Last weekend my daughter and I traveled to the Gettysburg area for a two-day tour of Civil War battlefields. Leading our tour was the dean of battlefield tour guides, 84 year-old Ed Bearss, shown here last Sunday at the site of the beginning of what is known as Pickett's Charge.
We traveled north for two reasons. First, my great grandfather Edwards was probably wounded during Lee's Pennsylvania campaign and I wanted to visit the locations where that most likely happened: Gettysburg's East Calvary Battlefield, Smithsburg, or Hagerstown, MD. Second was to once again listen to and absorb from Ed.
Aside from a cool wind on Sunday afternoon when we retraced Confederate footsteps on July 3rd 1863, it was perfect. I had toured the Wilderness and Spotsylvania battlefield sites with Ed in June and was amazed at his knowledge, presentation, and stamina. Not only would he paint a vivid description of battle in great detail off the top of his head, he would walk your butt off. Nothing was different this time at Gettysburg except the temperature. There is nothing like an Ed Bearss tour. He stands alone.
I am not a civil war buff, whatever a "buff" is. I am uncomfortable with those who find war, any war, glorious. Or who profit financially or emotionally from it. With just a little bit of research and empathy most of us who have never participated in battle would find it horrid. Those who have participated already know. Fully informed, sane people would not wish it on themselves, nor moral persons on others. Yet wars continue.
Ed knows war personally, as a US Marine badly wounded in the south Pacific in WW2. Trying to be careful that I do not put words into his mouth - or remove them - I never heard him try to wrap up the clash of armies and the human responses of individuals to its death and destruction in righteous, self-serving metaphors. He just tells it like it was, like Shakespeare who so vividly presented ourselves to ourselves.
Yes, there is evil in our world that occasionally must be violently opposed. Yes, kill-or-be-killed situations can bring out the best within us as well as the worst. But most of war is a muddle, bad ideas poorly executed. SNAFU. Perhaps it is wise for us to remember well the smell of the battlefield, the cries of the wounded, the fog of war. Then we might more carefully choose the time and place the next soldiers, and bystanding civilians, will die.
As Edwin Bearss served his country as a Marine and with the National Park Service he continues to serve us all as a battlefield tour guide. When he speaks of the Civil War I do not hear us or them. I hear we. We would do well to listen to him.