"Tribute To Margie Bearss"
May 5, 2007
Speech delivered by Rebecca Blackwell Drake
For those of you who know how much I loved and admired Margie Bearss, well, I’m sure you are trembling in your seat today wondering if I can dedicate this book in Margie’s memory without dissolving into tears.
The answer is yes—because today is a day not only for remembering Margie Bearss but also a day for honoring her for all that she has done for Mississippi history.
Margie and I first met in 2004 after she moved south to live with her daughter, Jenny, and her grandsons, Todd and Andy. By 2005, we had produced our first book together—My Dear Wife, Letters to Matilda (the Civil War letters of Sid and Matilda Champion) and in 2006 we dedicated Darwina’s Diary: A View of Champion Hill ~ 1865. We had just begun work on our third book, Collected Stories of the Vicksburg Campaign, when Margie passed away.
I decided to finish the book and dedicate it in her memory since Margie had been so excited about the project and couldn’t wait to see her stories in print once again. But before sending the book to the printers, I decided to add one last chapter and call it Remembering Margie Bearss.
Early one morning, I decided to start writing the chapter on Margie but the words would not come. As I sat there mindless in front of the computer, I prayed for divine inspiration. Suddenly my fingers found their way to the keyboard and I typed the first sentence: “Margie’s eighty years of life were remarkable—but—that’s not surprising since Margie was a remarkable woman.” The key word is remarkable. Margie was a remarkable woman.
Margie was born October 22, 1925, in rural Rankin County - Highway 468 south to be exact. She was raised on a farm—an only child. Margie would be the first to tell you that she was born poor—because— having being born in 1925—she was only eight years old when the Great Depression hit. But, Margie would also be the first to tell you that she never felt poor because she had the things that money could not buy - most especially parents who valued a good education - one that began at home.
By the mid 1940’s, Margie’s father had amassed enough money to send his only daughter to college and the college he chose was Hinds Junior College in Raymond, Mississippi. Margie graduated from Hinds and transferred to Blue Mountain, a Baptist college in Blue Mountain, Mississippi. Here she graduated with a degree in English and began teaching in Lexington, Mississippi.
Around this time she met and married Edwin Cole Bearss, historian of the Vicksburg National Military Park. They were married July 30, 1958, in the heat of the summer.
Together Margie and Ed embarked on a historic journey—one that would last a lifetime and earn them the title of being America’s Greatest History Couple.
With Ed, Margie spent eight years living in Vicksburg. Those were power packed years. And then, she spent thirty-eight years living in Washington where Ed worked for the National Park Service. While in Washington, Margie continued her passion for Civil War history and writing. It was during this time that she produced her first book, Sherman’s Forgotten Campaign: The Meridian Expedition. She also continued her passion for literature and poetry.
In 2004, when her health failed, Margie moved South - to Brandon, Mississippi - to live with her youngest daughter Jenny. Then is when Margie and I first met although we had corresponded by telephone throughout the previous year. In 2003, I called Margie to ask if she would like to co-author the Civil War letters of Sid and Matilda Champion with me and she was thrilled at the prospect. In fact, she couldn’t wait to move South so we could start to work. I said, “Margie, when you get down to Mississippi just give me a call and we’ll start to work right away.”
A month later, my phone rang early one morning and I answered. The voice on the other end of the line said, “Hello. This is Margie Bearss. I’m here. When are you coming?” I said, “How about tomorrow morning - is that soon enough?”
The next day, I got up early and drove to Brandon to meet Margie Bearss and start to work. Unfortunately, I got lost looking for Jenny’s house and I was about thirty minutes late. Margie sat in the kitchen anxiously waiting for me. When I walked in the door and she greeted me saying, “Hello. I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?” At first I was taken back by the greeting then realized that she was quoting Emily Dickenson.
I assured her that I too was a nobody - and then we two nobodies got down to work on producing My Dear Wife: Letters to Matilda.
Being back in the South was good for Margie. She loved the southern cuisine and she loved living with Jenny and her grandsons. Gradually her health improved and she decided that she wanted to get an apartment at Trace Pointe Assisted Living in Clinton.
This was great for me since Clinton is only seven miles from Raymond. I was able to drive over every day and take her for outings. Mainly, I was able to take her back to Vicksburg to re-visit some of the places that she had loved so much but never hoped to see again.
One of our first stops was the Vicksburg National Military Park. As we entered the tourist center, people recognized Margie and everyone wanted to speak. I thought we would never get out of the tourist center but it wasn’t because of the people who wanted to visit —it was because she saw all of those new Civil War books on the shelves of the bookstore and wanted to look at each and every one of them.
During another trip to Vicksburg, we drove over to the other side of the park and visited the Cairo Museum. Once again, Margie was able to see the artifacts that she had helped to salvage in 1964.
Then, one beautiful spring day in May, we drove to the Big Black River Bridge at Bovina. This was the site where Margie and Ed salvaged the Confederate steamers, the Charm and Paul Jones in 1962. That was one of the best summers of Margie’s life as she and Ed waded into the river to salvage the remains of the old steamboats.
As we approached the river, Margie asked if we could get out of the car and sit on the banks of the river. So we did. She slid her shoes off so she could dangle her toes in the warm sand. We sat there for at least a half an hour—not speaking—just watching the river. Finally, we returned to the car and started to drive away. I asked, “Margie, how did it feel to see this site again—the site where you and Ed spent one of the best summers of your life?” She said, “I thought my heart would burst out of chest.”
Then, another day we drove about ten miles north of Vicksburg to see the Chickasaw Bayou Battlefield. We turned off Highway 61 and took the dirt road that led directly into the heart of the battlefield. We drove along the banks of the Yazoo River - through miles and miles of cotton patches—and deep into the swamps of the Yazoo River basin. Finally, I stopped next to a murky green swamp surrounded by Cyprus knees. I told Margie, “Look over this way at the swamp. There is an alligator sunning on a log.” Margie’s eyes found the alligator and for about 15 minutes she sat staring at the alligator. Neither blinked. Finally, the alligator slid off the log and disappeared in the murky water. We continued our drive on through the battlefield - the battlefield where Sherman was so badly defeated by Pemberton in 1862—then back to Trace Point Assisted Living.
As we entered Margie’s apartment the telephone was ringing. She answered and it was her daughter, Jenny. “Mama, did you have a good time today?” Jenny asked? Margie’s only reply was, “I saw an alligator.” That was probably the first time in Margie’s life when something else took priority over being on a battlefield.
And then, in June, only weeks before Margie fell ill, we went on our last outing together—to a site known as Drumgould’s Bluff. It was a picture perfect day. The sky was blue and the kudzu blossoms were just beginning to fill the air with their heavenly lavender scent. We drove up Highway 61—past the Chickasaw Bayou Battlefield—until we approached the bridge over the Yazoo River. Just before crossing the bridge, Margie pointed to a high bluff and asked, “Do you know the name of that bluff?” I responded, “No.” She said, “That’s Drumgould’s Bluff! Drumgould’s Bluff was a Confederate Fortification in 1862-1863 and the Confederates used the bluff as an outlook over the Yazoo River basin.”
Margie suggested that we park and get out of the car for a while. So we did and rested in the warm spring sunshine where she could have a commanding view of the bluff.
As we sat there looking up at the bluff Margie began reminiscing. Now, you haven’t lived until you hear Margie Bearss reminisce. This is the story which she told me.
“Soon after Ed and I were married, we went to a big event at the Military Park and we were dressed in our finest of clothes. Afterwards we decided to drive to Yazoo City for dinner and the route we took was Highway 61 north.
“As we drove along and approached the Yazoo River, Ed pointed up to a high bluff and said, “That’s Drumgould’s Bluff - then he told me the history of the bluff as related to the Confederate defenses on the Yazoo River.
“I was fascinated and told Ed to stop the car because I wanted to get out and see the bluff. After we got out of the car, I told Ed I wanted to climb the bluff. There was a bit or arguing since we had on our good clothes but I won out and together we climbed Drumgould’s Bluff. We spent about an hour on the top of the bluff looking out over the Yazoo River Basin before coming back down. That’s when I discovered that coming down was much harder than going up. By the time I reached the bottom of the bluff my dress was torn and my hose were in shreds.”
At this point I interrupted her story and said, “Margie, what did you do?” She responded, “I just took the clothes off and threw them in the trash - and put on something else. Those clothes didn’t matter a thing to me. What mattered to me was the hour I spent on top of Drumgould’s Bluff with Ed.”
Margie continued to reminisce and described the view from the bluff: “I could look out over the Yazoo River basin and see the site where the USS Cairo went down on December 12, 1862, having been struck by a Confederate torpedo. And, I could see all the bends in the river and imagine the Confederate and Union gunboats prowling the river. And, when facing north I could see the sites where Synder’s Bluff and Haines Bluff, both Confederate fortifications, had been.”
“No,” she said, “I would give anything for the time I spent on top of the bluff with Ed.” Then, she fell quiet sitting in the sunshine enjoying her memories.
As I sat beside her with the heavenly scent of kudzu mingling in the air, I thought about the story that she had just told me and I felt as though I had been on top of Drumgould’s Bluff myself. As we sat in silence, it suddenly occurred to me that, in listening to her story, I had just discovered the secret as to why Margie Bearss was such an outstanding historian.
Margie wasn’t a historian who was content to read about history in a book or to see history on TV. Margie was a historian who wanted to touch the history - see the history - feel the history - and to be a part of the history. This was what made Margie such an outstanding historian.
Yes, Margie Riddle Bearss was a remarkable woman. She was a remarkable historian - and she led a remarkable life, leaving her footprints in the sand of Mississippi.
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