Staff rides have been officially used by the United States Army to enhance the training of military professionals since the early 1900s. At that time, they were introduced by Major Eban Swift into the curriculum of Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The term “ride” stems from the fact that these exercises were initially conducted on horseback. Yet, whatever the means of locomotion these immersion style training sessions have proved invaluable over the years in developing the next generation of military leaders and planners.
Staff rides generally include a guided tour led by a qualified military historian of a particular battlefield (often Civil War) with emphasis on leadership, tactics, and decision-making. But unlike a general tour, participants are required to play an active role in explaining and interpreting, among other things, how battlefield topography and terrain affected key decisions made by unit commanders during various phases of the battle being studied. Also analyzed are such variables as weaponry, force structure, logistics and backgrounds/personalities of key leaders involved. Exploring the actual terrain also underscores the importance of preserving yesterday’s fields of conflict as active proving grounds for young army officers and NCOs of today, linking past insights to present realities.
Major General Jacob D. Cox and members of his staff.
At least one Civil War commander was well aware of the educational value of such instruction when, in 1865, he conducted what was certainly one of the US Army’s first bona fide staff rides. That man was Union General Jacob D. Cox. Although born in Montreal, Cox established educational and business credentials in Ohio and was commissioned brigadier-general of that state’s volunteer forces in 1861. Active service in West Virginia, the Maryland Campaign of 1862, and the battles for Atlanta earned him both reputation and rapid promotion. By late 1864 he led the Federal XXIII Corps as Major-General and capably fought his way thru Tennessee and eastern North Carolina. At war’s end he was appointed occupation commander of the Greensboro Military District of North Carolina. His herculean mission was to effect a peaceful transition in Guilford and adjoining counties while collecting war material from and issuing paroles to surrendered soldiers of General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate forces.
Once things settled down a bit under Cox’s steady guiding hand, the inquisitive General sought to acquaint himself with the surrounding area. As a military man, he was obviously well aware of the region’s role in the American Revolution and the nearby battlefield of Guilford Court House. There the patriot forces under General Nathaniel Greene, although tactically defeated, inflicted staggering losses on the British army of Lord Cornwallis. So, gathering some key members of his veteran staff together, Cox organized what was certainly a precursor of what would become the latter day “Staff Ride.” His observations of that excursion, as described in his highly readable memoirs, are both trenchant and prescient:
“A summer ride which a party of us took to the battlefield of “Guilford-Old-Court-House” may be worth noting as an encouragement to believe that our descriptions of the scenes of our own engagements need not become unintelligible even in the distant future. Among the combats of our Revolutionary War, Guilford Court House ranks high in importance; for the check there given to the invading British army under Lord Cornwallis by the Continental forces under General Greene was the turning-point in a campaign. Greensborough is the present county-seat of Guilford County, and the “Old Court House,” a few miles distant, has disappeared as a village, a few buildings almost unused being the only mark of the old town.
Natural topography, however, does not change its material features easily, and in this case a cleared field or two where the forest had formerly extended seemed to be the only change that had occurred in the past century. With General Greene’s official report of the battle in our hands, we could trace with complete accuracy every movement of the advancing enemy and his own dispositions to receive the attack. We could see the reasons for the movements on both sides, and how the undulations of surface and the cover of woods and fences were taken advantage of by either commander.
Military principles being the same in all times, we found ourselves criticizing the movements as if they had occurred on one of our own recent battlefields. It brought the older and the later war into almost startling nearness and made us realize as perhaps nothing else could have done, how the future visitor will trace the movements in which we have had a part; and when we have been dust for centuries, will follow the path of our battalions from hill to hill, from stream to stream, from the border of a wood to the open ground where the bloody conflict was hand to hand, and will comment upon the history we have made. It pointed the lesson that what is accurate in our reports and narratives will be recognized by the intelligent critic, and that the face of the country itself will be an unalterable record which will go far to expose the true reasons of things,–to show what statements are consistent with the physical conditions under which a battle was fought, and what, if any, are warped to hide a repulse or to claim a false success.
Nature herself will thus prove the strongest ally of truth.”
Ironically, the validity of General Cox’s last statement is still being tested on the Guilford Court House National Battlefield today. During the last twenty years, based upon period first-person descriptions of the battlefield, the NPS has revised its markers denoting the actual position of General Greene’s famous “Third Line.” It was here that the Maryland regulars clashed with the British Guards regiment in a hand-to-hand melee. The new interpretation places the line 1/4 mile distant from the old one on land not under the ownership of the National park Service. Some students of the battle accept this; some don’t. But in this case, the accuracy of “reports and narratives” describing battlefield features, as noted by Cox above, seems to have trumped other evidence.
Who knows what future “staff rides” by amateur historians, military professionals or plain old battlefield trampers will uncover on other historic grounds?
A period map of the Guilford Court House battlefield from the memoirs of British Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Union General Cox may have used such a map in his staff ride. Map courtesy NPS files.
by Bob Williams