American Civil War Historian Ed Bearss

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Online Town Hall Meeting:
Chat with Civil War Historian Ed Bearss

Community Manager: Thank you for joining the Chat with Civil War Historian Ed Bearss.

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: Thank you - glad to be here!

Community Manager: You have an interesting career as an historian. What inspired your fascination in the Civil War?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: I grew up in Montana on a ranch 2 1/2 miles from the nearest neighbor. And my father used to read out loud to my brother and myself. When I was in seventh grade he read from the book about Jeb Stewart, the confederate cavalrymen by John Thomason and from then I was captured by the Civil War. I read about the Civil War a great deal. After I left the Marine Corps, I went to undergrad at Georgetown and grad school at the University of Indiana. In Sept. 1955, I joined the national park service and was the park historian for 41 years. I became the chief historian in November 1981.

Community Manager: The Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg) on September 17, 1862, climaxed the first of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's two attempts to carry the war into the North. About 40,000 Southerners were pitted against the 87,000-man Federal Army of the Potomac under Gen. George B. McClellan. What could have altered the outcome of this historic date in American history?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: Since Antietam was the substantial victory for the North, Lincoln acting under executive war powers gave a preliminary emancipation proclamation on Sept 22 as a warning that if the south is still at arms in January 1863, then all slaves in designated areas of the confederacy would be free. By this action, Lincoln expanded the goals of the war from preserving the union to including the eradicating of slavery. This is an important decision because while Britain and France might desire a separation of the US, they could never support a war in support of slavery.

Community Manager: More men were killed or wounded at Antietam on September 17, 1862, than on any other single day of the Civil War. Federal losses were 12,410, Confederate losses 10,700. Although neither side gained a decisive victory, Lee's failure to carry the war effort effectively into the North caused Great Britain to postpone recognition of the Confederate government. What would have happened if Great Britain recognized the Confederate government?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: If Lee should win decisively the battle of Antietam, the British government was going to offer to mediate the North and South. And if the North refused the mediation, Mr. Palmerston, the British Prime Minister, would recommend that her majesties government would recognize the confederacy which would lead to a debate in parliament. But with confederate defeat at Antietam, such an action by British government would have resulted in non confidence since the British had freed the last of the slaves in the 1840's and used their navy power to suppress the slave trade.

jarw05 in Faketown, none asks: How did the Emancipation Proclamation help/hurt the war?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: The Emancipation Proclamation assisted the Union in winning the war. It makes it impossible for foreign intervention and helps the North to actively recruit Blacks in the Union Army. Almost 200,000 Blacks were recruited to join the Union army before the war was over - over 30,000 Blacks gave their lives for the Union. It was first expected that the Blacks would relieve the Whites of menial labor but numerous battles demonstrated that Blacks were as good as Whites in fighting and would earn acceptance by White soldiers for their effort and once they demonstrate this strength to fight, could not bring them into slavery again.

dalelast in Marcy, NY asks: Mr. Bearss, what do you consider to have been a more important event in the war, the fall of Vicksburg or the Southern defeat at Gettysburg?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: The fall of Vicksburg will give more tangible results to the Union than the defeat of Lee's army at Gettysburg. They split the south in two along the line of the Mississippi. They captured a confederate army of 40,000 men at the cost of 10,000 of their men. They gained a political objective and while at Gettysburg, Lee was turned and his aura of invincibility was shattered. By mid-march 1865, the Union has come all the way to Raleigh in the South.

Killer Angel in Mill Hall, PA asks: Why didn't Meade follow Lee out of Gettysburg to bring a possible quicker closure to the war?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: Meade does not follow General Lee. First, his army is badly hurt itself. He is hindered by heavy rainfall. And when Lee reaches the Potomac, Lee fortifies his position. Meade is worried about attacking the confederacy at fixed point which is strongly fortified. The escape of Lee severely compromises Mead's reputation in the mind of Lincoln.

LoneRider in Coral Springs, FL asks: If McClellan would have pursued Lee's Army when he pulled back from Antietam, could the Union have had a good chance to destroy the Army of NV?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: If McClellan had possessed the resolution of General Grant, Lee's army would not have got back across the Potomac River. But McClellan is a cautious general and in his mind, he thinks Lee outnumbers him greatly.

lawdawg in Du Quoin, none asks: Mr. Bearss, Is it true that the depth of the water of Antietam creek at the Burnside bridge was shallow enough that the Union troops could have waded across it instead of attempting to cross the bridge and creating the deadly funnel effect which caused so many casualties?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: The depth of the creek is not a problem - the steep banks in which a man would have difficulty, especially once wet, climbing out and there is no way unless using a ford or bridge to cross with artillery.

Coaling in Sunnyvale, CA asks: McClellan has often been criticized for not using the troops which he kept in reserve, and which never got into the battle. Do you agree with this criticism? If so, where/how/when could or should he have used them?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: McClellan has enough troops in the field. If he had used them at the proper time, he would have been able to break Lee's army. On several occasions during the battle, McClellan however hesitated on at least two occasions to commit the fifth corps or the sixth corps - being swayed by the advice of generals who lack moral courage. in the face of Lee's reputation.

metalhunter in Louisville, KY asks: Do you think by finding Lee's battle plans wrapped up with the cigars that McClellan was able to capitalize on the discovery made by the Ohio troop?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: The discovery of the three cigars gives McClellan the opportunity that few commanders have to beat Lee's army while it is separated. But McClellan allows Lee invaluable time after the discovery of the order on the 13th, giving Lee 18 hours lead. And the crucial thrust through Cramptons Gap to General Franklin who is too cautious to exploit his earlier success at the gap and press on to relieve Harpers Ferry. The capture of Harpers Ferry on the 15th enables Lee to cancel his decision brought on by the battle to withdraw into Virginia.

bhunt in asks: Not much is said about the retreat from Antietam to Shepherdstown and the slaughter that happened in the Potomac. What really happened?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: On the morning of the 19th, the Union army pursues the Confederates who have withdrawn across the Potomac at Blackfords Ford. Union troops cross at the Ford. The confederate Chief of Artillery panicked - but Lee strikes back on the morning of the 20th. And the Confederates drives the Federals who have crossed the south side of the Potomac back into the river.

marrmarr in Tempe, AZ asks: Mr Bearss, I understand that Lee was a religious man. I don't know about McClellen. How did their relationship with God affect the thinking and/or conduct of the generals and/or the soldiers during these hours of life and death.

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: Both Lee and McClellan believed in the Supreme Being. They also realized as trained soldiers that in war people are going to get killed and wounded. And, both of them I am sure thought that God was on their side. That way that enabled them, particularly Lee, to adjust the feeling of seeing dead and wounded, much better that McClellan. McClellan thought of his troops being invincible at 7 Pines. But when he sees the dead and wounded, all thought of victory vanished. Which would indicate to me that McClellan was in the wrong business because in the military and war you do not need to gloat in dead and wounded, but it is part of your duty.

Coaling in Sunnyvale, CA asks: Sir, if you were to recommend one book as a good readable authority on the Battle of Antietam, which book would it be?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: Landscape Turned Red by Sears. The most thoughtful book is Confederacy at the Flood by Joe Harsh.

jqpublic of Dallas, TX asks: How many non-US regulars (not a regular for either army) when this battle began, were considered US citizens?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: The Union government from the beginning sent agents to Europe to actively recruit soldiers for the Union army particularly in Ireland and Germany from the beginning of the war. There were sizable numbers of Canadians. This became an issue. Pressured by Confederate representatives, the Pope issued instructions advising the priests not to prevent such recruitment. Already the Union army drew heavily from German ethnic groups in the US and they served as leaders to recruit German immigrants.

celtcahill of cameron, TX asks: My Greatgrandfather was wounded at Antietam, and discharged the following December. I have done some scant reading on the utilization of medical personnel, and the communication and evacuation between units and elements within the services at this time. At what point did the armies start doing these things on purpose as elements of their overall task using military personnel, and to what degree did it depend on the accidental nature of volunteers outside

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: They were using military personnel at the beginning of the war. Each regiment of the Confederate and Union had a surgeon, assistant surgeon and a hospital steward. So, from the very beginning there were personnel to attend to the wounded. If the units had bands, band members were assigned to be stretcher carriers. The wounded were sent to aid stations and then to hospitals. The hospitals were designated by yellow hospital flags and although not fired upon by any practice they were usually fired upon by accident. The wounded who could not be evacuated were held on the field and would have their doctors left with them and treated by the enemy medical personnel. Befitting with the army of the Potomac, Medicine Director of the Union Army Jonathan Letterman would establish a procedure for handling wounded from receiving the injured, to treatment at an advanced station, to treatment at a field hospital, and evacuation to general hospital which is similar to the procedure used by US military in WWII and today - the only major difference being rapid transportation.

Gunner in bridge city, TX asks: Sir, I have read that any other General, Lee, Jackson, Grant, all except McClellen would have ended the war in Maryland after putting Lee against the river. Do you think this is right?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: Well, there were probably others as cautious as McClellan - of the generals who lead the army of the Potomac - I have an opinion that Irwin McDowell who was the Union commander at first Manassas would have been no more aggressive. General Burnside would not have done any better. General Meade did not pursue as aggressively - so that is giving McClellan a bad rap.

James Lohman in Hopkins, none asks: I heard there were several Union Generals killed at Antietam, how many of both sides?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: At Antietam, 3 Union generals Killed - Mansfield, Richardson and Rodman. 3 Confederate killed - Stark, Branch, and GB Anderson. Very democratic at killing at each side - killed one of each at the North, South and central sectors - very democratic all around.

Peter Bedrossian of Poughkeepsie, NY asks: A comment, not a question. There were African American Soldiers at Antietam. Jackson evans, Co. F. 3rd N.C. and Bartlett Leggett, Co. I 3rd N.C. Tokens yes, but soldiers none the less (Evans was captured, paroled and exchanged, Leggett served thru 1864).

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: There were a few blacks in the Confederate army as teamsters, cooks, and a few enlistees who generally crossed the color line. The number of Blacks carrying firearms are limited to these mentioned. Same as females fighting as soldiers - at this time it was very limited.

Brian Shank of Winter Park Florida asks: Could you please briefly explain the role of William Dorsey Pender's Brigade of A.P. Hill's Division at Antietam?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: William Dorsey Pender's brigade are not as involved as Archer's or Branches' brigades. His involvement is vital for turning back Burnside's attack which was on the verge of sweeping away the Confederate right.

Johnny___Boy in Vulcan, none asks: Which Generals stood out and did an excellent job at the Battle of Antietam?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: I would say, going to the lower level of command, that General Longstreet at the Union storming of sunken road. My reasoning is that Longstreet, wearing a slipper on one foot, directed his staff officers to assist Confederate artillerists - who check the Union advance. As a combat soldier, this makes an impression - while holding the horses of his staff officers, he orders his staff to help the cannoneers. That is the best type of physiological warfare.

lawdawg in Du Quoin, none asks: Mr. Bearss, do you think that Lee with the arrival of A.P. Hill could have in fact turned Antietam into a confederate victory if he would have continued the attack on the 17th or renewed the attack the following day? Or would this have been to costly to the Army of Northern Virginia at this stage of the War?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: The arrival of AP Hill will enable Lee to stem the Union tide but in view of two Union corps that had not ben actively engaged at this time, and the arrival of 10,000 reinforcements the next day, would make any attempt of Lee to attack the Federals on the 18th to be foolish if not suicidal!

Dudley Bokoski in Greensboro, NC asks: With all the criticism of McClellan for not finishing Lee's army at Sharpsburg, isn't there an implied criticism of Lee for finding himself in that position?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: Yes, Lee puts his army into a position where if McClellan was more aggressive his army could have been easily destroyed. Lee's position however, is favored by the terrain and has interior lines of communication. At Gettysburg, the Union army's position because of topography and interior lines are stronger than Lee's at Antietam. And Lee persists for 3 days in attacking the yankees at Gettysburg.

Johnny___Boy in Vulcan, none asks: I have also read that Daniel Harvey Hill was blamed for losing the orders at Antietam. I have also read that he was one of the most underrated of all the Generals on either side. After he was blamed do you think that this was the downfall of his career? Because certainly he could have been much more useful to the Confederate cause.

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: The special order 191 was lost in transit to Hill's headquarters either by Lee' staff officers or one of Hill's. The loss of special order 191 is not the reason that Hill will depart from the army of Northern Virginia in the winter of 63/63. It is because that Lee has found Hill's acerbic disposition more than he can suffer for long. And Hill was looking for an independent command in NC or elsewhere and was not dismayed at leaving.

steven usler of Warwich, RI asks: Could you discuss the courage and determination of the civil war soldiers, especially after numerous casualties?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: The Civil War soldiers in view of the technological revolution weaponry which gives a great advantage to the defense show a remarkable courage and a willingness to die that is unsurpassed in the other wars in which american servicemen have participated. For example, when I was at Antietam with Chief of Staff Wickam of the Army in 1985 standing at Bloody Lane, he asked me that question. And on doing so, I said that he could order the Rangers - the 82nd airborne and the chief of navy operations for the SEALS to fight the battle and they would laugh. And he asks why these people do it? He asked me speculatively of course. My reply: One, many of the men in most companies were related - cousins, fathers, sons and from the same neighborhood. There was a camaraderie. When they advance elbow to elbow and if you did not go forward, everyone would know about it. Finally, there was a much deeper belief in the life after than now.

Community Manager: Thank you for joining the chat. Ed, do you have any last comments on the Battle of Antietam?

Civil War Historian Ed Bearss: For the casual visitor or the civil war buff, the Antietam battlefield is a most rewarding experience. Not only is the battle arguably the Confederate military high water mark of the war, but because of the preliminary emancipation it makes the Civil War a moral crusade in which the principles of the Declaration of Independence become more important than the Constitution that all men are created equal. Finally, this landscape did turn red. The handsome rural landscape that we have in this part of America - and as yet, no shopping malls or Walmarts as the local neighbors take pride as well as the thousands of visitors in this ground hallowed by the blood from brave men of 140 years ago. Let us hope that the people, the land owners, will continue to farm the land. And remember that there are certain parts of the country that are part of our patrimony and don't need shopping malls. (Maryland Civil War History.)

Source and Credit: C-SPAN: National Cable Satellite Corporation


Recommended Reading: Fields of Honor: Pivotal Battles of the Civil War, by Edwin C. Bearss (Author), James McPherson (Introduction). Description: Bearss, a former chief historian of the National Parks Service and internationally recognized American Civil War historian, chronicles 14 crucial battles, including Fort Sumter, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Sherman's march through the Carolinas, and Appomattox--the battles ranging between 1861 and 1865; included is an introductory chapter describing John Brown's raid in October 1859. Continued below...

Bearss describes the terrain, tactics, strategies, personalities, the soldiers and the commanders. (He personalizes the generals and politicians, sergeants and privates.) The text is augmented by 80 black-and-white photographs and 19 maps. It is like touring the battlefields without leaving home. A must for every one of America's countless Civil War buffs, this major work will stand as an important reference and enduring legacy of a great historian for generations to come. Also available in hardcover: Fields of Honor: Pivotal Battles of the Civil War.

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Recommended Reading: The Maryland Campaign of September 1862: Ezra A. Carman's Definitive Study of the Union and Confederate Armies at Antietam (Hardcover). Description: Completed in the early 1900s, The Maryland Campaign of September 1862 is still the essential source for anyone seeking understanding of the bloodiest day in all of American history. As the U.S. War Department’s official expert on the Battle of Antietam, Ezra Carman corresponded with and interviewed hundreds of other veterans from both sides of the conflict to produce a comprehensive history of the campaign that dashed the Confederacy’s best hope for independence and ushered in the Emancipation Proclamation. Nearly a century after its completion, Carman's manuscript has finally made its way into print, in an edition painstakingly edited, annotated, and indexed by Joseph Pierro. The Maryland Campaign of September 1862 is a crucial document for anyone interested in delving below the surface of the military campaign that forever altered the course of American history. Continued below...

Editorial Reviews:

Ted Alexander, Chief Historian, Antietam National Battlefield

"The Ezra Carman manuscript is the definitive study of that bloody September day in 1862. By editing it Joseph Pierro has done a tremendous service to the field of Civil War studies. Indeed, this work is one of the most important Civil War publications to come out in decades."


James M. McPherson, author of Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam

"Many accounts of Civil War battles were written in the decades after the war by soldiers who had participated in them. None rivals in accuracy and thoroughness Ezra Carmen's study of the battles of South Mountain and Antietam, in which he fought as colonel of the 13th New Jersey. Students of the 1862 Maryland campaign have long relied on this manuscript as a vital source; Joseph Pierro's scrupulous editorial work has now made this detailed narrative accessible to everyone. A splendid achievement."


Jeffry D. Wert, author of The Sword Of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac

"At last, after a century, Ezra A. Carman's The Maryland Campaign of September 1862 has received the attention it deserves. A Union veteran, Carman authored a remarkable primary study of the critical operations that ended along Antietam Creek. Editor Joseph Pierro has given students of the Civil War and American history a most welcome and long overdue book."


Edwin C. Bearss, author of Fields of Honor: Pivotal Battles of the Civil War

"My introduction to the Ezra A. Carman Papers at the Library of Congress and National Archives came in the spring of 1961. I was astounded and amazed by their depth and scope. The correspondence, troop movement maps, etc, along with Carman's unpublished manuscript on the Antietam Campaign constitutes then as now an invaluable legacy to the American people by Carman and the veterans of Antietam. But for too long that resource has only been available to the general public as microfilm or by traveling to Washington. Now thanks to the publishers and skilled, knowledgeable, sympathetic, but light-handed editor Joseph Pierro, an annotated copy of Carman's masterpiece The Maryland Campaign of September 1862 will be available to the public."


William C. Davis, author of Look Away! A History of the Confederate States of America

"Joseph Pierro brings into the open one of the great and largely unknown masterworks of Civil War history. Ezra Carman's work on Antietam is a fountainhead for study of that pivotal battle, written by a man who was in the fight and who spent most of his life studying and marking the battlefield. No student can afford to ignore this stunningly thorough and brilliantly edited classic."


Recommended Reading: Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, by Stephen W. Sears. Description: The Civil War battle waged on September 17, 1862, at Antietam Creek, Maryland, was one of the bloodiest in the nation's history: in this single day, the war claimed nearly 23,000 casualties. In Landscape Turned Red, the renowned historian Stephen Sears draws on a remarkable cache of diaries, dispatches, and letters to recreate the vivid drama of Antietam as experienced not only by its leaders but also by its soldiers, both Union and Confederate. Combining brilliant military analysis with narrative history of enormous power, Landscape Turned Red is the definitive work on this climactic and bitter struggle. Continued below…

About the Author: STEPHEN W. SEARS is the author of many award-winning books on the Civil War, including Gettysburg and Landscape Turned Red. The New York Times Book Review has called him "arguably the preeminent living historian of the war's eastern theater." He is a former editor for American Heritage.


Recommended Reading: The Antietam Campaign (Military Campaigns of the Civil War). Description: The Maryland campaign of September 1862 ranks among the most important military operations of the American Civil War. Crucial political, diplomatic, and military issues were at stake as Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan maneuvered and fought in the western part of the state. The climactic clash came on September 17 at the battle of Antietam, where more than 23,000 men fell in the single bloodiest day of the war. Continued below...

Approaching topics related to Lee's and McClellan's operations from a variety of perspectives, numerous contributors to this volume explore questions regarding military leadership, strategy, and tactics, the impact of the fighting on officers and soldiers in both armies, and the ways in which participants and people behind the lines interpreted and remembered the campaign. They also discuss the performance of untried military units and offer a look at how the United States Army used the Antietam battlefield as an outdoor classroom for its officers in the early twentieth century. Also available in paperback: The Antietam Campaign (Military Campaigns of the Civil War)


Recommended Reading: The Civil War Battlefield Guide: The Definitive Guide, Completely Revised, with New Maps and More Than 300 Additional Battles (Second Edition) (Hardcover). Description: This new edition of the definitive guide to Civil War battlefields is really a completely new book. While the first edition covered 60 major battlefields, from Fort Sumter to Appomattox, the second covers all of the 384 designated as the "principal battlefields" in the American Civil War Sites Advisory Commission Report. Continued below...

As in the first edition, the essays are authoritative and concise, written by such leading Civil War historians as James M. McPherson, Stephen W. Sears, Edwin C. Bearss, James I. Robinson, Jr., and Gary W. Gallager. The second edition also features 83 new four-color maps covering the most important battles. The Civil War Battlefield Guide is an essential reference for anyone interested in the Civil War. "Reading this book is like being at the bloodiest battles of the war..."

Try the Search Engine for Related Studies: American Civil War Historian Ed Bearss National Park Service, Biography of Ed Bearss Retired National Park Service History, Discussion, Historic Battle of Antietam, Gettysburg, Sharpsburg, Vicksburg.

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