Bearss, born on June 26, 1923, grew up on a Montana cattle ranch just outside the Crow Indian Reservation that includes the Little Bighorn Battlefield. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, in the same year that he graduated from high school, he followed in the footsteps of his father and Medal of Honor–recipient older cousin to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. Bearss deployed the South Pacific in mid-July 1942 but was severely wounded on January 2, 1944 during the Battle of Suicide Creek on the island of New Britain, injuries that limited his dexterity for the remainder of his life.
Acclaimed military historian and preservation pioneer Edwin Cole Bearss passed away on September 15, 2020, peacefully and surrounded by family, at the age of 97. Read our full statement.
A decorated U.S. Marine veteran of the Pacific Theater of World War II, he attended college and graduate school on the GI Bill before pursuing a distinguished career in the National Park Service, ultimately rising to be chief historian of that agency. A prolific author, frequent commentator and legendary tour guide, he brought history alive for millions of Americans with his deep voice and evocative descriptions. Among the originators of the modern battlefield preservation movement and a devoted tour guide, Bearss travelled up to 200 days per year into his 90s.
After recovery and discharge, Bearss went to college and graduate school on a version of the GI Bill for veterans with disabilities. In researching his masters’ thesis, he resolved to become a National Park Service historian, helping others understand the inherent connection between physical landscapes and history. During his first posting at Vicksburg National Military Park, his tireless research led to the discovery and raising of the ironclad USS Cairo, which is preserved within a museum that is now a fixture of the park.
In 1958, he was promoted to regional historian and played a key role in shaping the two new parks created as part of the Civil War centennial: Pea Ridge National Military Park and Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield. In 1966, he was called to Washington, D.C., to join a new corps of research historians and became involved in various preservation battles. Bearss was named chief historian of the National Park Service in 1981.
Later that decade and into the next, he was a key figure in the early years of the modern battlefield preservation movement. He served on the Congressionally appointed Civil War Sites Advisory Commission and was an early board member of the Civil War Trust, a predecessor organization of the American Battlefield Trust. He served on our board until his passing in the capacity of historian emeritus.
Whether acting on behalf of the Trust or other organizations, including the Smithsonian Institution, Bearss was perhaps the greatest battlefield guide to ever walk a historic landscape. Writing in Smithsonian Magazine in 2005, author Adam Goodheart described his presentation style as being a “battlefield voice, a kind of booming growl, like an ancient wax-cylinder record amplified to full volume—about the way you'd imagine William Tecumseh Sherman sounding the day he burned Atlanta, with a touch of Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill.”
Bearss was the recipient of numerous awards in the fields of history and preservation; the American Battlefield Trust has named its lifetime achievement award in his honor and dedicated a monument to his achievements on Champion Hill Battlefield in Mississippi. He wrote extensively, including a three-volume history of the Vicksburg Campaign, and was a regular guest on programs for the History Channel, A&E Networks and TLC, as well as appearing throughout Ken Burns’s iconic documentary The Civil War.
At the request of the Bearss Family, in lieu of flowers, donations in memory of Ed Bearss may be made to the American Battlefield Trust. Recognizing the special place that these battlefields held in his heart, gifts to the Edwin C. Bearss Memorial Fund will used to secure additional lands associated with the Vicksburg Campaign.