By Faith Hawkins, May 2, 2018
On April 28, 2018, the Center for Security Policy Studies (“CSPS”) took graduate students to the Antietam Battlefield in Maryland to conduct a Staff Ride. A staff ride is a tool used by professionals to develop an understanding of the past and convey its lessons to modern soldiers and students. The staff ride first began in in 1906 when Maj. Eben Swift took officer students from Fort Leavenworth’s General Service and Staff School to Chickamauga Battlefield. In the past, CSPS has hosted Leadership Tours of the Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania where students have the opportunity to walk the battlefield and discuss the factors that caused the battle to unfold the way it did. Additionally, the battle is linked to larger discussions about the causes of war and the formulation of grand strategy.
While the Antietam Staff Ride was similar to these tours, it better mirrors a true staff ride which differs in procedure and intensity. Leadership tours provide a guided tour of the battlefield with an in-depth look at the tactics, strategies, and other factors that occurred during the Civil War. Experienced guides and military historians describe the context and conditions of both famed and disregarded events to provide a historical case study of security issues. In contrast, a staff ride requires students to conduct in-depth research regarding the viewpoint of single figure in a given battle. The students are then vigorously questioned by faculty about the factors that influenced the individual’s decisions and the resulting consequences.
The Battle of Antietam has been referred to as the bloodiest day in American History. On September 15, 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and a sizeable Confederate force arrived at Sharpsburg, MD. Lee decided to send part of his army to Harper’s Ferry to deal with Union forces there. After the Union forces at Harpers Ferry surrendered, Lee ordered those Confederate troops to join him at Sharpsburg forthwith. Later in the day on the 15th, Union Major General McClellan arrived near Sharpsburg with the Army of the Potomac.
On September 16, both Confederate and Union forces continued gathering near Sharpsburg. Union forces, far outnumbering the Confederates, assembled along Antietam Creek’s east side while Confederate troops flank to the west.
The battle began on September 17 when McClellan initiated his attack. All of Lee’s forces were worn-out, hungry, and many were sick, but they managed to fight off offensive after offensive. The exchange of artillery in the cornfield resulted in some of the most savage fighting of the war. Near the center of the battlefield, close range fighting on the farm lane Sunken Road was equally bloody, so much that this section of the battlefield would become known as Bloody Lane. Although Union forces temporarily turned the tide, the arrival of additional Confederate reinforcements resulted in the Union soldiers being pushed back across the bridge. By the end of September 17, 1862, approximately 4,000 American soldiers had been killed, and more than 18,000 wounded remained around Sharpsburg.
McClellan chose not to attack on September 18, but instead issued orders to attack the following day. Although Lee wished to renew the fight, he determined that the odds were too far in McClellan’s favor and withdrew his army back into Virginia. When McClellan heard of this the next morning, he chose not to pursue them.
The battle of Antietam ended a Confederate campaign to “liberate” the state of Maryland. Presently, the Antietam battlefield constitutes one of the best-preserved Civil War battlefields in the National Park System. As such, it is an ideal site to hold a staff ride.
The following is a partial transcript of an interview with David White, a student with the Schar School who participated in the Staff Ride. David portrayed Major General Joseph K. F. Mansfield of the United States Army.
How did the faculty questioning go? What sorts of things did they ask?
David: Questioning directed toward me was from Col. Abbot. He is a SME on the Civil War but kept his questions simple for me and directed the conversation well. He did this at other stops to guide the questions towards what he often referred to as “Civilian Control of the Military” questions, which framed the issues in light of our education.
How did this differ from the leadership tour to Gettysburg?
David: This tour was smaller and more personalized. The debates that happened at each stop were in depth and had great value towards educating us.
Were there any small details you overlooked in your research that you were surprised to find impacted your role?
David: I did my best, but as an Irish expatriate, I struggled with the context of the Civil War. This, in turn, served me well as an educational experience in understanding this great nation’s experience during those trying times. All of course, through Col. Abbots knowledge of the war.
What did you gain from this?
David: I gained another healthy appreciation for my new home country’s experience through the war. I also got to use my experience as a US Marine to contribute to the more modern debates on how our military should adapt to new security threats.
For more information, a Military-Antietam Staff Ride can be found here
Faith Hawkins is a junior completing her B.A. in International Politics at the Schar School. She is also completing an honors thesis while minoring in intelligence and Spanish. Her research interests lie at the intersection between international security and multilateral institutions.
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