Team captains study junior leadership lessons during Gettysburg staff ride
Story and photos by Jim Fox
USMA Community Engagement Chief
WEST POINT, N.Y. (May 7, 2014) — Nine-tenths of a mile.
That’s the distance between victory and defeat after three of the bloodiest days in U.S. history.
But nine-tenths of a mile across numerous fences, through gullies and eventually uphill into the waiting guns of a long-time enemy is quite another matter.
Twenty-one U.S. Military Academy Cadet Corps Squad team captains took a staff ride to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where they learned what it was like to be a young leader during the American Civil War’s climatic battle and explored what it was like to be thrusted into ever increasing leadership roles as their more experienced commanders fell around them.
On the afternoon of July 3, 1863, after the longest and arguably loudest artillery bombardment in the world until then, roughly 12,000 men from the Confederacy’s best fighting force, the Army of Northern Virginia, stepped out of the trees onto Seminary Ridge and walked into history.
“I never understood why they even tried Pickett’s Charge,” Army football team captain Larry Dixon, Class of 2015, said. “Now that I’ve walked the ground and have seen the battle from both sides, I understand both perspectives.”
The Department of History’s Lt. Col. David Siry and retired Brig. Gen. Jack Mountcastle, a former USMA D/History faculty member himself, led the staff ride May 3-4 to help next year’s crop of team captains garner some lessons from the battlefield on how young leaders have to build trust within their athletic teams in some of the same ways that military units build trust to be successful in battle.
Superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr. walked the battlefield with the cadets and offered his own take on what Gettysburg had to offer to his up-and-coming athletic leaders.
“If you’re going to be an effective team captain, you’ve got to be an effective peer leader,” Caslen said, in his typical low, authoritative voice that makes you lean in a bit to make sure you hear him. “To be an effective peer leader you need to share hardships, lead from the front and lead by example.
“So what they do here at Gettysburg,” he continued, “is to study the junior leaders on both the Confederate and Union side. What did they do to make them effective? What did they do that made them ineffective?”
Before they arrived at Gettysburg, cadets read and studied about the key leaders from each side both good and bad.
Each cadet was called upon at various times to assess a specific portion of the battle from their assigned leader’s perspective, often using the commander’s actual battle reports.
“We learned about decision-making at every location on the battlefield and gained a perspective from all aspects of the engagement,” Army Hockey team captain Cadet Josh Richards, Class of 2015, said.
Over the two days of the trip, cadets saw the battlefield from each Army’s point of view. They saw how the lay of the ground in one particular spot can cloud a commander’s decision making process.
How Union Cavalry Brig. Gen. John Buford, Class of 1848, chose the good ground of Seminary Ridge to make his initial stand on the first day as his brigade of troopers held off a Confederate division until the lead elements of the Union Army of the Potomac’s I Corps arrived to stem the tide.
They studied the Confederates failures to press their advantage in numbers on the northern portion of the battlefield at the end of first day.
“The focus of the staff ride is not to teach them strategy,” Caslen said. “(It’s) not to teach them military tactics, but to teach them and help them develop an understanding of what it means to be an effective small unit leader that builds teams, that instills discipline, that instills toughness and that leads.”
Cadet team captains simulate “Pickett’s Charge” with Department of History instructor Lt. Col. David Siry, in front, playing the role of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead who led his brigade of Virginians in the attack.
U.S. Military Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr. discusses the 20th Maine’s defense of Little Round Top May 4 during the Gettysburg Athletic Team Captain Staff Ride. Caslen, 21 Corps Squad team captains and select staff and faculty participated in the two-day event which teaches cadets about small unit leadership.
Class of 2015 Cadet Kristen Barta, a women’s swimming team captain, discusses the leadership decisions facing both sides at Little Round Top.
Retired Brig. Gen. Jack Mountcastle, a former USMA Department of History professor, helped lead the staff ride. Here at the Virginia Monument on Seminary Ridge, he explains the tactical situation that the Confederates faced before they launched “Pickett’s Charge.”
Department of History instructor Lt. Col. David Siry explains the history at Little Round Top during the Gettysburg Staff Ride.
Caslen explained how if Confederate Lt. Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson, Class of 1846, had not been killed at Chancellorsville two months prior to Gettysburg how differently those three days in July 1863 would have been.
“If (Jackson’s replacement, Confederate 2nd Corps Commander Richard Ewell, Class of 1840) would have taken the high ground on Day 1 then Day 2 and 3 would have been completely different,” Caslen said, the passion of the historical turning point filling his voice. “(Ewell) didn’t do it. When he had the opportunity to press and to push to achieve the levels he should have as a commander he elected not to.
“He didn’t want to push his men anymore when they really needed to be pushed. It’s a tremendous lesson on leadership. One, I think, was a failure of leadership,” Caslen emphasized.
The cadets began to see that the battle’s decisive moments were a string of decisions over three days that could have gone either way but for the decisions of a few, sometimes, very young officers and Soldiers on both sides.
Women’s soccer team captain Cadet Ellen Duckwall, Class of 2015, learned the impact that one decision can have on a team.
One of the key moments of the fight the cadets explored on the second day occurred at Little Round Top where the cadets saw the fight that lay before Confederate Maj. Gen. John Hood, Class of 1853, and his division as they stood looking across at the rocky ground that separated them from the end of the Union line.
The cadets learned the story of the Union V Corps and the 20th Maine Regiment and Col. Joshua Chamberlain.
Wrestling team captain Cadet Chandler Smith, Class of 2015, took the story of the men from Maine and their desperate fight at the extreme left of the Union line to heart. Men who knew they had to hold. That they were the end of the line.
“I learned the importance of building relationships as a team captain by being here,” Smith said. “This will help me to establish relationships on my team.”
Caslen, an old infantryman himself, was inspired when explaining how Union leadership recognized at the last possible moment that disaster was at hand as Hood’s men formed up to attack.
“Not only what (the Union Army) did up there, but how they recognized the key terrain and how they secured the key terrain. How they recognized how important it was to seek reinforcements … from a tactical standpoint,” Caslen explained.
“When you look at the 20th Maine and the cohesion in that unit you look at the trust in that unit between the men and the commander,” he continued. “Between the team and that unit. That unit wasn’t going to fail for nothing. They were not going to let each other down. The leadership of Joshua Chamberlain and how he was able to integrate the 2nd Maine mutineers into his organization so they could be together as a team. They won without ammunition, with a bayonet charge. They won because they were a team. What a tremendous example of leadership and what it takes to win.”
After two days of battle, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, Class of 1829, the commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia, against his subordinates’ objections, chose to attack the Union center at Cemetery Ridge.
That’s when 12,000 men from Virginia and North Carolina, from Mississippi and Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee begin their ninth-tenths of a mile walk into history.
Unbeknownst to the Southerners, their two-hour cannonade that preceded what would later become known as “Pickett’s Charge” had fired long, disrupting the back slope of the Union center, but leaving the point of attack relatively unscathed. After marching in close order and by the “Double Quick” across the killing zone Sunday between the Confederate held Seminary Ridge on the west and the Union held Cemetery Ridge on the East, the Cadet Team Captains now understand as best we can in modern times how courageous an endeavor it was for those southern men to even attempt to walk into the maelstrom that awaited them.
At the “Copse of Trees,” at the “Angle” where the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy” lapped upon the Union Center, the cadets learned about Union artillery Lt. Alonzo Cushing, USMA Class of June 1861.
Cushing and his men stayed with their cannon as the crest of the Southern attack rolled toward them. Cushing died firing his sole remaining cannon one last time as the attack began to break through the Union lines, just before men from Pennsylvania and New York swarmed in to stem the tide and change history one final time on July 3, 1863.
Caslen summed up Day 3 with a look back on the two-day staff ride while cadets sat upon the stone wall at the “Copse of Trees” at the center of the Union line, right where men from Virginia met Alonzo Cushing and his deadly cannon.
“The thing I love about Day 3 is Alonzo Cushing. Even though he’s an artilleryman I still like him,” the veteran foot soldier said with his trademark smirk, which drew a laugh from the cadets.
“(Cushing) graduated from West Point two years before Gettysburg,” Caslen added. “How would he ever know that within two years he would put the nation’s future and security on his back at this critical part of this critical fight? (Cushing) has probably the most decisive part of this defense right here.
“And what does he do?” Caslen asked the cadets, the fire back in his eyes as he began to get a little emotional. “He responds to the call of duty. Even when he is injured he refuses to be evacuated because he recognizes the position of leadership on the battlefield. He was not going to let his men down, nor his team down. He was not going to let his country down. He stays in there until the very end. What a tremendous example of leadership.”
“I just think you are never going to know what’s going to happen two years from the time you graduate,” Caslen told the cadets.
“What’s going to happen to your team,” he asked, “when on some court or some field when something is not going right and the future or the success of the season is on your team’s back at that particular point? (In battle) you never know when you’re winning. You’re the one component of leadership and you’re there to lead by example. You know what you’ve got to do.
“Who knows what’s going to be asked of you after you graduate?” Caslen said. “(If) you’ll have an Alonzo Cushing moment two years after you graduate.
“Alonzo Cushing never let his country down and you’ll never let this country down either. You will have that moment. You will answer the call of duty and be great,” Caslen continued.
“I say this every time I come out here,” he said. “This is a sacred battlefield right here. It’s great to be able to study our profession and study what we’re really all about.”
Caslen asked the cadets to do one last thing before they left Gettysburg.
“When you walk around (here on Cemetery Ridge) just think about what these young West Point graduates did,” Caslen said. “What was asked of them and how they responded.