Civil War buffs still digging into American history’s “biggest story”

02/15/2014 12:00 AM

02/14/2014 5:19 PM

Like a dim still photo within a documentary, 90-year-old Ed Bearss, the saber-sharp dean of Civil War historians, is watching his life story flicker across the screen.

The lights come back on after a trailer from a new film on his life and Bearss switches to another story, the tale of a 150-year-old battle where, as he succinctly puts it, Gen. Robert E. Lee “got faked out of his jockstrap.”

For the 12th year in a row, Bearss — prolific author, tireless tour guide and beloved historian emeritus of the National Park Service — is preaching to his choir at the Fort Worth Civil War Round Table, a diverse regiment of 120 or so history aficionados who fittingly muster for monthly programs at Ol’ South Pancake House.

There are around 150 similar associations around the U.S., said Fort Worth businessman Jim Rosenthal, who has been president of the Fort Worth chapter for 20 years. The largest is believed to be the 700-member group in Southport, N.C.

And they are all different, says Pete Barnes of Plano, a former historical tour operator who has had a longtime association with Bearss, who enjoys the Cowtown round table’s laid-back approach.

“Their levels of sophistication go from A to Z. Lexington, Ky., is pretty much coat-and-tie and they meet in a formal setting which is the opposite of Fort Worth’s casual approach. When this room fills up, there’s a little buzz of excitement. These people enjoy history,” he said.

The fascination for many of these die-hard Civil War buffs is rooted in their ancestral connection to the conflict, says Rosenthal, who has a family tie to Medal of Honor winner Albert Fernald.

‘The biggest story’

Steven Woodworth, a TCU history professor, Civil War author and a regular speaker at round tables, believes that people are drawn to the human side of the conflict.

“In the Civil War, you see people dealing with circumstances and how they coped with it. And maybe, inside, we all wonder how we would cope in similar circumstances,” he said.

“And when you think of it, it’s just a really good story. I think we humans are hard-wired to like stories and to try and understand them. And the Civil War is the biggest story of American history,” Woodworth said.

Storytelling is what drew the crowd on an icy Tuesday night to hear Bearss’ booming take on Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s second assault on Petersburg, Va., on June 15-18, 1864, which led to a nearly yearlong siege that signaled the last gasp of the Confederacy.

Bearss’ off-the-cuff presentation was delivered in the same encyclopedic, no-bull manner that made him an unforgettable mainstay of Ken Burns’ PBS series The Civil War.

After decades of bringing the past to life as a national park historian at dozens of battlefields like Vicksburg as well as historic sites such as Lyndon B. Johnson’s ranch, Bearss has become part of the Civil War’s modern narrative.

This month, his own colorful life story will be told in a new documentary, American Journey: The Life and Times of Ed Bearss.

“Ed knows more about the Civil War than any man living,” said Rosenthal, who played the trailer before Bearss’ program.

Woodworth, who has written, co-written or edited 31 Civil War books, considers the Fort Worth round table one of the best.

“They have a very dedicated group, they show a strong interest and they treat their speakers well,” he said.

‘We don’t take sides’

Another factor also sets the Fort Worth round table apart: 30 percent of its members are women, Rosenthal said.

Fay Scramlin, a lifelong Civil War enthusiast from Maryland, says the round table in Baltimore wasn’t nearly as good as Fort Worth’s group.

“We have really good speakers; we always learn something,” she said.

Rosenthal, who maintains the group’s website, writes its newsletter and books the speakers, says getting top-notch speakers is the key to the group’s success.

“If you have good programs, people will come,” he said.

And while the group meets at Ol’ South, it’s there for “nonpartisan” discourse, said Rosenthal, who remembers only one time when a member felt like a speaker “wasn’t Southern” enough.

“We don’t take sides,” he said.

Annual membership fees of $30 pay for speakers at the round table’s meetings on the second Tuesday of each month. The group maximizes that funding by sharing about half its speakers with the Dallas round table, which meets on the second Wednesday.

Jack Waugh of Pantego is a member of both groups as well as a regular speaker at round tables nationwide.

Waugh was a “closet historian” during a career in journalism and politics, but he “flunked retirement” and turned to writing Civil War history books.

He has written 12 books, including a biography of Bearss, and his latest, Lincoln and the War’s End, will come out in October.

He, too, thinks the round tables’ allure is as basic as a good story.

“I think the Civil War fascinates people because it’s such a dramatic thing and a benchmark in our history. We’re telling a great story and that’s what draws people.

“History is drama,” Waugh said.

Which is why the room at Ol’ South goes quiet when Ed Bearss takes the stage, closes his eyes and spins out another story.

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