Walk the Civil War battlefields

Eric Rowe – Staff Writer

It’s not a re-enactment in the sense of dress uping and firing weapons, and it’s not just a tour. The second Annual Dordt College Staff Ride July 9-12 is a learning vacation in which participants physically walk the Civil War battlefields of Wilson’s Creek, Missouri and Pea Ridge, Arkansas.

“People are assigned generals and men in leadership positions,” Paul Fessler, history professor and Staff Ride leader said. You research your historical person and you are the expert when you visit the battlefield.

While walking the terrain, they will share the strategies and tactics their general employed. The group will spend the entire day where the battle was fought and will ask why that person made the decisions they made.

“When walking the battlefield,” Fessler said. “You see the consequences of decisions these people make in a very concrete way.”

The staff ride was first developed by the Prussians to train their military generals in the 19th century and U.S. army war colleges still use it as a teaching tool today.

This is not just for the military or civil war buffs. Business executives will also participate in staff rides in order to learn to be good leaders.

A battlefield is a place where there are definite consequences to bad decisions, analysing those decisions informs how to make good decisions.

Forest fire fighters also employ a form of a staff ride at former burn sites. David Thomas, USDA Forest Service, emphasized the benefits of a narrative staff ride.

“Deep learning can begin,” Thomas said. “Stories are easier to understand, to remember and to use. Also, stories can more easily deal with ambiguity, the “fog of battle” that is so common to forest fire environments.”

Fessler was introduced to the staff ride and its value as a learning tool when he was a fellow at West Point. He modified it for his history course on the civil war and has been leading staff rides for his students for four years.

Unlike the class field trips in which students slept on the floor of cabins and baked their own hardtack, the July trip will provide participants with the opportunity to stay at a pre-1860 era manor house, along with meals, and a battlefield guidebook so that you don’t have to do all your own research while familiarizing yourself with the role you will represent.

“The readings are designed to put you in the shoes of the battles’ leaders,” the event website said. “You’ll understand what challenged, frustrated, and motivated them.”

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