Civil War battlefield tour challenges student perceptions of warfare © July 17, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

Professor Charles Sanders instructs graduate- and undergraduate-level students from Norwich University on the Chancellorsville, Va., battlefield site on the first day of a tour of several Civil War battle locations.

photo courtesy of Benjamin SipeProfessor Charles Sanders instructs graduate- and undergraduate-level students from Norwich University on the Chancellorsville, Va., battlefield site on the first day of a tour of several Civil War battle locations.

Jeff Horning, a Class of 2011 Norwich University cadet, felt his understanding of warfare change while standing on battlefields of the Civil War.

“I knew that it was difficult, for all war is difficult. However, I was not truly aware of some of the intricate stories woven throughout the battlefields, the occasional feelings of hopelessness and regret,” said Horning.

According to history Professor Steve Sodergren, director of the Northfield, Vt., college’s Studies in War and Peace [SWAP] program, Norwich cadets are future military leaders who can gain insight from the Union Army’s Overland and Petersburg campaigns of 1864 and 1865, detailed in a spring 2009 battlefield tour sponsored by Norwich’s graduate school. Four undergraduates accompanied the trip.

It makes one feel for the soldiers, regardless of the side upon which they fought.

~ Jeff Horning,
history student and cadet

“[The cadets] are gentlemen who someday may make military decisions similar to those made on these battlefields,” said Sodergren. “From an experiential standpoint, this allowed them to get into the heads of officers who were not much older than they are ... and actually understand the conditions under which they made those decisions.”

Developing an undergraduate component to the Staff Ride simply made sense, Sodergren said.

“This is a course that has a great deal of interest for your average history major who is trying to learn more about the Civil War and gain a more hands-on experience in the study of history,” he said.

Staff Ride began with a 2008 pilot project organized through the online School of Graduate Studies. While initially intended for enrichment only, this year’s trip offered academic incentive: one credit hour for the Master of Arts in Military History [MMH] program, and three credit hours for undergraduates.

The undergraduates, all members of Norwich’s Corps of Cadets who lead a military lifestyle, took an intensive two-week course. Initially, they met for three to four hours each morning for lectures and discussions on tactics, leadership, morale and the political and social issues of the war. Afternoons were devoted to research. To enable students to “get into the heads of officers,” Sodergren had each study the letters, memoirs and diaries of individual soldiers on both sides of the conflict.

“I wanted the students to become conversant about each person’s experiences, what each person said about these battles to the actual sites themselves,” said Sodergren. “Confederate Gen. John Gordon said, ‘I led my men into the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania.’ Well, if you’re standing at the Bloody Angle you’re seeing what Gordon was seeing and you can better make the connections, you can better understand the challenges he faced.”

Horning, a SWAP and history major, studied Union Gen. Horace Porter, an aide to Gen. Ulysses Grant, and a Confederate foot soldier named John Worsham. The effort was less about identifying with the two men as understanding “what they were saying and seeing what they saw,” said Horning. “This made the words I was reading that much more poignant.”

Horning has long been fascinated by history, but the Civil War was a topic he “just sort of glossed over.”

“The Staff Ride seemed like a great opportunity to learn about it,” he said.

After a week on campus, Sodergren and the undergraduates met with MMH students and the Staff Ride’s leader, military historian Charles W. Sanders of Kansas State University, in Fredericksburg, Va., to start the tour. For a week, they visited Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House, the Wilderness, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. During this time, each undergraduate made a presentation based upon their class work and research.

“As soon as they stepped onto the battlefield, without even realizing it, right away they started evaluating that site in accordance with these questions they’ve been answering,” said Sanders.

Without a doubt, the experience changed his perceptions about the Civil War, Horning said.

“It makes one feel for the soldiers, regardless of the side upon which they fought, because they all had to undergo these hardships,” he said.

Sodergren said further growth is being discussed for the Staff Ride.

“What we hope to do is establish a class that will have the same structure, but the content will change,” he said. “There would be a different Staff Ride each year for the two-week course, but instead of the Overland Campaign they might study Gettysburg and Antietam or the Peninsular Campaign of 1862.”

Sodergren said there have also been discussions about expanding the course to a 10-week online offering, still culminating in a tour.

Horning would jump at the chance visit more battlefields.

“As a future historian, anything I can learn about history is helpful. As a future military officer, learning the evolution of America’s way of doing battle is crucial to understanding the tactics and strategies used in today’s wars,” he said. “While seemingly outdated, I still saw reminders of some of the things I learn on a weekly basis.”