Every Saturday morning at Annapolis, Plebes and select upperclassmen participate in six hours worth of midshipman-led professional training. These evolutions vary by company and season, including such activities as running through the obstacle course, discussions with combat veterans, and, most recently, a trip to Gettysburg National Battlefield.
Midshipman 2/c Hobart Kistler, a native of Central, PA, has led tours of that most Hallowed Ground for the past eight years, and, needless to say, knows the place inside-out. Under Kistler’s supervision, 40 midshipmen (I among them) from the Academy’s distinguished 13th Company made the trip two weekends ago, departing Annapolis at 0530- early even by a midshipman’s standard for a Saturday.
Having visited numerous Civil War battlefields growing up in Virginia, I assumed Kistler would give the standard tour with our bus driving us between points of interest. I was quite surprised to hear that we would march, run, and charge over the entire field, just as Confederate and Union soldiers did 149 years ago!
Heavy dew still covered the grass as we stepped off the bus at just after 0700 on that chilly morning. Apart from the specter of a few silent cannons visible in the early morning haze, the terrain looked much like any other section of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Kistler began our tour at the site of the first day’s fighting- July 1st, 1863. Marching in columns of four, we entered Herbst’s Woods, where a rebel sniper shot Major General John Reynolds as he desperately deployed his men to stem the Confederate attacks. Next came a sharp rush into the Railroad Cut, where hundreds of North Carolinians squared off with the Union’s elite Iron Brigade. We wrapped things up with a mile-long run up to the Eternal Peace Memorial, dedicated by FDR on the battle’s 75th anniversary, in 1938. There, Kistler told us the story of John Burns, an elderly Gettysburg resident and War of 1812 veteran who donned his faded uniform and flintlock and was wounded five times that day while fighting to keep the Secessionists from overrunning the homestead he had risked his life to defend almost a half-century earlier.
Craig is our resident Civil War expert, not me.
But getting out and running and walking the same ground as forebears is the only way to really tour a battlefield.
Now, you may be thinking, “Why should Navy guys walk an Army battlefield?” Well, because war is war. As these young Midshipmen, future leaders of sailors (and for some, leaders of Marines), seeing the challenges faced on a battlefield illuminates to some small degree the challenge they will face as leaders in times of crisis or strife.
Not a whole lot has really changed in warfare over the course of history. Oh, the techniques, weapons, and tactics, sure. But the fundamental human struggle is the same as it ever was. The basic tenets of leadership in battle are timeless.