SSP and a Day at Gettysburg

By: Rebecca Robison, Reporter

Photo Credit: Rebecca Robison

Looking across the tranquil fields of Gettysburg on a remarkably serene day, one finds it difficult to imagine so many soldiers bled and died on those same expanses over 150 years ago. In total, 36 students and four professors from Georgetown’s Security Studies Program (SSP) overlooked this scene on Saturday, September 23rd and reflected on the lessons of the US Civil War campaign at Gettysburg. Meeting at the front gates of Georgetown University before 7a.m., these students were the lucky few who had obtained a coveted spot on one of SSP’s most popular events.

Earlier in the week, many of these students also attended Professor Tom McNaugher’s lunchtime lecture, “The Civil War and the Road to Gettysburg,” which set the stage for the upcoming trip. Professor McNaugher often refers to the Civil War as “the last simple war or the first complicated war,” since it saw the introduction of rifled firearms but not much else. These munitions disrupted the Napoleonic Era’s tactical balance between offense and defense. Studying the Civil War allows us to watch how military organizations and doctrine adapted to change.

Professor McNaugher laid the groundwork for the upcoming day at Gettysburg by presenting the unique challenges that faced the North and the South. Abraham Lincoln had developed a threefold strategy of isolating the South with a blockade, destroying General Robert E. Lee’s army, and focusing on attacking the Confederate armies rather than striking Richmond. However, as McNaugher noted, Lincoln had not yet found a general to carry out his strategic plan. For the South, General Lee devised a strategy of an offensive-defense. He recognized the necessity of taking the war to the North and, hopefully, undermining Lincoln’s electoral prospects. Yet, the demands of Confederate states for adequate defense and the subsequent restrictions on manpower hampered Lee’s efforts. When the engagement at Gettysburg arrived, these constraints hung over the strategic significance of the battle. Thanks to Professor McNaugher, SSP’s trip to Gettysburg was clearly placed in the context of these strategic challenges and objectives.

Comprised predominately of first semester SSP students, the Gettysburg trip offered those in the early days of their studies the opportunity to walk the battlegrounds and obtain a fresh understanding of the mechanics of operational and tactical levels of war. The day’s “commander” was Jim Rabon, SSP Adjunct Professor. With his commanding voice, Professor Rabon balanced in the middle of the bus and delivered a forty-five minute lecture from memory on the events leading up to Gettysburg. He concluded, with the air of a former cavalryman, that the students had now assumed responsibility for their “battle buddy” (the fellow SSP student who happened to occupy the seat next to him or her on the bus) for the duration of the day.

Armed with maps and coffee, the students and professors made their way across Gettysburg following the hourly progression of the three-day battle. Particularly fitting for the students currently enrolled in the SSP core class, Grand Strategy and Military Operations, was Professor Rabon’s integration of Clausewitzian principles of friction, the fog of war, chance, and coup d’oeil. Rabon incorporated these tenets at every stop throughout the day, drawing parallels between the battle and Clausewitz’s On War. As Professor Rabon detailed the weapons each side used, Professor McNaugher and Professor John Gordon instructed students on the details of battle.

Each day of the battle, as Professor Rabon could not fail to mention, the Union and Confederate forces faced the friction and fog of warfare. Every failure of intelligence and communication complicated the tactical planning of the commanding officers. Most notably, the unknown location of General J.E.B. Stuart and his forces further compounded the uncertainties of the battle for General Lee. It became a constant refrain of the day for Professor Rabon to remind students that Lee still had not heard from Stuart. As everyone stood on Little Round Top, Professor Gordon pointed out some of the most brutal engagements of the battle. Despite the ferocity and confusion of battle, soldiers displayed astounding acts of heroism on Little Round Top and Wheatfield.

The trip’s student attendees absorbed a wealth of information about the tactics, strategies, and interpersonal relationships involved in the historic battle. Sitting down to eat their boxed lunches, students were perhaps a bit exhausted from the deluge of information and sweltering sun—how did soldiers march 30 miles in such weather then fight all day in the heat and in full uniform? Conversely, the professors hardly showed signs of fatigue; in fact, they seemed to derive energy from speaking about the intimate details of the battle. They appeared unable to contain their passion for the minute details of each engagement. As Professor Gordon remarked, Rabon appeared to know every blade of grass on the battlefield. Each of the men showed evident fascination with this conflict, retaining a detailed accounting of the days’ events that had been committed to memory after leading the trip numerous times. Professor Gordon could not even recall the amount of times he had gone on the trip while Professor McNaugher stated that this October would mark his sixteenth time on such a trip.

The study of the Battle of Gettysburg somberly reminds us of both the costs of war and why we wage it. The Union’s victory at Gettysburg remains mixed with the awareness of the scores who died on the battlefield and the thousands more who died in the following weeks and months due to dismal medical conditions—a steep cost for victory. For SSP students, the day at Gettysburg provided not only an historical framework for the study of tactics and strategy, but also highlighted the very real challenges that Clausewitzian fog and friction present during war. For new SSP students, this intimate exposure to Gettysburg illuminated the gravity of their mission as they begin their studies and prepare for careers that may require them to make decisions that often come at very high costs.

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