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Friday, October 13, 2006

History Corner.

No, not another Byzantium post. Yet.

No, just passing on some good articles I've stumbled upon in the last two days.

1. First, an essay on the incomparable Edwin Bearss, Chief Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service and the finest lecturer alive about the Civil War. Civil War students know who he is, but if you don't--get thee to the History Channel or a DVD player posthaste. The man is nothing short of spellbinding in both his knowledge and delivery. One of a kind--unfortunately. He also is a man who knows war personally:

Growing up on a ranch in Montana, he christened his favorite cows Antietam and Sharpsburg. His father was a Marine, and so was a cousin--"Hiking Hiram" Bearss, as the newspapers called him--who earned the Medal of Honor during the Philippines Insurrection and became, up to that time, the most decorated Marine in the history of the corps. Hearing their experiences led the boy to read every book he could get hold of about war.

And when a real war made itself available, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Ed enlisted and became a Marine Raider. He was sent to the Pacific theater, moving from the Russell Islands to the Solomon Islands to the assault on New Britain. His fellow Marines remember him for his almost empty backpack, containing only a few grenades, extra ammunition, and a copy of the World Book of Knowledge.

On patrol in New Britain one January morning in 1944, he was nearly shot to pieces. Approaching a stream, he and another scout couldn't see the Japanese pillboxes dug in just below the lip of the declivity leading to the creek bed. I asked him once what his own battlefield experience had taught him as a guide, and he said, with a small grin, "The importance of terrain." And it's true. Walking a battlefield with Ed, you're struck by how intently he wants you to see the landscape as the combatants saw it: What ordinary soldiers could and couldn't see from any given position often determined the course of battle.

In 1944, a trick of the terrain enabled the Japanese gunners to catch him by surprise. He took bullets in his ribs, heel, buttocks, right shoulder, and left elbow. Marines who came to fetch him were pinned flat themselves but managed, after several hours, to pull him from the line of fire--dragging him with their toes. He was two years in hospital. His left hand and arm don't do him much good, other than to help balance the riding crop he uses as a pointer when he's on a tour.
"I'm a man of the battlefields," Ed likes to say--and a man of one battlefield in particular, in Gloucester Bay, New Britain. "I know how a battlefield feels, sounds, and smells."


A sensitivity to terrain isn't all that distinguishes Ed as guide and author. During his convalescence, and later as a student at Georgetown and Indiana universities, where the GI Bill treated him to an M.A. in history, he read everything on the Civil War and, from all appearances, forgot nothing. He denies he has a photographic memory, but he will say, "If I read something I'm interested in, it sticks in my mind."

Read the whole thing--and make sure you get a chance to hear the man.

2. Second, re-enactments of the Battle of Hastings are getting bigger--and more realistic. This time, the Saxon side is re-creating the grim, hard march of Harold's men from Stamford Bridge to the battle site (near an appropriately-named village called Battle). It's generally admitted that Harold's determination to close with the foe was a fatal mistake, and exactly what William the Conqueror wanted. Despite that, the Saxons came very, very close to winning anyway. A near run thing, as a later Englishman was to say of a different clash with foes of French origin.

For the first time since the Anglo-Saxons bowed to Norman might at the Battle of Hastings, 1066, the annual re-enactment show is within a missile's throw of properly imitating the original.
More than 3,000 fighters, a three-fold increase on the previous "Mega Battle" of 2000, are massing in full war dress this week to play out a specially extended script, to commemorate the best-known date in British history.


Men are marching from Yorkshire and Kent, and from Cambridge and Leicester.

But in a revisionist twist, the ranks of the Norman, Breton, Flemish and Saxon armies are also swelled this year by an army of multicultural mercenaries who could well give King Harold the upper hand.

Until the most famous arrow in history is unleashed, of course.

"It has gone completely crazy for some reason. We have got 18 countries worldwide taking part," said Alysha Sykes, who is organising the 940th anniversary event for English Heritage. Among the re-enactors flying in are Poles, Russians, Czechs, Americans and Canadians.

Must...resist...urge to...search online for...medieval armor and weaponry...

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