thumbnail of The Civil War; Interview with Ed Bearss
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CAMERAMAN: July 14, 1986. Florentine Films, American Documentaries, Incorporated. Project title "Civil War." Camera roll 32, sound roll 21. Recorded flat 7 1/2 ips minus 8 db reference tone to follow. Interview with Ed Bearss. Sounds rolling, speed. Camera check. Sounds rolling, speed.
KEN BURNS: Okay. Well, I think let's just start off with 1861 and maybe you can just give me your sense of what's going on in 1861. What's happened?
ED BEARSS: Well, the South makes a terrible blunder right off by firing on Fort Sumter. Fort Sumter, the North was not united in what they were going to do but the South fired on Fort Sumter, and the firing on Fort Sumter reacted the same way as the attack on Pearl Harbor. It rallied the North to attack on the old flag. Lincoln, of course, calls for 75,000 volunteers, a posse, as you would say, to go out and subdue the South. That drives four other states out of the Union and makes the Confederacy, which had been seven states, eleven states with strong Confederate sentiment in several other states who do not leave the Union.
CAMERAMAN: Slate. Tail, one. Sounds rolling, speed.
KEN BURNS: A lot of people like to think that both of these sides went in a little unprepared for what was going on, I mean that's essentially how you characterize '61.
ED BEARSS: I would say that's exactly what happened. Many of the Southerners believed that the North would not fight. There were Southern politicians saying that they would drink all the blood that was lost in a war fought for the preservation of the Union. The Northerners were the same way. They thought they would march southward and march right on through to Richmond and that would be the end of the war on both sides. If they knew what was going to happen, I don't think there ever would have been a war but firing on Fort Sumter gave the cause. They were both committed, then each side thought the other wasn't serious about it and they found out, sadly, that war was much different than they thought it was going to be.
KEN BURNS: They all thought it was going to last a short time.
ED BEARSS: It was going to be a short war. The South called for...their first army was called for 100,000 men when they actually could have raised 500,000 to start off. The North called for 75,000. They didn't realize that before the war was over, there would be more dead men than the numbers they'd called for.
KEN BURNS: How long did they think it was going to last?
ED BEARSS: I think Lincoln probably thought 90 days. The South, probably about the same length of time. It was going to be a short war. And one battle going off to war with all the pretty girls cheering at them, then they come home, everybody celebrates and the war is over, we're all heroes and but that ain't what it was.
KEN BURNS: Why did we make war on one another? Why did Americans kill each other in so many extraordinary numbers? Was it inevitable?
ED BEARSS: I think basically they didn't think many would be killed. It was a failure of politics and when politics failed and it came to war, neither side at first believed that many people would be killed or wounded. They figured that each one, one would collapse and the other one didn't have the intestinal fortitude to carry out a long struggle.
KEN BURNS: Who's the central characters in '61, in your estimation?
ED BEARSS: Oh, the central characters in '61 are the politicians. Definitely, the generals are not the central characters in '61. The politicians, Lincoln, the master politician. The master politician presents the Southerners with a situation at Sumter where'd they have to fire the first shot or admit they're not...the Confederacy is just a sham. They fire the first shot. That rallies the North. So Lincoln is a master politician because we have up to that time, many people were saying in the North that they would not fight a war to subdue the South until the South fires the first shot. Fernando Wood was going to take New York out of the Union, make it a free city and so Lincoln, by making the situation so that the South has to fire the first shot or admit it's a sham, rallies the North to a cause to preserve the Union. The Southern side, on the Southern forces again, it has to be the politicians. And President Davis, the man who did not want to be the President. He is a moderate. He has to accept, when the gauntlet is thrown down to him, he has to fire the first shot. But he gives the Confederacy a shape and a form. So '61 is the year of the politician. The generals... Beauregard, "I could have captured Fort Sumter." And he becomes the big hero there because he captured Fort Sumter. They fight the battle of First Manassas. Beauregard and Johnston on the Confederate side, General McDowell commanding on the Union side. It was really a question of two armed mobs meeting there practically and fortunately for the Confederates, the Yankees [from here to end of Roll 32, there was a hair in the gate] attacked first. And when you have two armies that are little more than armed mobs, the attacker is in a position to make the most blunders because he has got to maneuver. And the defense forces have the advantage, so I often think on Manassas, supposing since they both had the same plans, the Union to turn the Confederate left, the Confederates to turn the Union left. But the Northern attack started first. They started off like they were going to win but since they were doing the attacking, eventually the Confederates were able to rally, and it's much easier to fight a defensive battle than an offensive battle.
KEN BURNS: The rally is spurred by a man and an incident and an action. Can you quickly tell us about that?
ED BEARSS: Well, the rally becomes that the Union is gaining ground, apparently winning the battle. They have smashed more than two brigades. The Confederates are being driven back across the Warrenton Pike. A rather seedy-looking professor who is, if his career to be justified, he would be remembered because he was a teacher would be never mentioned in history because he was a failure as a pedagogue. And he forms his Virginians, his five brigades, the batteries, on the reverse slope of a hill, had a good idea for...he had a good eye for terrain, had the infantry lay down behind the guns, the guns on the reverse slope of the hill, Confederates fell back. Lee sees them, shouts "Rally on the Virginians." No, he says, "There stands Jackson like a stonewall." "Rally on the Virginians." We don't know how close he said to the rally on the Virginians. He may have meant it the other way, as not particularly a compliment, but, be that as it may, Jackson takes that position, joined by the units along the reverse slope. Let the Union attack them. Union forces make a terrible error. The guns of Griffen's Battery and Ricketts change hands three times. Confederate reinforcements keep arriving, and the battle turns. First the Union withdraws in reasonably good order. But during the retreat a shell strikes the Cub Run Bridge and converts what is a, not an orderly retreat, but a confused retreat into a rout. The Union army which came out of Washington, leaving Washington on the 16th—took them 16th, 17th, and 18th to reach Bull Run—they're back in Washington in a matter of hours.
KEN BURNS: Let me change direction a little bit and have you assess -- very quickly, and if you can, keep the answers a little bit briefer than you are because there's marvelous stuff -- is John brown.
ED BEARSS: John Brown, John Brown, very important person in history. Important though for only one episode. Failure in everything in life. Except he becomes the single most important factor, in my opinion, in bringing on the war. This man seized Harper's Ferry on the night of the 16th and 17th of October. Failure of his operation completely. Think how much safer they would have been if they had sensed him as a madman. But they brought him to trial. He used his trial to indict a system. In the South, Southerners began to look, began to feel that too many in the North were looking upon Brown as a hero. The militia system in the South which had been a joke before this, before then becomes a viable instrument as the Southern militias begin to take a true form and the South begins to worry about Northerners educating the blacks to murder them in their beds.
KEN BURNS: Now let's go back. We're going to take a slate here right in the middle. Very quickly, very quickly, it's the end of '61. Tell me what the year's been about.
ED BEARSS: The war has been about this. We have seen the secession. Secession, by Lincoln's proclamation, called for 75,000 volunteers, has received three...four additional states. There have been the initial battles, Manassas in the East, Wilson Creek in the West. Men have died in large numbers. It appears now, as we move out of the first [run out, end of hair in gate] into the winter of 1861-62, that the war is not going to end early. They both begin to look to a resumption of terrible fighting in 1862 as they begin to organize large armies, both North and South.
KEN BURNS: Cut. Run out. Excellent. Beautiful.
CAMERAMAN: July 14, 1986. Florentine Films, American Documentaries, Incorporated. Project title "Civil War." Camera roll 32, excuse me, camera roll 33, sound roll 22. Recorded flat 7 1/2 ips minus 8 db reference tone to follow. Interview with Ed Bearss. Sounds rolling, speed. Head. Tails. Slate. Okay, three.
KEN BURNS: If you could be that proverbial fly on the wall of history, one event in 1861 or the lead up to the Civil War, anything from 1619 when the first slave ship came, where would you like to be?
ED BEARSS: Where I would like to be? I guess probably the events leading up to...during 1861. I presume when...probably in Montgomery when Davis is apprised that the North is going to try to reinforce Fort Sumter. The Governor of South Carolina is pressuring him to do something and to prevent the United States from reinforcing Fort Sumter and Davis has to make this critical decision. Should he fire, should he order Beauregard to fire on Fort Sumter or not? And he makes the decision to have Beauregard fire on Fort Sumter which I think was one of the major events of the Civil War. I think it was a mistake, but again, the other way, what could he have done?
KEN BURNS: Shiloh.
ED BEARSS: Oh Shiloh, up 'til Shiloh...Manassas was a battle, Wilson's Creek was a battle...but at Shiloh all of a sudden in two days, you have 22,000 men killed, wounded, or missing—more than fell on both sides in the whole Revolutionary War or the whole Mexican War on the American side—all killed or wounded in this two day battle. You've got casualties, the armies losing almost a fourth of their men and this was a new lesson. They were fighting the Civil War with tactics from the Mexican War, or even the Napoleonic wars but the technology had changed. They now had a weapon that could kill you at 600-700 yards and you could run a good chance of hitting a man at 300 yards. You're fighting with this weapon and the military are always conservative. They fight the tactics where the war before with the technology that made casualties terrible and at that time they eschewed the throwing up of earthworks. Before the war is over they're going to find, before, by 1864 they're going to march with a shovel in one hand and a rifle in the other.
KEN BURNS: The South lost a general.
ED BEARSS: The South lost Albert Sidney Johnston. He was their second ranking general, really the ranking general that really counts. Davis said that " He is not a general, we do not have one." Davis had been at West Point with him. Davis worshipped the man. I don't think Johnston was much of a general. He made serious terrible errors before that but after that, if you're discussing the war in the west or if you're discussing the war today, you run into many people that will say "If Johnston had only lived."
KEN BURNS: A general who did live was Nathan Bedford Forrest. Tell me about Nathan Bedford Forrest.
ED BEARSS: Oh, Bedford Forrest, he's the most colorful man in the war. He killed more men than any other general officer ever has, had more horses shot out from under him than any other officer ever had, started off as a private though he probably didn't, he was only a private one day because he'd raised a regiment, so he didn't expect to stay a private very long. He was a redneck. He was not well educated, slave trader, not welcomed, not be welcomed in private company, in high social company before the Civil War, born leader of men. First comes into the picture at Fort Donelson, when the generals are going to surrender Fort Donelson. Of course, not about to surrender, gets permission to take his men out and leads them out of Fort Donelson, which is his first time he appears on the scene. He will be with us throughout the war and time after time.... To show you the type of man he is, when he pursues Streight, chases Streight man across North Georgia, excuse me, across North Alabama , captures Streight. But during this chase, he'd lost a couple of guns, Battle of Dug Gap. He relieved Lieutenant Gould, the man in charge of the guns. They go back to Spring Hill after Streight had been captured and Gould asked for an interview, asked for his command back. Forrest has been cleaning his fingernails with a jack-knife, with a -knife. He folds the knife and puts it away and Forrest is left-handed. One word leads to another and Gould pulls out his pistol and fires it so close to Forrest that it sets his clothes on fire. The bullet enters his abdominal cavity but does not go through his abdominal but circles and comes out his back. Forrest grabs Gould with his right hand, takes his left hand, opens his jack-knife with his teeth, and disembowels Gould, releases Gould and pursues him down the streets, shouting "No man can kill me and live." Gould dies, of course, of peritonitis. Forrest is back to duty within a month, leading his men.
KEN BURNS: Let's move to the next great battle in 1862. Skip over some of the disastrous peninsular campaign. Antietam.
ED BEARSS: I think...Antietam, in my opinion, with the series of events that took place coincident with it, along a thousand mile front, sweeping from Antietam and east to the plains of southwest Missouri and the west is the high-water mark of the Confederacy, not Gettysburg. The Confederacy was on the offensive over a thousand mile front. Mr. Gladstone, a power in the English cabinet, is saying, "Jeff Davis has made a navy. He's made an army and what's more important, intimating that he's made a nation. But, the invasion of Maryland fails. Lee is defeated, falls back. They lose at Pryorville in Kentucky. They lose at Iuka and Corinth the Mississippi, and even Newtonia, Missouri. And the Confederate tide rolls back. Lincoln, as a result of Antietam, converted the war to a higher plane, again the master politician. He announces the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Of course it doesn't free a single slave in revolt, frees only as a war measure and only frees slaves in states where the Confederacy is in control. And it will take effect on the first day of January. Then it would become very difficult for the British who had pioneered actions against the slave trade to intervene ever again, to intervene in favor of the South or even recognize the South since the war has now been converted to a moral plane.
KEN BURNS: So once again at the end of 1862, who is the principal character?
ED BEARSS: At the end of 1862, I would say in '62 we have a Southerner, a different Southerner appearing on the scene, Robert E. Lee. Robert E. Lee, a colonel at the beginning of the war, Mexican War hero, resigned from the Union, resigned from the United States Army, went South, became first advisor to the President. Then he'd been sent to command out in West Virginia and had failed out there. And then been sent down to supervise construction of the coast of South Carolina. And then back to Davis' advisor. And on the evening, on the first day of June, 1862, following the wounding of Joe Johnston at the Battle of the Seven Days, Robert E. Lee is assigned to command the Army of the Northern, what will become the Army of Northern Virginia, which will become Lee's army, which will become an instrument that, in spite of the economic and the manpower deficiencies of the South, at times seemed on the verge of, at least, forcing the Union to a standoff.
KEN BURNS: George McClellan.
ED BEARSS: George McClellan, George McClellan. Lee calls him "the best Union general." I wonder if Lee was saying that with tongue in cheek. McClellan...yes, I think Lee could read McClellan. McClellan was a brilliant organizer, could have been the Carnot (?) of the Civil War as he created this instrument of war, the Army of the Potomac. But a general has to be more than a man who can create an army, a man must be able to fight an army. McClellan loved his army, a man can love his army, but it's been created to do something. And McClellan, as we look at him, except at Antietam and the Gaps—and in these battles he did not commit all his men—all his battles are defensive battles that have been forced upon him by the Confederates. He is not a great captain, a great organizer but surely not a great captain.
KEN BURNS: Fredericksburg. A sad battle.
ED BEARSS: Fredericksburg, yes, Fredericksburg. McClellan has to go after the aftermath of Antietam when he fails to follow up and they look for a new general, and they chose poorly. They chose Ambrose D. Burnside. Burnside had not really campaigned for the job. He was a favorite of the radical wing of the Republican party. And he moved too slowly with an ill-conceived plan and proved to do what everybody should have realized from Shiloh on: the technology of the new rifled musket had made a terrible weapon. Worse, the Confederates were now, the men were now using fortifications. And he hurled his army against the Confederate fortifications [run out] and in one day his army loses 13,000 men.
KEN BURNS: Cut. That was a runout on the roll.
CAMERAMAN: Runout. July 14, 1986. Florentine Films, American Documentaries, Incorporated. Project title "Civil War." Camera roll 34, sound roll 23. Recorded flat 7 1/2 ips minus 8 db reference tone to follow. Continuation of interview with Ed Bearss. Sounds rolling, speed. Head slate. Number four.
KEN BURNS: Put me in Fredericksburg.
ED BEARSS: Well, if I was going to put you in Fredericksburg, the one I always think of the best is the last attack on the stone wall by General Andrew Humphreys' division. They had not really seen the elephant before in the Civil War and late in the day, Humphreys' men come forward. They cross the swale, moving toward the stone wall. As they reach past the swale, they pass the survivors of the previous attacks and men reach out to try to grab them and keep them from passing on through their lines, shouting to them what will happen to them as they move forward to the wall. As they move on toward the wall, they can see the waves of the fallen men as like a sea rolling forth that had fallen in front of the wall, but Humphrey leads his men on. His horse is shot out from under him and he continues leading his men forward and they penetrate to about within 20 yards of the wall and Humphreys' men fall back again. The Confederates swear that they were shouting and screaming with fear as they ran back, but Humphreys claims that they were singing as they moved back to the swale to take cover. General Couch, watching from the cupola of the city hall, shouts, "Oh, God, see how my poor men fall."
KEN BURNS: Give me a moment in the cornfield at Antietam.
ED BEARSS: I think the cornfield is another quite a grim and terrible place. Of course General Hooker, ambitious, launches his attack just through the's about 6:20 in the morning. There's a haze laying over the ground as his powerful first corps moves forth. Hooker is another general that looks like he has to be a general. He inspires men that very see him as they move southward in the cornfield, they meet the Confederates of the stonewall division and mules division and drive them from the cornfield. But Hooker is wounded. General Hood brings up his division. They attack Hooker's men in the cornfield. The stalks have already been cut down as if by a scythe by the Union, by the terrible artillery. And Hood's men drive Hooker's men back. And they, in turn, will recoil before an attack across the cornfield as the 11th corps comes forward. And this will be repeated...and the 11th corps will fight themselves out in the cornfield.
KEN BURNS: Chancellorsville, very briefly.
ED BEARSS: Chancellorsville, many people think was Lee's greatest victory. Others will hold Fredericksburg. Lee shows his mastery over the opposing general with a force half as big as Hooker's. He defeats Hooker. The difference is, he does not defeat the Army of the Potomac. By defeating Hooker, he wins the momentary battle but in the battle Lee loses his right arm: General Jackson dies. He's forced to reorganize his army and when he heads North, it will be with his army all organized in three corps, two of the corps commanded by new men.
KEN BURNS: The battle of Gettysburg.
ED BEARSS: The battle of Gettysburg, the high-water mark if we're only speaking of Pennsylvania, not the high-water mark of the Civil War, the bloodiest three day battle in the war. A battle in which Lee discovers he had beaten the generals, but not the army. At Gettysburg, he has to beat the Army of the Potomac. The Army of the Potomac is in a defensive position. They hold their ground. And they prove again what a strong army, formidable position, it's impossible to drive them out.
KEN BURNS: Will you tell me about Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's afternoon, what he did?
ED BEARSS: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain has a key place at a key time at the battle of Gettysburg. The 20th Maine arrives on Round Top on the southwest slope of Round Top just at the opportune time as the Confederates storm forward. Now the left flank of an army is always its weakest point and that is where Chamberlain is as he's attacked by the 15th Alabama, commanded by Colonel Oates, storming down off Big Round Top. Across the swale separating the two Round Tops and the two regiments battle it out. Finally, however, Chamberlain at the proper moment when both regiments are nearly fought out. A counterattack and Oates 15th Alabama is driven back and the Union flank is secure at Little Round Top.
KEN BURNS: Assess Chamberlain.
ED BEARSS: Chamberlain: good brigade commander, good regimental commander, wonderful writer, high moral man, lives a long time, good solid citizen, but you can't say that he's a great captain because great captains lead armies. A good subordinate, colorful man, good writer, good man.
KEN BURNS: Vicksburg.
ED BEARSS: Vicksburg: the capstone of the Union campaign in the West which resulted in cleaving the South in two along the line of the Mississippi. In Vicksburg though, more important, Grant demonstrated that he's not the butcher that many people would like you to believe. Grant is a straight captain, a master of a war movement, able to move armies bigger than Jackson's, faster than Jackson's and then do the same thing. Always had the most men at where the two armies meet, although the Confederates had more men in the area. It mainly shows Grant as a great general and as a strategic thing, it breaks the South's back in the Mississippi Valley.
KEN BURNS: There's a misapprehension, a mis-knowledge that the war happened just in the east, but the war, the Civil War, happened everywhere.
ED BEARSS: The Civil War happened, as I like to say: there's a thousand mile front from the Atlantic Ocean to the plains of the Indian territory, today's Oklahoma. Even carry it further out into New Mexico.
KEN BURNS: List me the battles. List me some of the great battles.
ED BEARSS: Oh, there were great battles in the West. There's Wilson's Creek, the equivalent of the First Manassas in Missouri. There's Pea Ridge, the so-called Gettysburg of the West, in which General Curtis with 10,000 men, at the end of a 240 mile supply line defeats General Van Dorn, 16,000 men, showing that the Yankees don't always have the most men. There's Fort Donelson, probably an underrated, unappreciated battle. But by the battle of Fort Donelson, the Federals gained middle Tennessee and most of east Tennessee. Then, of course, there's the battle of Shiloh. Then Stone's River—it was equivalent of Fredericksburg, bloodier than Fredericksburg, as bloody as Shiloh, the great battle that secured the north and much of middle Tennessee. Then there's the great battle of Chickamauga, next to Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, in which the Confederates will win but will not follow up their success. And any number of other smaller battles, but there are just as big battles in the West as there are in the East.
KEN BURNS: Let's stop and talk about the life of the ordinary soldier. Can you just give, very quickly, a description of life in a camp, and what it's like to be a soldier?
ED BEARSS: Well, life to be a soldier in the Civil War - it is a tough life for the average soldier. He has poor shoes, whether it's the poor-made Southern shoe or the shoe sold to the Northern by a shoddy contractor. The word 'shoddy' comes from the Civil War of a cheap shoe or a cheap uniform that the Union soldiers wore. So they have not too good uniforms. I think one of the great misnomers are Yankees all in the West as well as all the Confederates in the East and West all wore hats. Many of our re-enactment people run around in cappies...
KEN BURNS: Excuse me, we just had a battery, lost the battery power. That was great. Can we do a head slate?
CAMERAMAN: Sounds rolling, speed. Take five. Cut. Sounds rolling, speed. Take five. Slate. Head.
KEN BURNS: And, okay. March an army for me.
ED BEARSS: Quite a feat. They would hope to march 20 miles a day....was considered a good march, 20 miles a day. The men, they never took a herd of beef cattle along. They would issue beef on the hoof the night before. They ate by messes. You get a quarter of beef, they cut the beef up, if it's a good and hot day for down in Mississippi or Virginia in the summer, you usually cook the meat immediately because....and carried with you throughout the next day or two days, whichever had to go with. So that they usually drove possible beef along. Now some of these troops....say, an average march was 20 miles a day...some of them made phenomenal marches. Jackson has his fans. Everybody will tell you about Jackson two days will march 54 miles. That would be moving about 30,000 men. The fastest march anyone made, of course, was out in Prentiss, Mississippi. General Herron was not marching as many men as Jackson, moving about a third as many, but in three days he marched men 110 miles. It's rather amazing how fast and far these men could march. [Run out] Another thing, I think it would really be the hardest on to me is to the urban people, going into the army because training camps were a week, ten days, maybe less. And if you were from an urban area, not used to riding or walking or shooting, you learned them in the field. You got on-the-job training, and I think one of things the South's advantage in the East was that the Southern army was primarily rural in the East. The Northern army, the Army of the Potomac, was at least half rural and half urban. The urban people had not the advantages of getting seasoned. Up in the West they got the rural South, the rural North, and the Northern victory. They're few and far between, Southern victories out West.
KEN BURNS: Cut please. Great. Good, so now...
CAMERAMAN: July 14, 1986. Florentine Films, American Documentaries, Incorporated. Project title "Civil War." Camera roll 35, sound roll 24. Recorded flat 7 1/2 ips minus 8 db reference tone to follow. Continuation of interview with Ed Bearss. Sounds rolling, speed. Head slate. Okay, number six.
KEN BURNS: Tell me about the positioning of men on Little Round Top that day.
ED BEARSS: Well, Little Round Top, due to Sickles having moved his corps forward, had left Little Round Top held by only a detachment of signal people and all of a sudden, the Confederate begin their advance about 4 o'clock and they sweeping toward Little Round Top, Hood's division, and only the signal corps is up there which would not be much to hold. Unfortunately a couple of Union engineers entered the picture there. There's the chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac, Gouverneur Warren, and his assistant, Major Washington Roebling. Washington Roebling is probably better known for his, he and his son building the Brooklyn Bridge, but...
KEN BURNS: Cut. We've got to cut. Technical error.
CAMERAMAN: Sounds rolling, speed. Head slate. Number seven. Slate.
KEN BURNS: Okay, very quickly about...
ED BEARSS: The Confederates are sweeping forward toward Little Round Top, which is a key point in the battlefield and they all of a sudden they...Warren and Roebling who is his—Roebling's one of Warren's aides—they realize that this key position is not held by the Union force so Warren goes off there looking around to find some troops up there and he runs into Sykes and he gets Sykes...He runs into the corps Commander, Sykes, and gets him to detach Strong Vincent's brigade, so they sent... Strong Vincent's men come hastening up there, course 20th Maine being one of Strong Vincent's regiments and they run into Roebling there and he helps guide them into position up there on Little Round Top and with just moments to spare the Union forces, due to the fast moving of these two engineers, get strong Vincent's brigade up there just at the key moment or the Confederates would have been in possession of Little Round Top.
KEN BURNS: And what did Roebling do later on?
ED BEARSS: He built the Brooklyn Bridge.
KEN BURNS: Great. Where would you like to be in '63, if you could just...
ED BEARSS: Oh, in '63, one of the more exciting moments would be, at least one that I would always think back to is the battle of Chickamauga. The battle began on the 19th and it had been a stand-off on the 19th. Another battle in which the Confederates outnumber the Yankees. They have about 66,000 to 58,000, and the battle resumes on the 20th and the Confederate attack moves from right to left. They're on the offensive and they're pounding the Union. And the Union plan is to keep their left strong. Rosecrans, you know Rosecrans, the commander has announced that he will withdraw his right and shore up his left. All of a sudden a man comes right... reports there's a gap in the Union line. Actually there is not a gap there. They had not looked closely. And earlier in the day, Rosecrans, who had a hot temper, had chewed out General Wood for not moving forward. He now decides to move Wood to the left, go up this non-existing gap. Of course Wood, being on the spot, knew there was not a gap there. So happened that General Garfield, chief-of-staff for Rosecrans, future President, prided himself on his scholarship. Probably the best educated man, the one real intellectual that's ever been President of the United States, prided himself on writing clear orders. He happens to be away from headquarters at this time. There's an unfortunate man there named Major Bond, and Rosecrans dictates an order, Bond writes it down. The order is badly phrased, directing a movement that is impossible to execute. It's carried to General Wood. General Wood, as I say, has been humiliated earlier in the day by Rosecrans. He reads the order. He says, "I'm glad it's in writing," puts it in his pocket; he says, "There's going to be a court of inquiry over this order," and proceeds to execute it. Soon as he starts moving to the left, General Longstreet's thunderbolt, three divisions, crash through this gap that's been created in the Union line where Wood has moved out. And what had been a stalemate or looked like it was going to be a Union victory turns into a Union defeat that sees the Union Army driven back into Chattanooga where it is invested by General Bragg's army.
KEN BURNS: Let's move into 1864. Tell me about...spin the two men, Lee and Grant for me briefly.
ED BEARSS: Oh, this is going to be a struggle of giants in 1864. You have General Grant on the 10th day of March assumes command, this lieutenant general commanding of all the armies. But he decides that he'll maintain his army in the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac. He will not stay in Washington and direct all the armies. Grant is a man's contradiction. A man that has had many careers. He's a failure as a businessman, failure as a President, great general, and the best writer of any of the generals. He comes East, sets basic strategy, reduces it to quite simplistic...the war. His strategy will be a war of attrition, and he will stay with the Army of the Potomac, coordinate the army in the East with the objective of destroying General Lee's army. Find General Sherman out in the West reporting to General Grant, "We'll destroy the main Confederate field army in the West." They destroy the two major Confederate armies, the end of the South, very simple strategy. Define General Lee. General Lee: father figure, tremendous charisma, more than Grant. By 1864, it's Lee's Army, not the Confederate Army. They're fighting for General Lee. And in my opinion, General Lee, despite the lull in '64, will not make any brilliant moves like he did early in the war. He will have to be responding to Grant's sledgehammer blows. But in my opinion, Lee's greatest days are in '64 and into early '65.
KEN BURNS: The complexity of the war changes. It becomes essentially a rehearsal for World War I, if might repeat my phrase...
ED BEARSS: Yes, the war has started off as a 19th century war, except for that technology, but they didn't realize that technology when the war began. But it's a war they fought, and it became a war of position, a war of fire power, a war of attrition and terrible losses. In '61, a soldier would be laughed at if he carried a shovel in one hand, but by '64 the army marches with a rifle in one hand, a shovel in the other. Many modern things that we will see later on develop during the Civil War. The trenches, the use of telegraph, the use of railroad to carry out strategic movements on the field of battle, the use of torpedoes, land mines...that completely changes in 1863 and into '64.
KEN BURNS: The Wilderness. Would you describe what happens when the shells burst in that horrible place?
ED BEARSS: The Wilderness is probably not the bloodiest battle in the war, but the most terrible battle in the war in many ways. Grant in two days loses more men than Hooker did at Chancellorsville. Lee lost far less than he did at Chancellorsville. But in the Wilderness, the leaves from the previous year cover the ground and, using the type of weapon they use in the Civil War, in which you have wadding with the muzzle loader, you have lots of lint and linen smoldering, falling into the leaves. And it will set these leaves afire and the leaves will flame up and men who have been shot badly through the bowels, with broken legs, will not be able to move as the fire starts burning toward them. And large numbers of wounded men will perish in the flames.
KEN BURNS: William Tecumseh Sherman.
ED BEARSS: Uncle Billy, William Tecumseh Sherman, a man who never won a battle, never lost a campaign. Called by many the most modern of the Civil War soldiers. The man the statement "War is hell" is attributed to. The man who said, "I can make Georgia howl." Sherman was a modernist; very good at maneuvering men; knew the importance of logistics as well as any of the other generals. Not a brilliant tactician; colorful speaker; disliked the press intensely; liked the South before the war. By the end of the Civil War [run out] his name becomes anathema in the South. At the surrender of Johnston's army, prepared to give too lenient terms to what the radical wing of the Republican party would accept.
KEN BURNS: Cut. That was a runout. I was cutting you short only because we were running out.
CAMERAMAN: July 14, 1986. Florentine Films, American Documentaries, Incorporated. Project title "Civil War." Camera roll 36, sound roll 25. Recorded flat 7 1/2 ips minus 8 db reference tone to follow. Continuation of interview with Ed Bearss. Sounds rolling, speed. Slate. Head slate. Number eight.
KEN BURNS: Could you just give me a little sense of Sherman's March to the Sea?
ED BEARSS: Sherman's March to the Sea: of course, he'd captured Atlanta and the Confederate Army fell back, and then the first thing you know the Confederate Army starts over in Alabama again. Sherman follow them for awhile, and he can see that he can't catch up with them. And then he sells Grant on letting him march from Atlanta to the sea. So by the 15th day of November, he has his army in Atlanta, already exiled most of the people from Atlanta. They set fire to Atlanta. And with 60,000 men he begins his march from Atlanta to the sea, cutting this swathe through Georgia. The Confederate Army, of course, is heading for Tennessee. The only Confederate force in front of him is Wheeler's Cavalry. Now it's questionable who is harder on the civilians of Georgia, Wheeler's Cavalry or Sherman's Bummers. But he basically shows, by his march to the sea, that he can go just about any place he appears. To the Northerners, they were wondering what had happened to him, of course. You our time you read exaggerated accounts in the papers and they were beginning to worry about where Sherman was until all of a sudden he emerges near Savannah and gives Lincoln for Christmas the present of Savannah with so many thousand cannon, so many tens of thousands of bales of cotton. He then regroups at Savannah and in the last week of January, he starts into South Carolina. South Carolina gets it even worse than Georgia because they figured that's where secession started. And they sweep through South Carolina. And when they cross into North Carolina, they more or less are taking it easy on the countryside. They're opposed then by this time by the Confederate Army which has almost as many generals as colonels in the army. There's one battle of Bentonville on the 18th and 19th of March. Sherman wins, goes on to Goldsborough, then goes up to talk to Lincoln and Grant up at City Point, goes back, and when Richmond is evacuated, he is in the volley area, only 110 miles from Richmond, so he's come a long way.
KEN BURNS: Let's put an end to it now. It all comes together outside of Richmond, far west of Richmond.
ED BEARSS: Well, while Sherman is sweeping through the Carolinas, Grant is holding onto Lee. Lee tries to break loose, loses, goes back on the attack on Fort Stedman. Grant then seizes the offensive, matches Lee's right at the battle of Five Forks. Lee evacuates Richmond and Petersburg and the race westward begins, to end on the ninth day, on a Sunday on the ninth day of April at Appomattox Courthouse, in the McLean house. Rather strange thing. Wilmer McLean's house had been on the fringes of the battlefield at First Manassas. Worried about how hard soldiers could treat private property, he went to the one part of Virginia he figured no war would find him and the war in Virginia and for practical purposes because this event signals the surrender of the other Southern armies, the war ends up in Wilmer McLean's parlor on the afternoon of 9 April. Grant gives magnanimous terms, the same as he gave Pemberton at Vicksburg. But the Confederates would sign paroles not to fight again until exchange. When finding out that most Confederates owned their own horses, they allowed them to take them home with them to do the plowing. So he was terrible in victory and magnanimous in defeat, terrible in battle, magnanimous in victory.
KEN BURNS: This is a really extraordinarily moving moment there at the McLean house.
ED BEARSS: Yes. As it was, Lee there, dressed immaculately, handsome man. Grant, dressed in the uniform of a private soldier with only the three stars of a general on his coat, mud-bespattered. He had been suffering with a migraine headache all that morning until he receives a message from Lee wanting to meet him at Wilmer McLean's house. The migraine headache immediately disappeared and he rode there, accompanied by.... A number of Federal generals accompanied him and other officers but Lee was just there with his one colonel marshall.
KEN BURNS: What the appeal for the Civil War?
ED BEARSS: Oh, the appeal of the Civil War -- it's America's big war. And not as big as world-wide scope, not as big in significance as wars we've experienced within the last 40 years, but it's a war that touched the American soul. With 620,000 dead, almost every family in the United States had someone killed, wounded, or missing. The pride of the South had the heavy hand of war laid upon the earth and the farm and the field and the woods. It is an experience that seared the American conscience. There's records besides the close relationship. It's a war in which the researcher has access to great numbers of written diaries. World War II soldiers didn't keep diaries, or if they did, they were discouraged. In the Civil War, there were a large number of diaries. They run all the way from lousy to wonderful documents. It's the first war that's documented by pictures. You see these haunting faces on the glass plates, young men. The heart always goes out to the young men, but we've got to realize the average age of the soldier in the Civil War is higher than in World War II because of the great numbers of men in their 50's and 60's and 70's, even some in their 80's in the Civil War. So it's a war in which the whole country was involved. I view it much in its effect on the United States as the effect of World War I on France and England and World War II on the Soviet Union.
KEN BURNS: Why should we care about it today?
ED BEARSS: Oh, many of the army looks at it not because of the tactics, but I've been out with the Secretary of War, Marsh and the general staff of the army. And they're out there because of the lessons of leadership. We're talking about the army, the military. To the public, it gives us something that we can go visit, something we can read about. We can go visit these sights. Even if a person is a late comer to the United States, they, these sights are close to them. They can read about them. They can feel them. Many of the lessons, particularly, I think the crisis over integration of our time would have been much more serious if the Civil War had not happened. The Civil War had thereby shown the supremacy of a central government.
KEN BURNS: Let me ask you a question. What was the turning point? When did the South lose the war?
ED BEARSS: Oh, the South, you could say the South could repeat my friend E.B.P. Long, and his... you could say the South lost the war when they fired on Fort Sumter. My opinion is that the South lost... if the South is going to win the war on their own capabilities, they lost the war in that period between September 17, 1862, with the battle of Antietam and the battle of Perryville, Kentucky on the 8th day of October '62. The South lost the war, if we're speaking of the North giving up due to the terrible losses inflicted, they lost it in the period between the battle, the fall of Atlanta on first day of September, 1864, and Sheridan's battle of Cedar Creek on 19th day of October, two weeks before election.
KEN BURNS: There's talk now recently, that I've been reading, that the South lost because of a lack of will. Have you read that?
ED BEARSS: Yes, the South lost as a lack of will, you could say, [run out] but they're going to lose, that's going to show up in 1863, '64, '65. The same way the North could have lost the war from lack of will. If Atlanta had been on election day on the first Tuesday after the first Monday, and the Confederates had still held Atlanta, more important, if Sheridan had not made his ride, if Early had prevailed at Winchester, would Lincoln have won that overwhelming electoral vote that he did? The questions that make the Civil War interesting.
KEN BURNS: Cut please. That was a runout at the end. Great, last roll folks.
CAMERAMAN: July 14, 1986. Florentine Films, American Documentaries, Incorporated. Project title "Civil War." Camera roll 37, sound roll 26. Recorded flat 7 1/2 ips minus 8 db reference tone to follow. Continuation of interview with Ed Bearss. Sounds rolling, speed. Head slate. Number nine.
KEN BURNS: In one sentence - one sentence - tell me where in the entire war you would like to witness the most.
ED BEARSS: I think one of the more exciting ones would have been when they found Special Order 191. Now Special Order 191 is the order that Lee drafted, as he split his army in different wings to converge on Harper's Ferry. Two copies of this order were delivered to D.H. Hill, one out of army headquarters, one from Jackson's headquarters. The Confederate Army, of course, had moved out of the area on the 10th of September. On the 13th day of September, Union troops moved in. Private Mitchell was looking around in the cabana up at camp and he finds three cigars. Wrapped around the three cigars is a copy of 191. Mitchell is slightly educated, but he is smart enough to take it up to his first sergeant, Sergeant Bloss. Sergeant Bloss looks at it, heads on up the line, gets into headquarters where Colonel Pittman—everybody knows Pittman because of Pittman's shorthand, but he had been stationed with Colonel Chilton, Lee's A.G. before the war. Says, "I'd know that penmanship everywhere. That's Lee's order. That's legitimate." So they had Lee's plan. McClellan had it in his hands, the instrument to destroy Lee's army. But McClellan is...its midday...but McClellan seems to be more concerned about his troops' rest because they do not move out 'til 6 o'clock the next morning, 14th day of September, a Sunday. They could have been many miles further if they'd marched that night. And they were one day too late. Lee holds the Gaps just long enough to buy one more day and Jackson to capture Harper's Ferry with 11,000 Union soldiers.
KEN BURNS: What happened to Nathan Bedford Forrest after the war?
ED BEARSS: Oh, Nathan Bedford Forrest...they say he was dirt poor, from a wealthy man, he was a planter and a slave-trader before the Civil War. Broke at the end of the Civil War. He became the founder of the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee. The Ku Klux Klan, he remained with them a short while. It was to maintain the top rail on top, not replacing the top rail with the bottom rail, as the Republicans would have liked, the radical wing of the Republican party would like to do. Forrest helped organize it. He was the first Grand Wizard. But when it began to turn violent and break into fragments, he pulled out. He died of heart trouble in the 1870s. He was well-to-do again. He went to railroads after the Ku Klux Klan.
KEN BURNS: Tell me about Old Pete.
ED BEARSS: Old Pete Longstreet. Well, Pete's Georgia. He's Lee's strong right arm, corps commander. Many of the Lee fans will claim, when they're looking for a scapegoat for losing at Gettysburg, they'll point the finger at General Longstreet. General Longstreet, I think, had good reasons to worry about attacking the Union position at Gettysburg. It, after all, was his corps at Fredericksburg that mowed down the Union troops in front of the stone wall. He could realize what the rifle musket could do, held in the hands of determined troops. So I can see why he was hesitant on attacking that powerful position that the Union forces held. He was also ambitious. He would like to have got away from Lee which he did. Wants to go to Suffolk, Virginia, the south side and then to Georgia, but he found that while he might not like playing second fiddle too much to General Lee, it was a double sight better than playing second fiddle to Braxton Bragg as when he went out to Tennessee. Came back, served credibly in the Wilderness until wounded. Strange to say, wounded almost to the year, to the day after Jackson, shot also by his own men, shot much worse than Jackson. But Old Pete was a bull of a man, though shot through the throat, he recovered, returned to duty in October. Was with Lee at Appomattox after the war. Probably didn't help his popularity in the South, became a Republican. Took office under his old friend Grant, been a groomsman at Grant's wedding.
KEN BURNS: Tell me about the Little Round Top thing.
ED BEARSS: Oh, Little Round Top was a key point on the Union position at Gettysburg. It had been entrusted to Dan Sickles, third corps. Dan Sickles, however, advanced his third corps into the Devil's Den and to the Emmitsburg Road, leaving Little Round Top held by only Norton and his signal people. Longstreet, of course, by 4 o'clock had completed his disposition and General Hood's division swept forward. Little Round Top was undefended. Happened to be that chief engineer Gouverneur Warren and Washington Roebling, his assistant, were in the area there. They were up on Little Round Top. They noticed what the situation was. They see the Confederates storming forward. While Warren went down to see Sykes whose men were moving forward to reinforce Sickles and prevail on him to detach Strong Vincent's brigade, Strong Vincent's brigade moved toward the area, shown into position by Washington Roebling. That's when Chamberlain over there on the left flank was able to stop the 15th Alabama and Little Round Top, the key to holding against Longstreet's attack on the 2nd, the day the Confederates could have won the battle—had no chance of winning on the 3rd—was held partially because of these two engineers and, of course, Washington Roebling went on to build the Brooklyn Bridge.
KEN BURNS: Great. Let's cut please. Wonderful.
CAMERAMAN: Sounds rolling, speed. Slate. Head.
ED BEARSS: After long years at fish hook Gettysburg
The blade and the millstone met and the blade holds fast
And after that the chunky man from the West
Stranger to you, not one of the men you loved
As you loved McClellan, a rider with a hard bit
Takes you and uses you as you could be used
Wasting you grimly but breaking the hurdle down
You are never to worship him as you did McClellan
But at the last you can trust him.
He slaughters you, but he sees that you are fed
After sullen Cold Harbor, they called him a butcher
And want him out of the saddle,
But you have had other butchers who did not win
And this man wins in the end.
KEN BURNS: Cut. Good.
CAMERAMAN: Sounds rolling, speed. Slate. Eleven head.
ED BEARSS: ....For he will smile
And give you with unflinching courtesy,
Prayers, trappings, letters, uniforms and orders,
Photographs, kindness, valor and advice,
And do it with such grace and gentleness
That you will know you have the whole of him
Pinned down, mapped out, easy to understand—
And so you have. All things except the heart.
The heart he kept...a secret to the end
From all the picklocks of biographers.
KEN BURNS: Cut. Wonderful.
CAMERAMAN: Sounds rolling, speed. Slate. Twelve head.
ED BEARSS: The dying man went back at first to his battles, as soldiers do.
He was pushing a new advance with the old impatience and skill,
Over tangled ground, a clouded drive that did not move as he willed
Though he had it clear in his mind, they were slow today.
"Tell A.P. Hill to push them, force the attack,
Get up the guns." The cloudy assault dispersed.
There were no more cannon. The ground was plain enough.
He lay silent, seeing it so
While the lechers listened, he had been dying once
But that was a dream. The ground was plain enough now.
He roused himself and spoke in a different voice.
"Let us cross the river," he said,
"And rest under the shade of the trees."
KEN BURNS: Cut. Wonderful.
CAMERAMAN: Sounds rolling, speed. Thirteen head. Slate.
KEN BURNS: The war was fought on water, too.
ED BEARSS: Yes, the war was fought on water, too. Well, we had the blockade at the Southern coastline. To me, the most important role of the Navy was its support of the campaign in the Southern heartland, the campaign that cleaved the South along the Mississippi and its principal tributaries. This is an amphibious war, an amphibious war as sure as the amphibious war in the Pacific in 1942 to 1945. And this, without the support of the Union gunboats and the control of the rivers and the transportation thus afforded, I feel that Grant would no more have been successful in capturing Vicksburg than Napoleon was capturing Moscow and then holding it. I fear that Grant, without control of the river, would have suffered the same fate as Napoleon at Moscow. The gunboats and the river transports afforded this to me. That is one of the key elements of the war, one of the greatnesses of Grant, for understanding the importance of naval power.
KEN BURNS: Cut. Perfect. Very, very good.
CAMERAMAN: Sounds rolling, room tone. End of room tone. Thank you.
The Civil War
Raw Footage
Interview with Ed Bearss
Producing Organization
Florentine Films/American Documentary, Inc.
Ken Burns - Florentine Films
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Ken Burns - Florentine Films (Walpole, New Hampshire)
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Raw Footage Description
This is raw footage of an interview that Ken Burns conducted with Civil War historian Ed Bearss on July 14, 1986. In this interview, Bearss demonstrates his expansive knowledge on the events of the Civil War. He begins by explaining that most expected the Civil War to end quickly without much violence, but that it quickly escalated. Following this summary of the war?s beginning, he visually describes many of the well-known battles, offering very detailed storytelling of these events. Bearss also suggests that the Civil War was the precursor to developing military strategy and technology for the world wars in the twentieth century. He provides a thorough and fact-based description of the war and its events.
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War and Conflict
Copyright 1989, Kenneth Lauren Burns All Rights Reserved
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Copyright Holder: Florentine Films
Director: Ken Burns
Interviewee: Bearss, Ed
Producing Organization: Florentine Films/American Documentary, Inc.
Producing Organization: Ken Burns - Florentine Films
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Ken Burns - Florentine Films
Identifier: Ed_Bearss_master (AAPB Inventory ID)
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Generation: Preservation
Duration: 1:18:01
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Chicago: “The Civil War; Interview with Ed Bearss,” 1986-07-14, Ken Burns - Florentine Films, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 22, 2024,
MLA: “The Civil War; Interview with Ed Bearss.” 1986-07-14. Ken Burns - Florentine Films, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. May 22, 2024. <>.
APA: The Civil War; Interview with Ed Bearss. Boston, MA: Ken Burns - Florentine Films, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from
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