A few weeks ago I heard Ed Bearss, legendary historian emeritus of the National Park Service, speak to a gathering of the Clarksville, TN Civil War roundtable. Knowing of his advanced age, (he is eighty-eight ), and not likely to be doing this sort of thing for many more years, I quickly accepted the invitation of a friend and we traveled together from Nashville for the event.
It seems that the sounds of faraway Civil War battles were echoing through the rolling plains of Montana all around him in 1923 when Ed Bearrs was born. He gravitated to CW military history early on, so much so that on the family farm he would name farm animals after Civil War generals. His favorite milk cow was “Antietam. “ After graduating from high school in 1941 he was so anxious to visit some CW
battlefields that he hitchhiked to the East for his first self-led tour. Soon after he enlisted in the Marine Corps and was sent to the Pacific as part of the legendary First Marine Division where he was severely wounded in action at Cape Gloucester in early 1944 and after a long recuperation was discharged in early 1946. He still has only partial use of his left hand and arm. After taking two degrees on the GI Bill he entered the national park service in the mid fifties. His first posting was to the Vicksburg National Military Park. Over the years he held positions at battlefield parks in Mississippi, Tennessee, & elsewhere. In 1981 he became the chief historian of the National Park Service, a position he held until 1994. Through the years he has authored many books and publications establishing himself as one of the principal authorities in the nation on the subject of the Civil War. He was featured in the Ken Burns Civil War series and has also appeared numerous times in the series “Civil War Journal.” For many years he has been steadily employed by tour groups as a battlefield guide. To put it mildly, among Civil War “buffs”, Ed Bearss is something of a legend.
The crowd that gathered to hear Mr. Bearss that evening wasn’t disappointed. After a meet and greet in the lobby of the downtown customs house we made our way to the auditorium for the main event. The subject for the evening was the career of Union General George Thomas with a special emphasis on his relationship to US Grant. I’m not exactly a stranger to the subject myself. Still I learned a great deal, details that I’ve missed over the years namely that Thomas, as a youngster, barely missed being murdered in his home in Virginia during the “Nat Turner” slave rebellion, that Thomas was, along with Earl Van Dorn, one of the two majors appointed to the legendary 2nd US Cavalry before the war, that he was a big man back in a time when men weighing more than 250 lbs were something of a rarity, that he was never treated with the respect and deference by his peers that his obvious abilities merited and much more.
Bearss spoke for about an hour and a half, never once looking down at the podium in front of him (as far as I could tell) at any notes. He would continually cite chapter and verse, month, day and year with a remarkable precision as if the information was simply part of his DNA. Those soldiers of old came alive in our midst as Bears told their story, flesh and blood real-life fellows, with their own share of idiosyncrasies, petty jealousies, and shortcomings, mixed with their admirable traits and accomplishments. Ed has a wry sense of humor and we found ourselves laughing time and again at these all-too human fellows who came to the South and made war upon their fellow Americans, a thing that many Southerners have not since that time, considered a laughing matter. Even the uniformed wool clad, overweight, over-aged SCV (Sons of Confederate Veterans) “reenactors” in the crowd chuckled along with everyone else.
My SCV friends might have been a little surprised when Ed reminded us that at the beginning of the war RE Lee was NOT Jefferson Davis’ man. Albert Sidney Johnston was “his huckleberry.” It was Johnston, not Lee, who was made Colonel of the old 2nd US cavalry when Davis was Secretary of War and, a few years later, the commander of the Western theatre of the war at a time when Lee was being moved around in now nearly-forgotten postings prior to being commissioned commander of the army of Northern Virginia.
Still the principal subject at hand was the career of George Thomas, a Virginian who, unlike Lee, had no overriding loyalty for the state of Virginia or for the South. IN 1861, unlike so many of his peers, he had no interest in serving under a new flag or putting on a new uniform. The oath he had taken as a young soldier to the US superseded all. He had given his word and that was that. For this he paid a bitter price. After deciding to stick with the Union, his family disowned him and not only never spoke to or communicated with him again, it is said that they never even spoke OF him again, as if he no longer existed.
In spite of his family troubles, Thomas never looked back or regretted his decision, a decision that proved invaluable to the cause he served. Bearss reminded us that Thomas was, along with Grant, one of the most consistently successful generals of the entire war, the first Union general in the war to win an important battle, that of Mill Spring or Fishing Creek, in SE Kentucky in January 1862, a battle that secured Eastern Kentucky for the Union, a few weeks before Grant’s victory at Fort Donelson and, after an impressive record of solid achievements in between, including saving the Union army just after the disaster at Chickamauga, Thomas won what has often been considered the most complete victory of any army in that war at Nashville in December, 1864. During the war he compiled a resume that Bearss, though he didn’t quite say it directly, considers second only to US Grant.
Indeed, Bearss seemed to admire Thomas far more than Sherman who he described as “not very likeable” and “a capable strategist but a poor tactician.” Shermans’ resume, Bearss pointed out, was uneven while Thomas’ was positive throughout. He cited example after example such as the business in Chattanooga in November, 63’ where Sherman struggled and got nowhere against the gallant Pat Cleburne on the North end of Missionary Ridge while Thomas’ men stormed up the center to gain a spectacular victory. Again and again, Thomas outshone Sherman. Yet in this, US Grant seemed to have a blind spot. By favoring Sherman over Thomas, Bearss added, Grant allowed his regard for his friend Sherman and his own negative personal feelings toward Thomas to interfere with his judgment never giving the more talented Thomas the credit he deserved. In short, Thomas was the better general, Bearss maintained, but Grant just couldn’t quite see it.
It was a delightful evening listening to Ed Bearss go over what was, for nearly everyone in the room, pretty familiar ground. In his indomitable style, wit, and complete mastery of the subject matter, he held our attention with ease receiving a standing ovation at the end. I can only hope that if I’m called to the lecture hall when I reach that age thirty years from now, I’ll do at least half as well.