If the battlefield tour guide industry had a single rock star, it is Ed Bearss – who turns age 90 today. He is the Lebron James, the Tiger Woods, the Babe Ruth of the business! Incredible memory, graphic description, passionate engagement, and fascinating dialogue all comes rushing out of this living time capsule of humanity. A World War II marine, he was the chief historian of the National Park Service from 1981 to 1994. He was previously the historian at the Vicksburg Battlefield.
Growing up on a farm in Montana as the son of a WWI veteran, he early embraced a love of military history, naming the farm animals after famous generals, along with his favorite milk cow named “Antietam.”
Bearss became widely known as one of the main voices in the popular Ken Burns series on the Civil War. He is reported to even now spend about 200 days of the year on the road giving tours of various battlefields.
As a guide at Antietam over the past seven years, I have come across Ed at numerous times and in varied places on the battlefield. He is distinctive!
But there are two other very unique occasions where I have run into him. (Don’t take from this that we are pals, as I don’t think he has any idea who I am!)
As the long-time coach of the Williamsport High School cross country teams, we often go to the Cushwa Basin in Williamsport to run on the C&O Canal. The team will jog the one mile or so from the school to the Conococheague Creek Aqueduct parking area where we go through an extended stretching routine before tearing it up at high speed on the towpath. One day while there with the team (50-60 kids), a tour bus pulls up and out jumps Ed – leading a group of people straight toward us to see the place of the crossing of Confederates on the Gettysburg Campaign. So I call him by name and walk up and shake his hand, exchanging a few pleasantries with him … he full of energy and good cheer. My high school kids were so impressed that their coach would seemingly just randomly know some old guy who hopped off a bus with 40 people following him! How could that be? “Hey coach – that was a little weird what just happened there!” It was a funny moment.
Just a year ago I was visiting the Port Republic Battlefield near Harrisonburg, Virginia. I was at “The Coaling” – which is a high ground position originally held by the Union. It is a short walk up a steep incline to a marker near the top. I was the only person there at this rather remote location. And it happened again – a tour bus pulled into the parking lot of a church just across the street at the base of the hill, and there was Ed Bearss leading the way – swinging his stick and colorfully pointing out the history of the place! (The pictures are of this event.)