Battlefield sites illuminate Civil War for military history students

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In the midst of the Wilderness, Eric Mathews experienced illumination. The thicket of Virginia woodlands, the scene of one of the most horrific battles of the Civil War, was some of the thickest he had ever seen.

"That's when the reality of what happened there catches up with you," said Mathews, a student in the Master of Arts in Military History program. "You realize, 'Yeah, you could lose an entire division in that mess and accidentally have it captured.'"

He was one of a dozen participants in Norwich University's second-annual Staff Ride. Organized by Norwich's College of Graduate and Continuing Studies, the Staff Ride took eight graduate students and four undergraduates on an in-depth tour of Civil War battlefields. First offered as a noncredit, pilot program in 2008, this year's Staff Ride was a four-week course worth one credit hour.

Dr. Charles Sanders, who leads the seminar, said what happened to Mathews in the Wilderness is the best part of the experience for him, because he gets to "see these students as history literally comes alive."

"You can read books about the Civil War, you can study maps, all those things," said Sanders, a 23-year Army veteran and assistant professor of history at Kansas State University. "But actually walking the ground … where these things took place makes it come alive.

"To stand at the Bloody Angle, which is only a 100-feet by 300-feet plot, and understand that 20,000 Americans fought and died [or were wounded] there that day, under conditions we can't even begin to imagine - it's not a cliché. You really do understand that you're standing on hallowed ground."

Sanders considers the Norwich program the "gold standard" of military history degrees because offerings such as the Staff Ride go beyond the "standard bugles and battles" history course, exploring facets of military history, such as tactics, maneuvers, weather, terrain, logistics and the roles chance and circumstance play after the firing starts.

The Staff Ride began with three weeks of class work and readings before the group gathered in Fredericksburg, Va., to start the tour of battlefields of the Overland and Petersburg campaigns of 1864 and 1865, including the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. Readings were selected to provide students with an analytical framework to understand what they were seeing.

"As soon as they stepped onto the battlefield, without even realizing it, right away they started evaluating that site in accordance with these questions they've been answering for three weeks," said Sanders. "In other words, 'What is the terrain here, and how would that impact the battle? What was the weather like that day? Were these men well supplied? What was the command-and-control network like? Did they have good leaders or bad leaders?'"

Early tours of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville battlefields served to "jerk" students out of the "air-conditioned" 21st century and put them into the "19th century, backwoods world of the Civil War," he said.

Mathews' experience in the Wilderness is an example of the verisimilitude Sanders seeks in the course. Sanders had the class form in ranks and attempt to march through the forest as he barked orders to shift from one direction to the other. Eventually, he brought the class to a stop and asked if anyone could find their way back to the trail. No one took up his challenge.

The class toured each battlefield for eight to 10 hours a day, stopping only for a 30-minute lunch. During the evenings, they gathered for additional 90- to 120-minute presentations and discussions.

Discussions are underway to expand the course to 11 weeks for three credit hours. The Staff Ride's success, said Sanders, is due to the vision of Program Director James Ehrman.

"He has an acute sense of what is possible," said Sanders. "He takes what is possible and pushes the envelope, always asking 'What if we did this' or 'What if we added that over here?'"

Sanders also credited the course's success to organizational and logistical support coordinated by Benjamin Sipe, associate director.

"I don't care how good I am on the battlefield," Sanders said. "If, when we get back to the hotel, there's no hot water … if Norwich doesn't deliver what Norwich promised, game over."

As far as Shellie Garrett '09 is concerned, the program delivered on all its promises. He was drawn to the program because of his interest in teaching history. He knew about Norwich's reputation from an NU alumnus he served with in the Army, and said the Staff Ride was a great way to wrap up his studies.

Like Mathews, Garrett experienced a moment of clarity in the Wilderness. It came when Sanders explained Ulysses S. Grant's moves after the battle. Instead of retreating northward like his predecessors after suffering grievous losses, Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac to march south.

"It showed that Grant wasn't giving up and would go relentlessly on toward Richmond," said Garrett. "It showed his doggedness and that the North was going to win the war."