During the 19th Century, the Prussian Army led the way in the field of military education for its officers and future commanders. The Prussians introduced institutions of formal higher military education, the use of map or terrain table based war games to hone decision-making skills, and they introduced the staff ride – a guided tour of an historical battlefield to included examination and discussion of what happened during the battle fought on that ground and why. This practice is one of the reasons for the existence today of our own National Battlefield and National Historical Parks and Sites maintained by the underfunded National Park Service. Originally intended for the training of America’s military officers, these parks are now part of a larger system intended to introduce the American people and others visiting the United States to the complicated history that created and shaped this nation.
Officers on a military staff ride would be expected to have read about and studied the battle before the ride. During the actual staff ride, the director of the ride might challenge one of the participating officers with a question about what actions he might take to attack or defend a given position on the battlefield, or whether the original attack might have been better executed or supported perhaps resulting in a different outcome. In my experience, there is still no better way to really understand a battle than to visit and walk over the ground upon which it was fought. I am happy to say that I have had the good fortune to be able to personally visit many battlefields, fortifications, castles, etc. during my travels and have been cataloging my collection of such visits on Google Maps: Battlefields, Castles, and Forts I Have Visited.
The importance of terrain and its impact on a battle is an aspect of warfare not often explained to the general public and not easily accessible to those not professional soldiers. Jeff Shaara’s “Killer Angels” included several references to the importance of “good ground” and how it shaped the battle of Gettysburg – highlighted by General George Meade’s question (as a new and still nervous commander of the Army of the Potomac) arriving at the battlefield during the night, “Is this good ground?” meaning, can this army fight and possibly win here against Robert E. Lee? He was quickly assured that, “This is good ground!” There are today a few books that explain how terrain and climate affect military operations, historically and today. These include:
"Military Geography for Professionals and the Public" by John M. Collins (ISBN 1-57906-002-1),
"Battlegrounds, Geography and the History of Warfare" edited by Michael Stephenson (ISBN 0-7922-3374-3), and
"Battling the Elements, Weather and Terrain in the Conduct of War" by Harold A. Winters (ISBN 0-8018-5850-X).
I recently viewed a cable TV documentary program on the battle of Antietam that did succeed in illustrating the importance of terrain on a battle and upon the men who are fighting it. A couple of participating researchers and a cameraman stood in the sunken lane position held by Confederate troops. As they watched from this vantage point, a second group of researchers walked towards them along the route followed by Thomas Francis Meagher’s Irish Brigade during its original attack on the lane. Viewers clearly saw the approaching researchers appear and disappear in the undulations and irregularities of the ground which would have protected the advancing Irish from much of the Confederate fire until they were very close. This meant that despite the distance of the open ground they had to cross, the men of the Irish Brigade were actually protected in great degree against Confederate fire by the undulating nature of the ground leading up to the Confederate position in the sunken lane. Such insights into why a battle was fought or ended in a particular way can only be obtained on the actual ground.
The modern day equivalent of the Staff Ride can be achieved with a good guide book or a good guide and some preparation before you visit the battlefield. It is also possible to download complete staff ride guides for a number of U.S. battlefields that have been prepared by the Center for Military History. You can start with a booklet that explains the Staff Ride itself and what goes into the planning of a staff ride called "The Staff Ride." You can also download Adobe pdf versions of the staff ride guide books to several battlefields in the United States from the Army Command and General Staff School website.
The available ones include:
The Battle of Cowpens (South Carolina)
First Bull Run (Virginia)
The Battle of Antietam (Maryland)
The Battle of Balls Bluff (Virginia)
You can also find useful maps for visiting Civil War battlefields at the website of The Civil War Preservation Trust which hosts a collection of maps prepared by the organization. A number of these are even presented on the website with animation and discussion of the battle. The Osprey Campaign Series of books published in the UK and the US are a series of books on wars, campaigns, and battles that include good maps and information useful in walking a battlefield. Also from the UK comes the publication After The Battle “Then and Now” which publishes books and magazine collections of photos showing many battlefields as they appeared in period photographs and images alongside photos of how they appear today (or at least as of the date of publication given how long this magazine has been around).
In addition to the research and reading before the battle, you will want to make sure that everyone dresses appropriately, wears good walking shoes, and has easy access to plenty of water. Many successful staff rides include a planned picnic and/or an evening dinner over which the day’s trip can be discussed further. Optional but often useful items would also include binoculars (or a telescope if you want an idea of how an 18th and many 19th Century generals viewed a battlefield), a compass or handheld GPS receiver that will also give you compass points and bearings.
So, got everything you need? En avance!