When a Legend Speaks: Ed Bearss
There’s no afternoon napping on an Ed Bearss tour. It doesn’t matter how early you got up to meet the bus and head to Richmond, Petersburg, Monocacy or Gettysburg. Bearss is relentless, and he has commandeered a microphone. It’s not like he needs one. He has That Voice, the one with the unique cadence. And he seems to know everything imaginable about U.S. Civil War battles and the people and weapons behind them.
Now best known as a Civil War tour guide, the ninety-year-old Bearss was the National Park Service’s Chief Historian for many years. You’d never know he was ninety. He wields a spiky, retractable walking stick that he mostly uses as a pointer. He led the effort to raise a Union gunboat, the U.S.S. Cairo, at Vicksburg. He helped integrate the Lyndon B. Johnson ranch into the National Park Service system. He’s written books and opines on film about historical events. He’s pretty amazing, but that’s to be expected of a man who wields a pointer like a bayonet (check for it under his arm in the picture for this post).
Here’s a clip of That Voice from a Monocacy Battlefield Tour in 2009
Bearss is famous enough that Road Films made a documentary about his life, which is an impressive accomplishment for a career civil servant. Entranced, I watched the documentary with a few hundred other Ed Bearss groupies as part of a Smithsonian Resident Associates event. The great man himself was there with his family. After the documentary ended, Bearss and That Voice regaled us with stories. Bearss can be heard first-hand, too, but don’t wait too long. His tours fill up quickly, probably quicker now that someone’s made a documentary about this fascinating man’s life.
Here’s another clip because, seriously, this guy is a character.