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Historian Traces Path of a Violent Civil War General

Scholar* From her Mississippi upbringing, Margie Riddle Bearss has been interested in what sparked Sherman's campaign tactics.


WASHINGTON — "I don't think I'm worth writing about," she told me. "I haven't done much." Then she quoted Emily Dickinson:

I'm Nobody! Who are you?

Are you--Nobody--Too?

She chuckled. I liked her a lot. I wanted to write about her.

Margie Riddle Bearss, 76, is the wife of Ed Bearss, historian emeritus of the National Park Service famous for his Homeric monologues while conducting Civil War tours. I wrote recently about Ed, a chipper dynamo who at 78 still does 40 tours a year, and in doing so met Margie briefly by phone.

They're a historical team, though Margie was largely incapacitated 15 years ago by heart problems and cancer.

She's proofread and indexed Ed's 15 books, handled correspondence, arranged tours, traveled with him--to say nothing of having dinner on the table regularly while raising their three kids.

In passing, Margie mentioned that she, too, had written a book-about an obscure campaign of Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. I wanted to know more.

When I swung by the Bearsses' little book-filled house in suburban Arlington, Va., to chat with Margie, she was on the porch opening her mail.

"Here's a letter from a guy in Texas who found the gun of a soldier killed in a battle I wrote about," she said with a cheerful grin. "The soldier was killed in the Decatur Skirmish, which involved my favorite regiment, Wirt Adams' cavalry. Wirt Adams is my hero. He held his finger in the dike, harassing the Yankees and keeping them from doing more damage."

As a Yank with scant knowledge of the Civil War, I realized I might learn something from Margie.

"I've had a good and exciting life," she reflected. "It started on a Mississippi farm during the Depression. My people were very poor. Daddy ran a sawmill. Mama came down from Illinois when she was 18. Her father came down because he'd heard the climate gave two crops a year. He thought he'd get rich but never did."

A self-described introvert ("Ed's the extrovert"), she always loved books. "But there was no town or county library when I was a girl, and the school library burned. All I had was the Bible and Mom's old 12th-grade literature book, which I memorized."

Margie became a teacher in Lexington, Miss. Her interest in the Civil War was intense because her home village, Brandon, had been burned by Sherman's troops.

"Daddy would take me to an old spring off in the woods and say, 'This is where Sherman's men filled their canteens.' Daddy's friend, Mr. Ferguson, had been a little boy at the time, and [told him] Sherman's troops would make him drink out of the spring first to make sure nobody had poisoned it.

"Sherman was in Brandon about 6 or 7 February, 1864. His men looted and burned everything. My book is about his raid across Mississippi, 'Sherman's Forgotten Campaign: The Meridian Expedition.' This is the first time Sherman used the scorched-earth policy. He went wild."

Sherman became famous for that policy later with his devastating march to the sea through Georgia.

I asked Margie how she met Ed, a Montana boy who in 1955 had become national park historian at Vicksburg, Miss., where he discovered the underwater remains of the Union ironclad Cairo.

"I was researching Sherman and went by Vicksburg to ask about it. Ed couldn't figure out why a Southern girl was interested in Sherman. I wasn't interested in Ed, but the diaries of soldiers and maps he showed me were wonderful."

Ed was interested in her, however. He appeared at her house 50 miles away, took her for coffee, and was stunned that she knew more about a certain battle than he did.

"The second time he showed up, my landlady said, 'There's a man outside with a cannonball in one hand and a bunch of old books in another.'"

They married July 30, 1958. Sara was born in '60, Edwin Jr. in '62 and Mary in '65--but Margie also found time to help Ed with his work, catalog thousands of artifacts from the Cairo, prepare exhibits and historical markers for Grand Gulf Military Monument Park, and pursue a question: Why was Sherman so ruthless?

She came up with a fascinating speculation. After the Union victory at Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, she writes: "Sherman's wife, Ellen, came down from Ohio and brought their four oldest children. Minnie was 12 years old, Lizzie was 11, Willie was 9, and Tom was 7. For the children it was an exciting adventure. They all lived in tents. (An uncle) saw that Willie learned the manual of arms and knew how to drill."

Then Willie, his father's favorite, died of typhoid fever. Sherman was insane with grief, blaming himself for bringing the boy, as he wrote, to "that sickly region in the summertime." If only he'd died at Vicksburg, he wrote his wife later, then Willie would have lived.

"Did, perhaps, the death of Willie start a chain reaction of fires and desolation in Mississippi that the winds of more than a century have not entirely hidden?" Margie wrote. "Did Sherman hold Mississippi, 'that sickly region,' responsible? Who knows?

"Yet, we do know that between the end of the Vicksburg Campaign and the beginning of the Meridian Campaign ... his concept of warfare changed and he began his own version of the 'total war' for which he became well-known.

"We also know that the region through which his soldiers marched in February 1864, across the heart of Mississippi, was left more scourged and desolated than the area he covered in the March to the Sea."

It will always be a riddle.


Margie Bearss' book is available from James W. Thompson, Jackson Civil War Roundtable, 4647 Kelton Dr., Jackson, Miss. 39211, and at

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