A Tradition of Military Teaching on the Gettysburg Battlefield

United States Marines in front of the Codori Farm in 1922 during their reenactment of Pickett's Charge. Photo courtesy of Marine Corps University Research Archives, Quantico, Va.

In its early years, Gettysburg National Military Park fell under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of War.  In addition to providing access for normal visitors, the War Department also quite naturally used the battlefield for all varieties of military purposes, including training camps for the National Guard and U.S. Army, and instruction for those studying military science such as the cadets of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The first large-scale use of the battlefield for military training was in 1884, when a division of the Pennsylvania National Guard camped for seven days.  In 1894, regular U.S. troops joined the Pennsylvania National Guard in another encampment.  Soon after its establishment as a National Military Park, active-duty military units began to visit the battlefield in large encampments.  According to the Gettysburg Compiler, 9,500 members of the National Guard of Pennsylvania camped at Gettysburg from July 12th to the 19th in 1902.  The Guards were told “Boys, when you camp here, your eight days will not be half long enough to learn what took place here before you were born.  Here on this spot by the gallantry of your fathers our Union and this glorious country of ours was saved.”

In March 1910, 5,000 members of the regular army and the National Guard encamped on the battlefield.

Soldiers at Camp Colt follow a Renault tank over the remains of the bank barn on the Bliss farm on the fields of Pickett's Charge. Eisenhower was responsible for training the soldiers to operate ands fight with tanks, a new weapon in 1918. The Gettysburg battlefield was their classroom. Photo courtesy of National Archives, Army Signal Corps #15531, August 8, 1918, Photographer James L. McGarrigle.

In 1918 the U.S. Army established Camp Colt on the battlefield, under the command of Captain Dwight D. Eisenhower, as a training camp for the Army’s new Tank Corps.  Although there were only two of the small French tanks available for training, at its height Camp Colt supported a military population of over 10,000.

In 1922, a contingent of the US Marines Corps marched to Gettysburg from Quantico, Virginia.  During the stay, they reenacted Pickett’s Charge twice–once like the 1863 soldiers fought it, then a second time with the aid of tanks and planes. 

After Gettysburg was transferred from the Department of War to a new, young agency called the National Park Service in 1933, use of the battlefield for large-scale military encampments and training declined.

By that time, Gettysburg had also become a favorite spot for military leadership training.  Starting around the turn of the century, the senior class of West Point began the tradition of visiting and studying the battlefield.  During these “Staff Rides,” cadets studied the terrain, the strategy of the commanders, and the leadership qualities of unit commanders during those fateful days of July 1863.  The “Staff Ride” tradition continues to this day, with excursions from West Point, the Army War College, the Command and General Staff College, and innumerable visits from active and reserve component units of all branches of the U.S. military.   

In the latest evolution of Gettysburg as classroom, the Gettysburg Foundation and others offer opportunities for corporate executives and business leaders to do “Staff Rides” on the battlefield.  They study the important lessons of military leadership and apply them to the corporate world and the development of business leaders.

Gettysburg Park Ranger Greg Coco talks with soldiers in the national cemetery in 2005.

Gettysburg presents lessons in leadership for us all, from the average visitor to the staff and leadership of our nation’s corporations, military, academia, and government.  The park’s ongoing efforts to preserve the battlefield and bring back missing features that affected the fighting in 1863 enhance your understanding whether you’re from West Point, West Virginia, or Westinghouse.

Katie Lawhon, Management Assistant

Special thanks to John Heiser for his assistance with this blog.

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Staff of Gettysburg National Military Park
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2 Responses to A Tradition of Military Teaching on the Gettysburg Battlefield

  1. Charles Bowery says:

    Great post. It would be nice to read about the USMC test of Longstreet’s 2 July approach march. I believe they did it sometime in the 1980s.

    • The Staff says:

      Charles,

      I am not familiar with the Marine Corps conducting an approach march to Gettysburg in the 1980′s. The only Marine Corps march to Gettysburg that I know of is that of the 5th and 6th Marines led by General Smedley Butler from Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg in June 1922.

      Scott Hartwig

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