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Saturday's Staff Ride of the Battle of Gettysburg

A month or so ago, when we announced that we planned to take a small group of Governmental Studies students on a staff ride of the Battle of Gettysburg, there was a fair amount of confusion.  The most common question:  Do we have to reenact the Civil War??  A close second:  Will we have to dress up?  We were tempted to say yes.

But the point of a staff ride is not reenactment-- it is to help students of military strategy understand the material constraints and political considerations that inform command decisions.  We wanted to get inside the commanders' heads.  And to see how--despite 147 years and amazing changes in technology--militaries today face many of the same basic issues that confronted the leaders of 1863.

Not a reenactment... but we were still enthusiastic.

Empowered by successes in Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia began a campaign in the North, aiming to inflict enough damage to convince the Northern  population that the war to preserve the Union was not worth it.  Lee's defeat at Gettysburg is considered a turning point in the Civil War.  Instead of being in a position to invade Washington, DC from the North, Lee's army had to return to Virginia and the Confederacy's best chance to end the war in its favor passed.  As we surveyed the battlefield, we addressed a recurring theme:  was the Confederate loss inevitable?  Given what we knew about the commanders, and what we learned about the terrain, could Gettysburg have ended differently?

We examined the terrain of McPherson's Ridge from the ground and from an observation tower, and imagined how the Corps commanders of the Army of Northern Virginia converged their troops upon Gettysburg.  We discussed Ewell's (or Lee's?) failure to gain Cemetery Hill.  We hiked through Devil's Den and up Little Roundtop, seeing the stunning advantage of the Union's defensive position atop the hill.  We followed in the footsteps of Pickett's Charge, and weighed the political aims of the Confederacy's campaign in the North in order to evaluate whether or not General Lee had any other choice.

I was impressed by the level of preparation and enthusiasm our students brought to this event.  The discussion was insightful and helped everyone think about the battle from competing perspectives.  The participants were good humored and the day was gorgeous-- a 65 and sunny backdrop for walking around the wooded hills and open fields around Gettysburg.  We are looking forward to next year's trip!

Click here for pics.

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Reader Comments (1)

I would like to recommend this experience to any students in the program. This was great for being able to look into the historical accounts and discuss the choices made by the battle participants. Actually going to walk the grounds was helpful for seeing what influenced decisionmakers on the ground. Looking at the maps has a different impact than being able to actually traverse the terrain in person.

I enjoyed the staff ride a great deal, and very much look forward to the next opportunity in the department with much anticipation.

November 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Gates

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