The text “leadership when lives are on the line” stands out in bold, black ink on the Gettysburg trip packet given to Jepson Civil War Leadership students. Every other year since fall 2004, Dr. Al Goethals and Gen. Jack Mountcastle have taken the Civil War Leadership students to the Gettysburg battlefields. The trip illuminates battlefield leadership and decision-making.
“The experience of the Gettysburg trip gave me a real world perspective of the historic battle we had been studying,” says Omar Howard, ’16.
Leading up to the trip, the Jepson School students study Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels: A Novel of the American Civil War. Told from the perspectives of Civil War leaders on both sides, the book, in conjunction with the trip, presses students to consider what it is like to follow orders that you believe will fail, and what it means to “win.”
“My appreciation for the situations leaders were faced with has deepened,” says Sarah Abel, ’17.
When the bus arrives in the small town of Gettysburg, Pa., on Sunday, its first stop is the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center, which sets the scene for the battle. The museum features a cyclorama, a massive, circular piece of art that depicts the battle. In the cyclorama, the students witness a recreation of the battle as explosions go off all around and a narrator tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg. Following the presentations, students examine battlefield artifacts in the museum. These personal items serve as blunt reminders that the narrative told in the cyclorama is not some ancient legend; the men who fought and died in this bloody battle had lives and families.
That night after checking into the hotel, the students gather for goal-setting and share what they hope to gain from walking the grounds at Gettysburg. They want to experience Gettysburg, to see the ground, to understand the proportion, to understand the personal challenges the leaders faced, and to pay respects.
Monday morning begins early. It’s a chilly and windy day—very different from what the soldiers would have felt in the early days of July 1863. Students dismount to examine the landscape at total of seven battlefield sites. Because maintaining the high ground was of crucial importance at Gettysburg, witnessing these sites is critical to understand why decisions were made.
“The trip solidified my ‘ground truth,’ the understanding one gains when faced with the actualities of the terrain and landscape they have studied in class. It is one thing to analyze (and, frankly, judge) a leader’s decisions when removed from the situation they were in, but your understanding is deepened when faced with the reality of your surroundings. Maps can help you so much, but no map can truly do justice to the actual landscape,” says Abel.
The weighty significance of sites like Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, and the High Water Mark is indescribable. At the final stop, the Gettysburg National Cemetery, Howard recites Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the words hang in the crisp air.
The three days of battle at Gettysburg have come to be widely viewed as the turning point of the American Civil War. The battle has been analyzed and reanalyzed for its military tactics, its leaders, and its historical impact. But as the bus returns to Richmond, what becomes clear is that there are so many more questions surrounding this moment in history.