Shand Stringham
May you live each day like it's Heaven on Earth
Gettysburg Staff Ride

Hello friends: Some of you who don't live near Central Pennsylvania have asked me about the Gettysburg Staff Ride mentioned in Gettysburg Revisited.  The staff ride was one of my favorite seminar learning activities while I was assigned as a member of the faculty at the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks.  In those days, our families were invited to go with the students on the seminar bus on the staff ride and it was a traditional family affair.  Here is a brief explanation of the staff ride and its purpose.


Gettysburg Battlefield Staff Ride:  A Study in Leadership

The U.S. Army War College conducts a special leadership experience for the entering student class each year at the site of the Gettysburg battlefield. Using the battlefield of Gettysburg as an outdoor classroom, the Gettysburg Staff Ride experience offers on-the-ground study and reflection on the leadership challenges and lessons in strategic and operational thinking from the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, 1-3 July 1863.

To facilitate the staff ride, experienced Army historians who are not only experts in history, leadership and strategy but are intimately familiar with the events of the three-day battle, lead their War College seminar on a tour of the battlefield, stopping at various locations around the battlefield where key encounters took place.   The battle of Gettysburg is a rich and stimulating source of leadership insights deeply relevant to the challenges faced today by military and civilian leaders. Hallmarks of effective leadership and decision-making are explored in the context of the battle, including leveraging changing technology, team and coalition building, morale and courage, dealing with ambiguity, adapting to change, effective communication, and the execution of policy and plans.

Preparation for the Staff Ride

Prior to the day of the staff ride, all participants attend a presentation reviewing the historical background and strategic overview of the Gettysburg battle to provide a strategic overview and set the stage for the staff ride.  The presentation also describes the use and purpose of the staff ride as a tool for leadership development in the military today.

Participants typically receive several handouts, including brochures, maps and books in an advance package to facilitate preparation for the staff ride.  Participants are also encouraged to read the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Shaara, Killer Angels, and/or view the commercial Ted Turner-released video, Gettysburg.  Both of these venues help staff ride participants to visualize and better understand the challenges the soldiers and their leaders faced at Gettysburg.

The Day of the Staff Ride


Travel from Carlisle Barracks to Gettysburg is by chartered bus.  During the ride down to Gettysburg, the seminar historian guide provides an overview of the events leading up to the encounter between Confederate and Union soldiers at Gettysburg on the first day of the battle, July 1, 1863.  The ride takes approximately 45 minutes from Carlisle.  Once at Gettysburg, the staff ride leader recounts the events of the battle with stops at significant sites throughout the day.  During the day-long staff ride, participants typically visit six battlefield sites during the morning and six additional sites during the afternoon.  At each site, the staff ride guide explains the nature of the operational and tactical situation and refers to specific leadership and management competencies tested.  They focus not just on historic anecdotes but a description of communications, decisions and actions by those military leaders with analogy to the challenges faced by leaders today.  It is an interactive experience and participants are encouraged to ask questions and participate in the dialogue.  One of the special aspects of the day is when the historian guides read from the journals and letters of the soldiers themselves who fought during the Battle of Gettysburg.  Hearing about the battle through their words of the soldiers who fought and died gives the experience a special poignancy and meaning.



During the lunch hour, participants frequently eat at one of Gettysburg's historic inns where, in addition to sampling some extraordinary dining faire, they have the opportunity to hear a presentation by a leading scholar on the leadership challenges of the Civil War period.  As the day unfolds, the staff ride moves from battle site to battle site, moving progressively through the events of the three days of the battle of Gettysburg.  The staff ride usually ends in the culminating point of Pickett's charge at the Angle.  


Staff Rides—An Army Tradition

Staff rides were developed at Fort Leavenworth as a cost-effective means of training officers to "think their way through" tactical and operational problems by using the terrain and historical context of an actual battle as a forum for sharpening tactical skills, refining intelligence interpretation and logistics planning, and gaining insights into the combat leadership challenges of their predecessors.

Originally begun in the 1880's by a reform-minded General William T. Sherman, staff rides have grown increasingly common in the Department of Defense as an excellent and relatively low-cost officer training method that stimulates professional development, fosters a deeper understanding of the operational art, promotes unit cohesion and camaraderie, and, importantly, contributes to junior officer retention.

Staff Ride Learning Goals and Performance Objectives

The staff ride is a versatile educational experience.  It provides a refreshing out-of-classroom learning environment where participants can walk the actual terrain and environment where critical leadership decisions were made and executed in the fog of battle.  The staff ride's primary purpose is to further the professional development of military and corporate leaders.  It can be designed to achieve one or many objectives, depending upon the needs of the participants and the circumstances under which the staff ride is conducted.  Typical goals for the Gettysburg Staff ride as conducted by U.S. Army organizations include:

§         To provide case studies in leadership at strategic, tactical and operational levels.

§         To provide case studies in decision making under conditions of uncertainty.

§         To provide case studies in organizational dynamics, cohesion, teambuilding, and teamwork.

§         To help participants understand the dynamic relationship between technology and operations.

§         To provide an analytical framework for the systematic study of campaigns and battles.

§         To expose participants to the dynamics of battle, especially those factors which interact to produce victory and defeat.

§         To provide case studies in how logistical considerations affect operations.

§         To show the effects of terrain upon plans and their implementation.

§         To encourage participants to further leadership study through the use of military history.


Today, many organizations are sending government and corporate leaders and managers on staff rides at Gettysburg and other Civil War battlefields for reasons similar to the U.S. Army's:


  • Discuss a wide variety of successful approaches to leadership and management as demonstrated by Union and Confederate leaders.
  • Discuss the role of motivation, team building, and teamwork in leadership and management. 
  • Discuss priority setting and identify key steps in the decision-making process in an uncertain and rapidly changing environment. 
  • Apply problem solving and decision making techniques to dynamic business issues and dilemmas. 
  • Demonstrate improved commitment in clearly communicating organizational strategic and operational objectives. 
  • Identify management and leadership challenges in undertaking organizational change. 
  • Reflect on personal management and leadership strengths and set future goals and objectives for further development.

A carefully designed and implemented staff ride can attain simultaneously all of these objectives and more. The staff ride can illuminate many principles or lessons of leadership at any chosen level. Because its mixture of classroom and field study facilitates student involvement, it ensures that any educational benefits are more likely to be retained.


Staff Ride Feedback and Evaluation


Are battlefield staff rides worth the effort?  Evidence from the corporate world indicates a resounding yes!


§         According to the USA Today, it was a Gettysburg experience which started GE to re-think a key part of its strategy.


§         After participating on a staff ride to Gettysburg, a former Senior Vice President for Human Resources for New Holland, said, "I think learning happens best when it is not in your context. When it's in your context, you have too many preconceived ideas and barriers; when it's out of your context you see it for what it is. It's a great experience."

The Gettysburg battlefield provides an extraordinary classroom for organizational leaders to review lessons of leadership and management in an exciting and interactive venue.  The purpose in conducting the Gettysburg Staff Ride is not to glorify war in any way nor to excite old memories of more turbulent days when our Nation stood divided.  On the contrary, the Gettysburg Staff Ride is all about leadership—how to lead in turbulent, uncertain times.  This perspective is perhaps best articulated by Tom Wheeler in Take Command: Leadership Lessons from the Civil War:

"It is perverse that mankind's basest instinct—war—should provide the cauldron in which individuals rise and manifest some of the species' finest attributes.  This book celebrates those moments when common people, placed in uncommon situations, reached into the depths of their souls and became decisive leaders.  Every day, in much smaller ways in both our personal and professional lives, each of us has the same opportunity.  The core challenges of leadership have not changed since the Civil War.  The lessons of Civil War leaders are as current as this morning's newspaper."