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Statewide Arkansas Post Fort Smith Pea Ridge
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A Historian to Remember: Edwin Cole Bearss

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In the 1920s and 1930s, a boy fascinated with the Civil War grew up on a ranch near Billings, Montana. He named cattle after Civil War generals and listened to stories told by the local war veteran, who often sat in a hotel lobby wearing his reunion ribbons. This boy, Edwin Cole Bearss, would become a lifelong student and preserver of Civil War history. His passion for protecting Civil War battle sites touched many states, including Arkansas, and directly led to three Arkansas sites gaining protection under the National Park Service.

Edwin Bearss’ ranching background gave him a love of the outdoors, but his fascination with the Civil War was something he developed from a young age. His father served in World War I, and an older relative also served in the Philippine-American War. Taken together with the local Civil War veteran, Bearss grew up surrounded by war stories. He enrolled in St. John’s Military Academy in 1937, a preparatory school focused on service. He returned home sometime before graduation, earning his high school diploma in 1941 from Hardin High School outside of Billings.

Ed Bearss leads a tour at Bear Paw Battlefield, Public Domain, NPS.gov Collection.

With a family history of military service, it’s no surprise Bearss joined the U.S. Marine Corps as World War II raged. Bearss was sent to the 3rd Battalion, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division, which fought in the Pacific theater. As part of the infantry, Bearss was involved in the Battle of Cape Gloucester, which took place from Dec. 26, 1943 to Jan. 16, 1944. The Allied Forces landed on the peninsula at Cape Gloucester to capture Japanese airfields. It was here Bearss was severely injured while on a scouting patrol of Suicide Creek. He was hit by machine gunfire in the elbow, shoulder and heel. Bearss was one of over 1,000 men wounded in the battle, but fortunately, he was eventually evacuated, first dragged on a military stretcher for a half mile, then on a Jeep. He returned to the United States and spent two years recovering from his wounds in various military hospitals.

Bearss took advantage of the GI Bill and attended Georgetown University, graduating with a degree in foreign service in 1949. He then attended Indiana University to earn a master’s degree. For his master’s thesis, Bearss focused on Patrick Cleburne, a Civil War general from Arkansas. The major general had immigrated to Helena, Arkansas, from Ireland in 1849 and became a lawyer and later, the leader of the First Arkansas Volunteer Regiment during the Civil War. Bearss’ thesis directly connected him to Civil War history in Arkansas. Bearss joined the National Park Service and became the historian at Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi.

Maj. General Patrick R. Cleburne, 1861. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/93593339/.

In this role, Bearss fully immersed himself in his love for Civil War history. He conducted studies over battlefields, including the battles at Pea Ridge and Pine Bluff. He wrote many articles on Arkansas’s Civil War history, too, and published them through the Arkansas Historical Society Quarterly, as well as the Washington County Historical Society and the Ouachita Historical Society. His work as a National Park Service historian directly led to three Arkansas sites gaining designation as National Park sites. First, the Arkansas Post National Memorial was dedicated in 1960. The national memorial honors the people and events at Arkansas’s first military post, which included a Civil War battle in 1863. Next, Pea Ridge Battlefield was dedicated in 1963, followed by the Fort Smith National Historical Site in 1964. Bearss was also a speaker several times at the Arkansas Historical Society conferences.

Ed Bearss leads a tour at Fort Pillow State Park in Tennessee. Photo by Hal Jespersen at en.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bearss left Vicksburg in 1966 for Washington, D.C., where he served as a research historian and then chief historian until 1994. Although no longer directly involved in site studies in Arkansas, Bearss continued to write books and articles over the Civil War, including one called “Fort Smith, Little Gibraltar on the Arkansas,” which details the military history of Fort Smith. Another book, entitled “Steele’s Retreat from Camden, and the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry,” chronicles this small Arkansas battle in 1864, which was part of the Camden Expedition, the last Union campaign through Arkansas. After Bearss retired from the National Park Service in 1995, he continued to write as well as lead special tours through battlefields. He wrote 25 books and over 100 articles in his career.

Although Edwin Cole Bearss never lived in Arkansas, his work in preserving much of the Civil War history in the state, along with the history of Fort Smith and Arkansas Post, certainly made him an adopted son. His last visit to Arkansas was in October 2018, when Bearss gave a lecture over General Cleburne at the Old State House Museum Associates’ annual supper. It was fitting that his last lecture in Arkansas revisited the topic of his master’s thesis written so many years earlier, which first centered much of his work in Arkansas. Bearrs died Sept. 15, 2020, leaving a long legacy of Civil War preservation in Arkansas and beyond.

Header photo: Battle of Pea Ridge by Kurz & Allison, P. & Kurz & Allison, C. C. (ca. 1889) Battle of Pea Ridge, Ark. United States Arkansas Pea Ridge, ca. 1889. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2013645343/.

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Kimberly S. Mitchell loves journeys, real or imagined. She has hiked the Inca Trail, walked into Panama on a rickety wooden bridge and once missed the last train of the night in Paris and walked several miles home (with friends). She believes magic can be found in life and books, loves to watch the stars appear, and still dreams of backpacking the world. Now she writes adventures to send her characters on journeys, too. Pen & Quin: International Agents of Intrigue - The Mystery of the Painted Book is her debut novel. Find out more at KSMitchell.com.

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