Edwin C. Bearss

Independent scholar and historian
Edwin C. Bearss is one of America’s most renowned Civil War historians and was featured by Smithsonian magazine in 2006 as “an American who made a difference.” Early in his career, Mr. Bearss conducted research that contributed to the recovery of the long-lost Union gunboat Cairo. He also located two forgotten forts at Grand Gulf, Mississippi. Throughout his 47 years of government service, he has conducted detailed studies for the National Park Service in various areas, including Vicksburg, Bighorn Canyon, Eisenhower Farm, the gold miners’ route over Chilkoot Pass, L.B.J. Ranch, and Boston Navy Yard. Mr. Bearss worked as the National Park Service’s chief historian for over a decade before becoming the Director’s Special Assistant for Military Sites, his current position. Mr. Bearss is the recipient of numerous awards in the field of history and preservation. In 1990, he was a featured commentator for Ken Burns’ PBS series, The Civil War, the most popular program broadcast by that network to date. Recently he has appeared on the Arts & Entertainment Channel’s Civil War Journal. He has also published many books, including the definitive field guide Smithsonian’s Great Battles & Battlefields of the Civil War. In May 2006, he published Fields of Honor: Pivotal Battles of the Civil War.
 


Smithsonian Journeys Senior Program Manager Patrick Wagner interviews renowned Civil War Study Leader Ed Bearss.
Q: Lincoln was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1846. Then 39 years old, what was his experience in Washington, D.C. as a freshman congressman?
A: Lincoln spent two sessions in the 30th United States Congress. In the first session, he was accompanied by his wife Mary Todd and his son Robert. En route to Washington, they made a lengthy visit with Mary's family in Lexington, Kentucky where Lincoln became better acquainted with Mary's father, stepmother, and other Lexington friends. But for his second session of Congress, Mary Todd did not come to Washington. For this trip, Lincoln lived in a modest rooming house with other members of Congress and took his meals at a common table in the establishment.

He came as a Whig and a strong supporter of Henry Clay and his American System. Lincoln's most noted action was in the second session with the introduction of his Spot Resolution. This was done to embarrass the Polk Administration. The declaration died but it marked Lincoln, who was opposed to the war, as a supporter of the Wilmot Proviso, which held that slavery was prohibited on any lands acquired as a result of the war with Mexico.
Q: Lincoln had left his home in Springfield on Feb. 11, 1861 for a 12-day journey east to Washington, where he would begin work as our 16th president. On the way, he made more than 100 speeches. Tell us about the impact of this historic trip.
A: This trip was very important because it introduced him to supporters along the way. It showed his accessibility and his ability to speak to people in eloquent yet simply understood ways, a talent that few politicians either then or today appreciate. He presented himself as “a man of the people." As a side note, when Secretary of War Edwin Stanton made the arrangements for returning Lincoln's remains to Illinois after his assassination, he had the train follow the same itinerary as the Lincoln party had when coming to Washington in celebration of his Presidency, except on the return, Lincoln's body would be detoured to travel from Indianapolis to Chicago before returning to Springfield.
Q: Washington, D.C. is chock full of places Lincoln frequented as Congressman and President. What are some Lincoln sites you find fascinating and why?
A: One site surely worth noting is the Lincoln Cottage, where he spent many weeks from mid-summer to autumn during the years of 1862-64. The cottage was a place where he could relax and be more comfortable before the days of air conditioning. The cottage is located on one of the highest plots of land in the District of Columbia, which was built on a low-lying swamp. He was able to get away from the cares of government, although he commuted every day to the White House. Certainly anywhere in the core of Washington, from the White House, The War Department, and the blocks near the National Mall all the way to the Capitol, Lincoln would know well.
Q: What were some of the main interests Lincoln had while here in Washington?
A: Lincoln was the only President who had ever held a patent—Patent No. 6469 was for a device to lift boats over shoals, an invention which was never manufactured. He was very interested in the latest technologies. For instance, he test fired the Spencer Carbine Rifle in front of the White House, which was later adopted by the United States Navy for use. He was also a frequent visitor at the Washington Navy Yard, where he discussed Naval Ordinance with the Commandant John Dahlgren, who developed the Dahlgren cannon. He also followed the work of Professor Lowe (Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe) and his observation balloons. During the Civil War, Lincoln appointed Lowe Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps.
Q: In those days, could Washingtonians actually see Lincoln on their daily errands or during trips in town?
A: With security more lax, the President was much more accessible to the public than he is today. And people could actually get in to the White House if they had business. To show how different Washington was then, imagine a senior government official simply walking from the Willard Hotel to the White House today. For instance, when Ulysses Grant showed up in the city to accept his appointment as General in Chief of the Army, the President had a reception for him at the White House. General Grant simply walked unescorted from the Willard Hotel to the White House entrance. Grant was only 5'7" and President Lincoln was 6'4", and when Grant arrived for the festivities, Lincoln took him by the hand and had him stand on a settee to be introduced to the guests. How times have changed here in Washington!

Read Patrick’s previous interview with Ed Bearss below...
Q: What were some of Lincoln’s positive and negative attributes during the Civil War?
A: Lincoln had a very fast learning curve and an ability when he put together his cabinet to pick people who had been his rivals when seeking the Republican nomination, particularly future Secretary of State William Seward, future Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, and future Attorney General Edward Bates. As President, he chose Edward M. Stanton to replace Simon Cameron as Secretary of War in January 1862. To get an appreciation of this rivalry, a highly recommended book is Doris Kerns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. All of these men were strong personalities and both Seward and Chase believed sincerely they were better qualified to be President than Lincoln. But Lincoln was able to take advantage of their strong points and get them to work with him throughout his first administration, except for Secretary Chase, whose resignation he finally accepted in 1864. Lincoln was a master politician, in the days when politics was a respected profession.

In regard to the Emancipation, he moved at a deliberate pace, which until he acted on the Emancipation Proclamation, was criticized by the extremists. He had a feeling for what a majority of the people believed and had the ability to lead. If he had moved immediately on Emancipation, he would have driven Missouri, Maryland, and Kentucky out of the Union and then as he remarked, “the task of reuniting the Union would have been too great.” At one time he said “without Kentucky, the task is too great.”

He also had the great ability to be able to speak to the people in a way that they would understand. For example, in his Gettysburg address, he changed the focus of his war aims to include, besides the preservation of the Union, the words of Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.” Until he found a General in Chief with the attributes of Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton made a number of poor decisions in selecting and then micromanaging the Union Army’s charge with the defense of Washington.
Q: In visiting battlefields like Gettysburg and Little Bighorn, why is it so important to walk in the footsteps of history?
A: To understand what happened, you must know the lay of the land. To know the configuration of the land, where the high ground and the low ground is, where there are woods and open fields, what type of cultural features existed (houses, orchards, roads, etc), and how this affected what the officers planned and what they saw. More important, the lay of the land influenced the rank and file, whether they lived or died, and for the Generals, whether they won or lost. At Gettysburg, the Generals had good maps showing cultural features, including hachuers (a short line used for shading and denoting surfaces in relief and drawn in the direction of slope) rather than contour lines, but there was no way to realize the rise and fall of the terrain until you were there. For example, until I visited Gettysburg in 1950, I only knew about the battlefield from reading extensively. I did not appreciate that the Confederates participating in “Pickett’s Charge” were frequently in low ground, where they were invisible for perhaps 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or 15 minutes to the Union contenders. And the only way to appreciate what is like to be under fire is to walk the ground, where you will see that when you are in a certain Confederate unit you are invisible to the Union until you cross the Emmitsburg Road. Again, if you are a Confederate you do not realize you are going to have to cross a number of fence lines, which will delay you or break up your lines of battle. Until you are at Gettysburg, you do not realize how steep Big Round Top and Culp’s Hill are, with heavily timbered slopes. At the same time at Gettysburg, the West Face of Little Round Top, which had been clear cut in the autumn of 1862, still is today where it provides a different physical environment than you would find on Big Round Top and Culp’s Hill.
Q: At Gettysburg and other Civil War Battles we have a great deal of contemporary information from soldiers that are found in the official records, letters, diaries, and reminiscences. But in conflicts between the American Army and settlers against the Native Americans, such as the Battle of Little Bighorn, we have a different situation. How do we reconstruct this history?
A: After Custer approached Medicine Tail Cooley and last was seen by Curley-Crow Scout, we have no reports or reminiscences from the white man’s perspective because Custer and all the men with him were dead within an hour’s time on June 25, 1876. What we have is the grassy landscape with its ridges, ravines, and hallows, and off to the west, the valley of the Little Bighorn. We also have the Indian accounts because, while Custer and his men died, a large number of Lakota, Cheyenne, and several Arapaho survived. For many years, the Native Americans were hesitant about sharing their reminiscences with the white man for fear of reprisal. Then, in 1983, for the first time since before the battle, a prairie grass fire burnt over 600 acres of the battlefield. In the following years, archeologists, using metal detectors carefully recon ordered the burnt over terrain. Their battlefield archeology served to confirm many of the Indian accounts of the battle that had surfaced in the mid- to late-20th century. This information, along with heightened interest in the Native American oral history, has led the National Park Service to identify sites where certain Indian warriors fell. This has also enabled the National Park Service to give a more holistic interpretation of the battle. And in recent years, a Native Americans warriors’ monument has been erected adjacent to the memorial to Custer and the fallen of the 7th Calvary at Last Stand Hill. Thus, now it is possible to get a far more comprehensive understanding as to what happened in the 40-60 minutes that lapsed between Curley’s last view of Custer and his command and their annihilation. Because of the fragile terrain, visitors to Little Bighorn must walk on prescribed trails, such as the one leading into Deep Ravine. Only by walking the Deep Ravine and Reno Benteen Trail or by stopping at pull offs along the interpretive roadway can you appreciate the lay of the land and what happened during the battle.
Q: Ed, for a first time traveler or an armchair historian, do you have recommendations on battles they may wish to visit first?
A: I would visit Shiloh first because it represented the technologies that were available moving into the industrial age. Losses were so horrendous—there were 3,600 dead at Shiloh in two days. It is said that after Shiloh “the South never smiles again.” I would then visit Vicksburg, because you are staying in the west, the same armies are involved, and you see the maturation of Ulysses S. Grant. And finally to Gettysburg to introduce you to war in the east and the Civil War’s bloodiest and best-known battle, where Lincoln makes his greatest speech four and a half months after the battle.