Every year, the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy takes students, faculty, and fellows to Gettysburg for a staff ride to study the Battle of Gettysburg. Below are some reflections on this year’s trip compiled by Dr. Caileigh Glenn, an America in the World Consortium Postdoctoral Fellow at AGS in 2023-24, who led the trip.
It’s one thing to study, analyze, and critique political and military decisionmakers for their actions during war from the comfort of a desk chair. It is another thing entirely to traverse the battlegrounds and consider how a decisionmaker may have assessed their options given their surroundings. The topography, geographic proximity to friend and foe, weather – they all factor into the ability to make a decision.
What the AGS staff ride to Gettysburg offers – something a simple tour of historical grounds cannot – is the focused examination and discussion of strategy in conjunction with the physical barriers and enhancers of its implementation. This focus enables students to consider the machinations of the implementation of military strategy during the Battle of Gettysburg. The role of intelligence, for example, in informing battle plans and positioning was highlighted throughout our 2023 staff ride. Lines of communication were consistently considered by participants; throughout the trip, students would raise questions regarding what decisionmakers would have known at each stage of the Battle and how they would have come to know it.
Parallels were quickly drawn between the historical and modern-day creation and protection of lines of communication – both intelligence and supply lines. Analysis of JEB Stuart’s decision to forage in eastern Pennsylvania, unaware that fighting had broken out at Gettysburg, enabled assessments of the role of supply lines in modern military practice. Consideration of how Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s lack of information from his calvary constrained his decision-making ability led to broader discussions of coordination between units. One undergraduate student participant highlighted a relevant lesson learned: “Good intelligence is key, and no army can overrun its supply line.”
Students engaged in impassioned discussions of key actors’ roles in the Battle of Gettysburg. In preparation for the staff ride, participants crafted a presentation on a decisionmaker’s role from that person’s perspective and thoughtfully speculated how and why their assigned actor pursued the choices and actions that they did. The participants then incorporated their own area of expertise – such as historical knowledge of the battle, military tactics, or political strategy – and assessed the decision from their own perspective. Often this resulted in participants completely changing their initial assessments of battle decisions.
One pertinent takeaway from this year’s staff ride to Gettysburg was the participants’ observation of – and appreciation for – the factors likely influencing the decision by Major General Daniel Sickles to move his two divisions forward and away from supporting Union armies. Initially, some of the students remarked how ill-advised that decision seemed to be as it isolated his divisions from the rest of the Union army and left a vulnerable hole in the Union’s “fish hook” formation. However, upon standing where Sickles might have stood near the Peach Orchard, students noticed that his divisions’ initial positioning left him blind to approaching Confederate soldiers. The Union soldiers, in their fish hook formation, stood at the base of a valley surrounded by dense forest on one side and rolling hills to the other; from that vantage point, participants noted that they could see why Sickles may have wanted to move to higher ground and how he may have concluded it was a strategically beneficial move.
Rainy weather on the second day of the staff ride only enhanced our consideration of the tactics deployed during the Battle of Gettysburg. We ventured to Devil’s Den, where some of the bloodiest fighting of the Battle took place. One participant with a military background prompted us to notice how difficult it was to cross the wet, slippery rocks, with modern shoes and how much that would impact an advancing unit’s fighting capabilities. Observing the cannons displayed on the battlegrounds, participants noted an appreciation for just how taxing it would be to move and position military equipment in the rain. One participant noted, “A standout experience was (oddly enough) being caught in the rain at a couple of key locations. This really reinforced how the participants of the Battle had to grapple with factors like the weather, on top of all their other concerns. I think this helped us gain a greater insight into the mindset of the combatants.”
In capturing the links between the past and the present, the staff ride concluded at the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Here, one of the students delivered President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in the spot where he stood 160 years ago. This gave the students the opportunity to not only appreciate the real human consequences of the Battle and the Civil War, but also to reflect on the range of elements that make up the study of armed conflict.
Overall, the staff ride introduced and reinforced a number of key features of military strategic and tactical decisionmaking. In their reflections on the staff ride as a whole, students reported a greater appreciation of these features, and the value of the staff ride in highlighting them. In the summarizing words of one undergraduate student participant: “Battles are much more chaotic than your history or political science textbook would lead you to believe.”