Yesterday’s Battlefields Meet Tomorrow’s Leaders

How the Army National Guard is using preserved hallowed ground to expand understanding and strategic thinking
Military Classroom on Battlefields
Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park historian Jim Ogden conducts a staff ride focused on the September 18–20, 1863, Battle of Chickamauga for a group of U.S. Army National Guard officer candidates. These officer candidates were students in an eight-week Accelerated Officer Candidate School conducted for the National Guard Bureau by the Alabama Army National Guard at the Alabama Military Academy, Fort McClellan, Ala. Courtesy Alabama Army National Guard/National Park Service

With a founding in 1636, the Army National Guard has a long and proud history as the United States Military’s oldest serving component. As part of the heritage, soldiers from the National Guard have fought and died on battlefields across the continental United States. 

 Many Army National Guard units of today carry the battle streamers and stories of service from regiments that marched across the battlefields of Princeton, N.J.; Chickamauga, Ga.; and Corinth, Miss. Looking at the Distinctive Unit Insignia of many National Guard units, you can find traces of historical battles with mottos like 107th Field Artillery “Gettysburg to the Marne” or visual symbols like a Corps Badge from the Army of the Potomac which adorns the 135th Infantry of Minnesota’s crest. Soldiers may walk past a sign listing their battle honors daily in their local hometown armories, but the opportunity to walk their Regiments’ battle positions and stand on the ground where their predecessors gave their lives in defense of the nation will provide young soldiers with a lasting connection to their organization.  

Corps Badge from the Army of the Potomac and 135th Infantry of Minnesota's Crest
Left: Corps Badges used to identify soldiers   Right: 135th Infantry of Minnesota's Crest

Today members of the Army National Guard are using the battlefields preserved by the National Park Service and organizations like the American Battlefield Trust to educate the leaders in our current organization. 

The Leader Development Branch of the ARNG’s Training Division conducts “Combat Field Studies” of American battlefields in coordination with the US Army Center of Military History. Army doctrine is shaped by lessons from previous conflicts, and there is no better way for soldiers of the ARNG to learn these lessons than by walking the ground where their forebearers fought. Staff Rides allow soldiers to study the terrain and decision-making processes and learn how leaders adapted and succeeded in combat operations. They learn not only the importance of their organization’s history, but also the valuable leadership lessons that previous generations of National Guard soldiers learned in the heat of combat.  

Battlefields as Classrooms for Modern Soldiers 

Since 1906 the United States Army has been conducting professional development training on American Civil War Battlefields to educate our current military leaders. Staff Rides, Tactical Exercises Without Troops (TEWTS), and Battlefield Tours all provide methods of educating leaders in the military using the victories and defeats of the past. Staff Rides offer modern soldiers a professional development opportunity where they can step into the shoes of previous military commanders and understand the decision-making process used in the execution of some of America's most crucial battlefield actions. The military bases its doctrine on the lessons learned in past conflicts, so what better way to help a soldier visualize these lessons than standing on the ground where commanders made these critical choices in the heat of battle. 

Staff Ride at Antietam
Staff Ride at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md. Zach Anderson

What Do We Do? 

The Army National Guard implemented a Leader Development program in 2018 to assist States with planning and conducting staff rides to both educate junior leaders on tactics and doctrine and connect them with the past actions of their predecessor units. Conducted in partnership with the US Army Center of Military History (CMH) at Fort McNair, the official proponent for recording Army History and educating soldiers with historical resources. These "Combat Field Studies" take soldiers in the Army National Guard to battlefields like Princeton, Gettysburg, and Shiloh. There they can walk the ground of antecedent Army National Guard units and learn from the experience of those who came before them. States can tailor the location of their event to follow their units' historical actions and battle honors or select decisive actions that provide applicable lessons to junior leaders. Soldiers will initially undergo a "preliminary study" period where they will be assigned reading covering the campaign and battlefield they will visit. In addition to building a general knowledge of the site, instructors give participants a specific portion of the battle relating to their current occupational role in the military during the preliminary study. They will present briefly on this topic at a "stand" on the original ground. Historians from the CMH will provide the operational background and historical review of portions of the battle and vignettes on leadership and decision making. Participating soldiers will take on the roles of leaders from the past, answering tactical and doctrinal questions and offering up their suggestions on how to effectively handle problems based on their military education and the resources available to a leader during the period studied. 

Goals of the Program 

The goal of the Combat Field Studies program is to show junior leaders the value of history in training leaders of the future. These events offer a change of pace from traditional military classrooms, which help bring tactical problems to life while connecting them with the historic legacy of the National Guard. Many participants have not been exposed to a staff ride before and working with the professional historians from CMH on some of the most famous American battlefields can deeply connect them with lessons learned. Events can assist them in understanding such critical battlefield factors as the effects of terrain on planning and execution, logistical considerations during operations, and case studies on the principles of war.  

Ground preserved by the American Battlefield Trust not only prevents a change in the visual representation of America's hallowed battlefields but allows soldiers to walk terrain and better understand the decisions made by previous combat leaders. Soldiers can garner some lessons from text, and other decision-making processes can be made apparent with a good map recon, but there is no substitute for physically walking terrain to understand how and why leaders maneuvered troops in a specific manner.   A soldier walking the path of Reynold's Pennsylvanians at Slaughter Pen Farm will understand the vulnerability felt by someone from their same unit who crossed that ground under fire during the Battle of Fredericksburg over 150 years prior. As they step into the swampy ground at the base of Prospect Hill, they can understand why Maxcy Gregg might have thought this route was the “most unlikely course of action” for the enemy he faced, a decision that cost him his life. Comparing the actual terrain with period maps and original intelligence reports can also assist soldiers in understanding how conditions on the ground may be different from the actuality of a modern battlefield in the same ways experienced by commanders of the past.

Slaughter Pen
After a 16-year fundraising effort, the Trust concluded the campaign to save the 208-acres at the Fredericksburg Battlefield's Slaughter Pen Farm.     Buddy Secor
Slaughter Penn Farm was acquired in 2006 by the American Battlefield Trust, amounting to 208 acres preserved.      Buddy Secor