Margie’s eight years in Vicksburg were
remarkable. From 1958-1965 her life swirled with activity: establishing
the Grand Gulf Military Park; cleaning & researching artifacts salvaged
from USS Cairo, Charm and Paul Jones and the birth of three children,
Sara (1960), Cole (1962) and Jenny (1965). During this time, she also
helped Ed with other various projects pertaining to Mississippi history.
In 1958, when Margie Riddle, school teacher, married Ed Bearss, Vicksburg National Military Park historian, she embarked on a journey of a life time. The historic journey began in 1962 when Margie was awarded a contract to create the museum at Grand Gulf Military Park, located along the banks of the Mississippi River north of Port Gibson. Together, Ed and Margie worked to help establish the park which officially opened in May 1962.
Margie’s work at the fledgling museum was challenging and time consuming. Using her artistic talents, she created the diorama, maps, and many of the exhibits. She also sought to obtain Civil War artifacts from local families who lived in the area. Many of the items obtained by Margie remain on display today.
As they worked to establish the park, Ed was also involved with plans to raise the USS Cairo, a Union iron-clad gunboat sunk by the Confederates in the Yazoo River in 1862. The century-old ruins were found by Ed, Don Jacks, and Warren Grabau as early as 1956. Passionate about accomplishing both projects, Ed and Margie constantly blazed a trail between Grand Gulf and the site of the Cairo north of Vicksburg.
In August of 1962, Ed received the news that the remains of the Confederate steamers, CSS Charm, and possibly portions of the CSS Paul Jones, both burned on May 17, 1863, in the Big Black River near Bovina, had been found. Immediately following the Confederate defeat at the Battle of the Big Black, the Confederates burned the Charm as well as Paul Jones and Dot to keep the steamers out of enemy hands. For nearly a century, historians searched for the vessel’s remains but the river kept her secrets and the ruins were never found. In 1962, a drought reduced the Big Black’s water level to an all-time low, thus exposing the Charm’s hiding place. As soon as Margie heard the news, she was there with her camera - ready to photograph the remains and to help with the salvage.
1964 was also a successful year for Ed and Margie when the Cairo was finally pulled from the Yazoo River. Salvage operations took months of hard work and much of the effort was accomplished during the cold of winter. As the relics began to surface, approximately 10,000 in all, Margie was ready to help clean and identify them. Along with other volunteers, she helped to clean everything from brass and iron to glass and wood. During the process, she also wrote several hundred letters chasing down identifications and confirming information regarding the items - such as patent numbers and the contents of the bottles - and even seeking information regarding some of the soldiers known to have been aboard the fated vessel. Today, the relics recovered from the Cairo are on display at the Cairo Museum and catalogued under the name “Bearss.”
In 1965, Ed learned that one of the bluffs along the Big Black near the site of the Charm had sloughed off, revealing further remains of the Paul Jones. The fact that the Charm and Paul Jones were found so close together was understandable since they had been lashed together by the Confederates prior to being burned.
The year 1966 brought about a major change for the Bearss’ family. After ten years with the Vicksburg National Military Park, Ed was offered the position as Chief Historian of the National Park Service. This required their leaving Vicksburg and moving to Washington. For Ed, the prospects of a new job was an exciting and challenging time but not for Margie. For Margie, the move meant that she would have to leave her home state of Mississippi, her Vicksburg friends, and be separated from her parents who lived in Brandon. Margie recalled the day she and her three young children, Sara, age 6, Cole, age 4, and Jenny, age 1, piled in the family car and left for Washington: “After telling my parents goodbye, I saluted the Confederate statue in the heart of Brandon then cried the entire way to Washington.”
During the thirty-eight years Margie lived in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. (1966 - 2004), she continued with her passion for Civil War history, primarily helping to proofread, edit, and index every book that Ed wrote, including the three-volume set, The Vicksburg Campaign. She also published a book of her own - Sherman’s Forgotten Campaign: The Meridian Expedition. One of her favorite projects was to organize and paste old black & white photographs related to the salvaging of Charm and Paul Jones in a scrapbook. She later had the scrapbook hardbound and embossed the title, Confederate Transports, Charm, Dot, and Paul Jones, in gold. The treasured book reminded her of the happy times she spent in Mississippi while exploring the ruins of the Charm and Paul Jones. Her only regret was that the remains of the Dot were never found.
Prior to her death on October 7, 2006, Margie asked that her scrapbook be protected and that the history contained within its pages be preserved and shared with the public. It is with love, appreciation and admiration that we fulfill her wish by placing this segment of Mississippi history on the Battle of Champion Hill website.
Rebecca Blackwell Drake
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