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Fields of Honor: Pivotal Battles of the Civil War

by Edwin Bearss, introduction by James M. McPherson, National Geographic, 2006, 448 pages, $28.

Ed Bearss, perhaps the best known and certainly the most popular Civil War battlefield guide in the country, has been thrilling Civil War enthusiasts for over five decades with his tours, speeches, articles and books. A World War II combat veteran and former chief historian of the National Park Service, Bearss is not just a specialist on the Civil War, but has led tours covering the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Texas War for Independence, the Indian Wars of the West and the two world wars of the 20th century.

But Bearss’ first love has always been the Civil War, where he combines a thorough knowledge of his subject with a style that uniquely captures the drama that was our nation’s bloodiest conflagration. Now the renowned historian has put his Civil War expertise as a tour guide into book form. By the author’s own admission, the book is intended to present the story of the war in much the same way he does his tours. The book was assembled with the help of the Blue and Gray Education Society, on whose tours Bearss is a frequent presenter, and uses the transcripts from more than 400 taped hours of his tours.

A superb introduction by prominent Civil War historian James M. McPherson introduces the reader to Bearss with a short biography of the author, taking him from his childhood in Montana through his service in the Pacific in World War II, his education as an historian and his 50 years with the National Park Service.

Fourteen battles are covered in the book, beginning with John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry and including Fort Sumter, First Manassas, Shiloh, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna to Petersburg, Sherman’s March through the Carolinas, Five Forks and Appomattox. It is organized chronologically, and deals almost equally with battles in both the Eastern and Western theaters.

In addition to his captivating accounts of the battles, Bearss has assembled an excellent set of maps that make the action much easier to follow. In typical Bearss’ style, there are many human interest stories throughout the book, which bring the battles to life and make this volume much more than just a recounting of who was where and when.

He also goes to great length to explain the organization of the armies, giving descriptions of the different types of units and the unique ethnic makeup of many of them, as well as the nicknames many carried throughout the war. His technical knowledge of Civil War units alone makes this a valuable book for both the legion of Bearss’ “groupies” as well as the complete novice on the subject.

The final chapter of the book is the story of perhaps his greatest contribution to Civil War history, the raising of USS Cairo from its muddy grave in the Yazoo River north of Vicksburg. The Union ironclad was sunk by Confederate mines in the winter of 1862 and lay at the bottom of the river until Bearss and his late wife Margie determined to raise it and put it on display at Vicksburg National Military Park. It was a labor of love that required not only engineering skill, but long hours of work on the artifacts discovered with the ironclad. Margie, according to McPherson, spent around 3,000 hours cleaning, identifying and researching the items that were recovered with the boat. The result is one of the most exceptional exhibits displayed on any Civil War battlefield.

Perhaps the only criticism of the book is that it covers only 14 battlefields. Considering Bearss’ exceptional wealth of knowledge on the subject, that will be disappointing to his many avid fans.

Unfortunately, books can only be so long, and to include all of Bearss’ Civil War tours would require a book that would rival the World Book Encyclopedia in size. Perhaps the renowned historian can be convinced to produce additional volumes. Regardless, Fields of Honor is a rare treat for both the dedicated Civil War buff and the first-time reader.

Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.