150 years removed, lessons still learned

By JEFF SAY | The Culpeper (Va.) Star-Exponent | Published: January 23, 2014

CULPEPER, Va. — Strategy that came into play 150 years ago is still helping to shape the decisions of our nation's military forces.

The Marine Corps University visited Brandy Station Battlefield Tuesday in an effort to study the logistics and strategies of the Battle of Brandy Station, fought on June 9, 1863.

Despite having happened more than 150 years ago, there are still lessons to be learned that can be applied to modern-day warfare, historian and university professor Bruce Gudmundsson said.

Gudmundsson said the university brings students from the basic school to Brandy Station about every six weeks to offer a decision forcing staff ride. The instructors put the students in a position, tell them what happened the day before, what is happening in the distance and then ask them to make decisions based on that information.

"What we like about it is that it's such a well-preserved battlefield," Gudmundsson said. "It's more like it was in 1863 than most of the battlefields. The foundation is to thank for a lot of that.

"Most of the groups come from the basic school, which is our school for lieutenants," Gudmundsson said. "Brandy Station is a good battle for them because it's probably something they don't know much about coming in. You don't know how it ends. We don't say 'here you are, here's the story of the battle.' We say 'here you are, you're a character in the battle. What do you do?'"

Gudmundsson said the Marines study mostly the Confederate side of the battle, due to both logistics and convenience. Most of the Confederate side of the battle is preserved and public land, plus it sits on high ground, allowing students to see the battle the way Major Robert Beckham would have.

Tuesday's visit was special, as a pair of interested parties from across the pond tagged along.

Major General Julian Thomson, retired, of the British Royal Marines and Commodore Michael Clapp of the British Amphibious Task Force, were stateside to speak at the university. Both hold a keen interest in the American Civil War and joined the discussion on the battle.

Thomson and Clapp, who were both instrumental in the Falkland Islands campaign, will speak to the Expeditionary Warfare School for Captains later this week.

"It started off as research for one class and it has turned into a series of classes for the Captains course and a class for the University as a whole," Gudmundsson said.

The opportunity to show off the battlefield and include the British commanders in the discussion was a perfect opportunity, Gudmundsson said.

Thomson said he has visited other Civil War battlefields but was impressed with the pristine Brandy Station location. He noted that Americans preserve their battlefields much better than the English.

"It's an absolutely perfect opportunity," Thomson said. "I'm very keen on the American Civil War. It's very interesting to come here because it's not as well known as many of the others. And it takes place in a relatively small area.

"You can see where all the key events happened, it's very interesting because it brings out a number of lessons such as the enemy may think of a different way than you," Thomson said. "And they might do something you didn't plan for."

For the Brandy Station Foundation, working with the Marine Corps University is a natural way to increase visibility of the battle and to help educate future leaders in the U.S. military.

"It's a tremendous opportunity," Brandy Station Foundation President Joe McKinney said. "The Battle of Brandy Station was a very significant battle during the Civil War. There are a lot of lessons learned from the battle — how the commanders assessed the situation and the decisions they made. The battlefield itself is so pristine that today you can almost put yourself back into what it was like in June of 1863."

McKinney, who graduated from United States Military Academy at West Point, pointed out that military tactics and techniques evolve over the years, but the underlying "principles of war" endure.

Some of the techniques McKinney said that are discussed are: MOSS MOUSE — Mass; Offense; Surprise; Security; Maneuver; Objective; Unity of Command; Simplicity; Economy of Force.

"The principles provide a framework by which present-day military officers can evaluate the decisions made by commanders in the past," McKinney said.

The group toured two parts of the battlefield Tuesday, visiting the St. James Church and Fleetwood Hill areas, all the while dodging snow squalls and brisk wind.

"It's just a lot of fun," McKinney said. "Experienced military commanders like Gen. Thomson and Commander Clapp know the questions to ask to make it a very interesting discussion."


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