[September 24, 2019] On July 3rd, 1990, I was standing at the copse of trees on Cemetery Ridge; the location of the most strategically important battle of the U.S. Civil War. It was hot and humid in the afternoon as the sun beat down upon the two dozen U.S. Army Captains; just as the sun’s intense heat had done to more than 12,000 Confederates attacking the Union position 127 years earlier. We were part of a Staff Ride, organized by the U.S. Army Center of Military History.
Staff rides are a leadership tool that will convey the lessons of the past to present-day military leaders. If done properly, these exercises bring to life, on the very terrain where historic battles took place, examples applicable today. Leadership, tactics and strategy, communications, use of terrain, and the psychology of men in battle, all comingle to offer valuable opportunities to develop professional leadership.
The original, classic staff ride was made famous by Helmuth von Moltke in the late nineteenth century. Moltke took his subordinates on riding tours where, in the event of war, significant military events (like battles, deployment of large troop numbers, artillery positions) were likely to occur. These exercises served two purposes: 1) they allowed officers to better understand the operational significance of certain pieces of terrain and 2) informed a contingency planning effort.
Originally conducted on horseback and occasionally today the same way, it is more likely the staff ride transports officers in the comfort of an air-conditioned bus. Our CMH historian rolled out his large, canvas map with the top of the map pointing north so that we could appreciate the terrain of the battle. Maps do not project the magnitude of large terrain features. Most people are visually oriented; a staff ride helps.
We walked the ground of each of the three days of the battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Walking up hills and down, fording streams, jumping fences, and seeing what we could see from every possible angle. I was impressed with the professionalism and knowledge of our historian-educator. Gettysburg has always held a special place in my family’s history; several relatives having fought there and some buried in the cemetery.
I highly recommend staff rides which are easily adapted to commercial and non-commercial activities that help leaders get a better visualization of their area of interest. I’ll always have the staff ride in my leadership toolbox.