Even though Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee never thought of national security as we conceive of it today, and the Civil War has been over for 150 years, today’s military can glean important insights from the war’s iconic battles. But with expanded development threatening battlefields in Gettysburg, Pa., Spotsylvania County, Va., and Pickett’s Mill, Ga., the chance to study what happened in these places in the current context, and to understand both good and bad leadership displayed there, is also in danger.
The tactics may not apply to modern warfare, but Civil War battlefields provide “valuable lessons we can learn about military leadership,” according to Dr. Conrad Crane, director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Pa.
It’s the mission of the Civil War Preservation Trust to ensure that opportunity is not stripped away.
“We subscribe to the theory that if you destroy where history happened, you start the process of destroying that history,” said Jim Lighthizer, president of the trust. “If you destroy that history, you very possibly might repeat the same mistakes you made in that period.”
The trust recently released its list of the 10 most endangered battlefields for 2010, and legendary Gettysburg made the cut. David LeVan, a former CEO of Conrail Corp and a local motorcycle dealer, wants to build a 5,000 square foot casino on the outskirts of town.
Crane said the preservation of Civil War battlefields, especially ones like Gettysburg where the leaders had to make improvised decisions directly affecting the outcome, is invaluable in teaching today’s military how to lead a force.
“From a military standpoint, the battlefields were initially preserved for staff rides for soldiers so they could get out and see the ground the way it was and work through the decision-making processes of the combatants at the time,” Crane said. “It’s a lot more useful to do a staff ride where you can actually see the ground than if you’re walking through a housing area.
“It goes back to being able to really go back in the past, to stand in position and say ‘This is where Robert E. Lee was when he made this decision.’”
The Wilderness in Spotsylvania County, Va., about 55 miles south of Washington, saw both the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863 and the Battle of The Wilderness in 1864. Chancellorsville holds special importance because it’s where Stonewall Jackson lost an arm in a friendly fire incident while searching in darkness for a way to continue the battle with the Army of the Potomac reeling. Eight days later, Jackson was dead, a victim of pneumonia. Two months later, the Confederates lost at Gettysburg, a battle in which Jackson’s leadership could have made a dramatic difference.
Now, the battlefield is threatened by a major shopping center with a Wal-Mart and four other retail outlets. Encroachment by commercial properties jeopardizes the site where Lee took the initiative and divided his forces, a controversial leadership decision that had allowed Jackson, who would eventually fall in a friendly fire incident that led to his pneumonia, to roll up the Union’s right flank and rout a force that doubled his own.
“The experience of walking in those footsteps will be irreparably changed,” said author Jeff Shaara, who has written multiple novels about the Civil War, including “Gods and Generals.”
With counterinsurgency playing such a large role in military operations, the Army and Marines could learn a lot from the ways the Union fought John Singleton Mosby, William Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson, partisans who engaged the Federal Army from the Atlantic all the way to Kansas. But with battlefields across the country succumbing to urban sprawl, those lessons may fade away into the past.