and goes to heaven or hell, and meets General Bee and asks him which it was”
This cannon, although NOT original to the battlefield, is in the relative position of Stonewall Jackson’s unit. One remarkable feature when you see the battlefield is how close the units were- one battery of Union cannon traded hands five times over the course of the day, and they were not more than 100 yards from the Confederate lines.
The Henry House that you see in the above photo was the home of the widow Henry, one of the first civilian casualties of the Civil War. The house that you see standing now is not her house, but a replacement. Her house was of similar footprint but only one and a half stories tall. It was destroyed when those Union cannons I mentioned previously were turned and fired point-blank into the house where Confederate infantry had concealed themselves and were firing on the Union gunners. One cannonball tore through the house and removed widow Henry’s foot on its way through as she lay in bed.
Within eyesight of the Henry House was the home of “Gentleman” Jim Robinson. Jim was a mulatto man, and the half-brother of widow Henry. Their father was “King” Carter, the tidewater plantation owner and one of the wealthiest men in America at the time of the Revolution. Jim was born a slave but manumitted by his father upon Mr. Carter’s death.
The monument immediately beside the Henry House was erected by Union soldiers immediately after the war, and is one of the oldest Civil War memorials. Perhaps THE oldest is also at Manassas, but is not much more than a pedestal today. It was erected during the war by Confederate soldiers to commemorate one of their generals who was killed at 1st Manassas, but torn down by Union soldiers some time after 2nd Manassas.
Here is the door to the Stone House, with the cleverly placed cannonball embedded in the wall. Note I said cleverly placed – there are a total of five cannonballs stuck in the stonework of the house, but none of them are there as a result of either the first or second battles of Manassas. Rather, they were added to the house at a much later date (some time in the early 20th century) by the owner, to boost the tourist appeal. How do we know? well, for one thing, all of them are neatly embedded, with no flaking, chipping or fracturing of the stone as would have been the case if the wall had been struck by the cannonball at high velocity. For another, one of the cannonballs is of a type not invented or used until some time in the 1870s.
Here is the stone bridge, around which much of the early fighting of the day took place. The bridge spans Bull Run, and although the bridge you see here today is of the same stone as the one that stood there at the battle, it is not the original bridge but rather a reconstruction – during the war, the Confederates demolished the central arch of the bridge to deny Union forces access to the other side. This did not stop them of course, but instead Union engineers built a wooden span on the existing foundations, and then it was rebuilt in the 1884 as you see it today. This was the original course of the Warrenton Turnpike (today’s Route 29, the Lee Highway) and all traffic on that route crossed this bridge until the route was straightened and a new two-lane bridge was built adjacent in the 1960s.
I’ll close with another portrait of Ed, with his swagger stick made from a .50 caliber machine gun bullet.