Just a few weeks shy of his 90th birthday, the seemingly indestructible Edwin “Ed” Bearss is still wowing his audiences with his encyclopedic knowledge of the Civil War and unique delivery.
The Chief Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service spoke recently to the Front Royal, Va. Civil War Round Table about the battle in that town on May 23, 1862, part of Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley Campaign.
The audience of about 20 sat rapt as the thin man wearing his trademark khaki pants and worn t-shirt, strode back and forth across the front of the room, talking about Jackson and others as if he knew them personally.
When he speaks, he emphasizes names and sometimes verbs with a simultaneous jabbing of his always present thin, polished wood baton. Jackson becomes “JACKson” with his voice rising on “son,” followed by a pause. Thrusting is “t-t-thr-r-rus-ting.”
Bearss told his audience that Jackson wasn’t much of an advance planner, instead “thrusting and parrying and making decisions as he got there. Mercurial is the word used most often to describe him.”
Jackson marched his forces north on the Valley Pike (now Rt. 11) following the Battle of McDowell, and when he reached an intersection in the town of New Market, “he sat astride his horse in the middle of the pike at New Market and pointed left towards Luray. Eight thousand men made the turn.”
None of them, including their commanders, knew where they were going. The next stop, several days later, was Front Royal.
Bearss often uses his right hand to support his left hand, which was severely damaged when he fought with the U.S. Marines in World War II. Even at his present age of 89, he still retains his military bearing and is famous for ignoring wind, rain or snow on his tours. In Front Royal, a hard, cold rain fell at one of the sites on the tour but he didn’t leave out any details of what had happened there. The Confederates marched up a nearby hill. The canons were placed here and over there.
His audience huddled together under umbrellas. No one left for the dry comfort of their cars.
Bearss is on the road five or six days a week. He has a full schedule this year with multi-day tours with several tour companies, including Blue & Grey Education Society and the Smithsonian Associates.