The Staff Ride and other Center of Military History resources can be found here. The Staff Ride and other Center of Military History resources can be found here.

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

Having just returned from a historical staff ride to Gettysburg, there are still some things fresh in mind that seem worth sharing.  There are generally three phases to a historical staff ride: preliminary study, an in-depth site visit, and an integration (or reflection) period.  The step which connects the site visit to the reflection is the most important, as this is when memories are formed and lessons stored for future use.  What follows are some thoughts I offer cadets at the start of the reflection period to help enable this connection along (Note: the use of “you” – this is typically directed toward cadets).

Beginning Integration/Reflection

First, you must learn to fight wars in your mind before learning to fight with your hands. Three days at Gettysburg is every bit as important, as, say, three days in formal military schooling (i.e. Officer Basic Course).  It’s often said that the greatest weapon on the battlefield is the radio (or the rifle), but one could counter that it is actually the sound military judgment of a member of the Profession of Arms. When one thinks in specific of the Battle of Gettysburg, many consider Major General John Buford’s vision on June 30/July 1st as critical in Union victory.  Certainly his judgment – his simultaneous consideration of a multitude of factors (time, space, and firepower to name just three) – is noteworthy and indicative of the lessons on offer for military professionals at Gettysburg.

Many ask, why would anyone study the Civil War?  It was 150 years ago and “nothing they did really matters today.”  James McPherson, the Pulitzer-prize winning historian, gave a public lecture at BYU in 2011 on just this subject, and is worth quoting at length:

“I became fully convinced that I could not fully understand the issues and events of my own time [1960s], unless I learned about their roots in the era of the Civil War.  Slavery and its abolition, the conflict between north and south, the struggle between state sovereignty and the federal government, the role of government in social change, and the resistance to both government and to social change. Those issues are as salient and controversial today, in many ways, as they were in the 1960s, not to mention the 1860s.

Today, we have an African American president of the United States, which would not have been possible without the Civil Rights movement of a half century ago, which in turn would not have been possible without the events of the Civil War and Reconstruction era. Many of the issues over which the Civil War was fought still resonate today: matters of race and citizenship, regional rivalries, the relative powers and responsibilities of federal, state and local governments.”

For measure, he added that great Faulkner line: “The past is not dead, it is not even past.” McPherson was speaking specifically about social and political issues, and he was right – think of all the dynamic changes afoot in society on sexual orientation, the Tea Party and opposition to government size and scope, medical marijuana, gun rights and control.  Abroad, even sovereignty and secession have become a real possibility in Scotland and Spain.

But for members of the Profession of Arms, studying the Battle of Gettysburg brings out our own important (strategic) concepts: tactical, operational, and strategic judgment; command; civilians role in the use of force; duty; sacrifice; hierarchy; human response to combat; death and memory.

Of course a simple general list will not suffice for the hardened cynic.  To pierce this resistance, one should consider Sir Michael Howard’s comment that “after all allowances have been made for historical differences, wars still resemble each other more than they resemble any other human activity.”

Imagine a simple thought experiment.  Reverse the historical staff ride.  What if, using a time machine, one could bring their assigned individual from the battle to undertake the same learning event – only to a recently concluded battle from Iraq or Afghanistan. Consider what they might ask:

  • Did you volunteer to fight?
  • Do you still use direct fire close killing weapons?
  • Is it still hard to synchronize military movement?
  • Do you still use cover?
  • Do communications still get mistaken?
  • Do you still disagree with superiors decisions?
  • Were you mentally prepared to send soldiers to their deaths?
  • Was any of the fighting worth it?

The truth is that soldiers today likely have more in common with those that fought at Gettysburg than almost anyone they know, including high school friends or even family.  This is due to the simple fact that they (Civil War-era soldiers), like you (soldiers of today), chose the Profession of Arms.  Only chronology separates you; you have much to learn from them.

My final appeal is that you take advantage of these lessons. To paraphrase Lincoln on Lee’s retreat, in the letter to Meade that he shelved, this wisdom is within your easy grasp – spend this reflection period holding fast – so that you leave this place a better member of our profession.