I've corresponded with Ed several times in the 1980's & 1990's and spent a day with him in Honolulu in 2005 at Punchbowl and several WWII sites and then at a fascinating CW roundtable event on the Battle of Franklin.
Bearss grew up on an isolated Montana ranch, the E-bar-S, reading books by the light of kerosene lanterns and listening to firsthand Civil War reminisces by a local veteran. He named his favorite milk cow Antietam. When he graduated from high school in 1941, he thumbed around the country visiting Civil War sites and then joined the Marines.
In a vicious firefight at Suicide Creek, Cape Gloucester -- the South Pacific, 1944 -- Bearss learned about the value of battlefield terrain the hard way. With both arms shot up, a Japanese bullet in his back and another in his foot, he pushed himself out of the line of fire an inch at a time. Those around him who raised their heads died.
Bearss spent nearly two years recuperating and went to college on the GI Bill. "I got out in '49, got a job at the government hydrographic office and then went back to school again, earning my master's at Indiana University in 1955, my thesis on Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne," rumbled Bearss. "While writing it, I made a point of visiting Cleburne's battlefields, walking the land."
On a stop at Shiloh Battlefield, Bearss met a "real live wire" of a National Park Service guide. "Pete Shedd began to talk, and we began to walk, and after 1 1/2 miles, we came to a very deep ravine," Bearss recalled. "Well, sir, I looked down upon that ravine and marveled. I knew the Union forces had a number of cannon situated, but until that moment, I did not 'know' how the land aided their assault. To really understand the full meaning of events, you have to appreciate the lay of the land, the topography of history."
He made a career choice that day. "I learned that the National Park Service employed historians, not just naturalists and archaeologists. There was a vacancy at Vicksburg, and I wound up there. It was a dream, getting paid for doing what I would have done on my own, dealing with visitors and walking in the steps of history."
The Hawaii Civil War Roundtable hosted a dinner for Bearss while he was here, and dug into their pockets, presenting their hero with more than $1,000 to forward to a battlefield preservation of his choice.
"Franklin, Tennessee!" Bearss boomed, gravel in his voice, a direct channel to the past. "I was present in Franklin two weeks ago, lucky to be an honored guest. I was given the privilege of finally swinging a sledgehammer on that most detested of battlefield intrusions -- the Pizza Hut. Down it went! It was a bitterly cold day, and the Tennessee re-enactors had no shoes upon their feet, bless 'em. As they marched by the rubble, they shouted, 'Huzzah, hooray! Next, Dominos!'"
Honolulu Star Bulletin, Tuesday, December 27, 2005 (photo below, Ed in Honolulu 2005)