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NEWS | May 9, 2024

Marching Through Time: Michigan Army National Guard Officer Candidates Reflect on Leadership Lessons at Gettysburg

By Adam Betz

As the first rays of dawn pierced through the thick blanket of mist hovering over the historic fields of Gettysburg on March 28th, the Michigan Army National Guard Officer Candidate School Class 067 embarked on a journey through time. The March morning air was crisp, carrying with it whispers of the 3-day battle fought here in which 4,000 Michigan Soldiers took part; over 1,110 of those Michiganders engaged in battle became casualties, a 41% casualty rate. Against rolling Pennsylvania hills and serene countryside, the stage was set for an unforgettable military staff ride for OCS Class 067.

With a sense of reverence, the officers-to-be stepped onto the hallowed grounds where the fate of a nation had once hung in the balance. Each footfall resonated with the weight of history as they traced the footsteps of soldiers long gone. Now casting its golden hues upon the landscape, the sun illuminated battle scars still etched into the earth.

Led by U.S. Marine Corps Col (Ret.) Robert Abbott, the candidates delved into the intricacies of the Battle of Gettysburg, immersing themselves in an eight-hour engagement. The ground that was covered included McPherson (Herbst) Ridge, where the famed 24th Michigan Infantry delayed the Confederate military advance on July 1, 1863, in savage combat. Other locations included Oak Hill, the Mississippi Monument, the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, Culps Hill, and The Angle.

At each location, the candidates discussed the many tactical and strategic leadership lessons that can only be understood while walking the terrain.

Capt. Jason Peterson, commander of MIARNG OCS, knows the benefits and importance of conducting staff rides. “This event is one of the key culminating events for the Officer Candidates. Planning and executing staff rides offer our OCS candidates a sense of the hardships that leaders just like them endured during the Civil War, and think about how things are different today," said Peterson.

“We've advanced and have the benefit of technology and improved doctrine, but if you appreciate their experiences back then, it makes you a better soldier. In fact, some of the doctrine we use today in the U.S. Army is borne right from this very battlefield.”

The battlefield terrain, marked with memorials and plaques, offers a tangible representation of the challenges faced by the soldiers. It encourages soldiers to reflect on the importance of adaptability, leadership, and the ability to make critical decisions under intense pressure.

“Even though a lot of things have changed, it always goes back to the actions of the individual soldier and the courage they show," said Sgt. 1st Class Randall Gill, OCS instructor. "These staff rides not only benefit the officer corps, but there are also many NCO leadership examples to learn from this field."

At the Wheatfield location, the candidates stood in awe of the courage displayed by U.S. Army Col. Harrison Jefferds and his men of the 4th Michigan Infantry as they fought hand-to-hand over control of the 4th Michigan Colors, a hand-made gift from the citizens of Adrian, Mich.; the 4th's motto: “DEFEND IT”.

On Cemetery Ridge, they felt the weight of responsibility borne by U.S. Army General George Meade as he made crucial decisions about where, when, and how to shift his internal lines, actions that would shape the course of history. Amidst the solemn tranquility of the Soldiers' National Cemetery, they paid homage to the 173 Michigan Soldiers buried here, their spirits forever intertwined with the soil upon which they had fought.

“Some of the most profound examples of American military leadership took place on the fields around Gettysburg,” said Brig. Gen. Ravi Wagh, commander of the MIARNG. “This is an excellent opportunity for our junior leaders to learn from these lessons, and the importance of the sacrifices made here cannot be overstated to make better leaders for the Michigan Army National Guard.”

Wagh amplified the importance of military staff rides, stating “these [military staff rides] allow us to glance through the lens of 1863, distilling relevance for the future ground combat leaders of the MIARNG, ensuring our readiness and resilience in the face of any challenge."

With each passing moment, the bonds of camaraderie among the candidates grew stronger, forged in the crucible of shared experience. Through the lens of history, they gained invaluable insights into leadership, strategy, and the timeless lessons of warfare. More than that, though, they came to understand the profound responsibility of donning the uniform and carrying on the pledge of an idea... an idea that all men and women are created equal through our shared Constitutional rights.