Ed Bearss passed away today, closing the book on a 97 year story that is remarkable for its twists and turns. He was massively influential on many, including myself, as one of the historians used by Ken Burns’s documentary, The Civil War, in the 1990s.
Those who were closer to him and knew him better will do a finer job breaking down his life and legacy than I can, but I think it’s important in this moment to recall how his work impacted Arkansas’s Civil War landscape. Bearss was the historian who did the hard work of defining the landscape and assembling the first major narrative for the Battle of Pea Ridge. Fought on March 7 and 8, 1862, it was the most important battle to take place during the war in this state, and the interpretation of the park and all subsequent histories of the battle base their work, whether in agreement or divergence, on that of Bearss.
Intellectual heritage aside, we should remember that Bearss was the one who lobbied for the creation of Pea Ridge National Military Park in the form we know it. When the park was being planned, back in the 1960s, some argued for a few hundred acres of small fields, discontinuous and scattered around the site. Bearss was adamant that a contiguous landscape needed to be acquired. The resulting 4,300 acre park has been carefully crafted to create a mid-19th century landscape that is rarely found anywhere in the United States. Not only is this a powerful memorial landscape, the effectiveness of the park as a place of remembrance and as a tourist draw would be nothing like what it is without it being in that form.
The Arkansas Archeological Survey just completed a four-year research program at Pea Ridge, which built on other research by the NPS’s Midwest Archeological Center, making Pea Ridge one of the best-studied, from an archeological standpoint, in the country, if not the world. We don’t get that without Bearss’s work in the 1960s.
I communicated with Bearss a few times. The last involved a question about some of his work at Pea Ridge. I had his phone number, but he wasn’t on email, so I had to cold-call him. He was about 94 at the time, and when I got him on the line and explained why I was calling, he started rattling off the documents he had been working with, the repository he was at, the day he was there, and the research partner he was there with. No hesitation to look through notes, no hemming and hawing. Fifty years on, it was still at his fingertips. I was astounded, but his was that kind of mind. It will be missed, and Arkansans, archeologists, and many others will benefit from his efforts for generations to come.
Thank you, Mr. Bearss.