One of the turning points of the Civil War, its bloodiest single battle, and the location of Abraham Lincoln’s famous address, Gettysburg is a place that even most young high school students know about. 

But leadership students at Jepson would also do well to pay attention. The battle was fought closely, and any one of many crucial decisions, if made differently, could have changed the outcome not only of this one battle, but possibly the entire war.

Gettysburg included the interplay of many well known Civil War leaders and followers whose actions shaped the unfolding battle: Longstreet succumbed to Lee’s command, allowing Pickett’s charge; Ewell failed to follow Lee’s order, giving crucial ground to the Union; Chamberlain improvised on Little Round Top, leading a decisive bayonet charge. 

Standing in the place where key decisions were made, with the land rolling out before you, perspectives change. Suddenly, you realize how little these leaders knew compared to what we know now, and the range of uncertain options they had to choose from. 

Such insights are a crucial part of understanding leadership in context. For 13 Jepson students, the Oct. 19 to 20, 2008, trip to Gettysburg was an invaluable opportunity to examine leadership as it actually happened. The trip was organized by the Jepson School with the support of former University of Richmond trustee Doug Van Scoy. 

Accompanying Van Scoy and the students and their teachers, were University of Richmond trustee Susan Quisenberry, Provost Stephen Allred, his wife, Julia, Dean Sandra Peart, and her son Matthew.

The visit was guided by Brigadier Gen. John W. Mountcastle (Ret.) and Profesor George Goethals, who were teaching a new course, "Civil War Leadership." Mountcastle led the group in the steps of officers and men whom had been discussed in class.The first day of the trip was spent at the newly renovated Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center where students participated in interactive exhibits illustrating the Civil War. After a good night’s rest, the group stopped at seven battlefield locations where Mountcastle spoke about what happened and the implications for the final outcome. 

Senior Julian Kurland described how seeing the terrain and imagining, “the smells of the camp and the noises heard from close and distant armies,” would truly allow him to, “understand the situation that faced Chamberlain and his men that day when they battled for their lives.”

In a similar vein sophomore Kevin Bogert wrote: “After finally being able to see the battlefield at Gettysburg, I was able to put the battle into perspective. Seeing the land formation and the grounds that the Union troops were able to entrench in helped me understand the decisions that Gen. Lee and Gen. Meade made during the battle.”

The students also thought about how leaders dealt with the emotional challenges during the battle. Sophomore Kelly Landers reflected that the trip clarified the battle for her but also raised questions.

“I can’t even begin to understand the conflict that Longstreet must have felt over his orders from Lee throughout the Battle of Gettysburg … I don’t know how he could have followed Lee’s orders. Is this good leadership?”

And some students discussed their own emotions in trying to understand those of the fighters.  Junior Brendan Schlauch commented:  “Standing at the Union defenses of the third day imagining the Confederate soldiers rushing headlong to their fate was a powerful experience. In trying to comprehend this loss of life I could not help but be moved by the sacrifice of these men. Most compelling was how many of the soldiers at Gettysburg willingly accepted their fate. What motivates the man who wills himself forward in the face of unyielding fire as friends and family fall around him? It is a sacrifice that is both moving and heart wrenching, even as it is hard to come to terms with.”

These are just the sort of questions that Van Scoy hoped students would raise. As an executive at Smith-Barney several years ago, Van Scoy took a trip to Gettysburg with fellow executives and found it to be so valuable that he wanted Jepson students to have the same opportunity. As a result Van Scoy initiated earlier Jepson trips in 2004 and 2006.

Upon returning to the classroom in Richmond, students worked to connect their experiences on the battlefield to an analysis of individual and group leadership structures. After walking in the footsteps of battlefield commanders and soldiers, students pondered how the leadership skills of those brave men might transfer to modern life. First-year student Patrick Coughlin summed it up: “I learned an awful lot that day.”

Posted: Fall 2008