Cold Harbor battlefield teaches Civil War lessons to today's generals
March 15, 2010
- It was more than a bus tour. Senior Army leaders have gathered in Williamsburg for a leadership conference that brings together the various
- Donning jackets, sunglasses and walking shoes, the Army brass resembled a typical group of tourists - albeit highly educated ones - as they
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Today's Army generals are more worried about roadside bombs than cannonballs, more familiar with Humvees than horses, but they can still learn from 1864.
That was the sense Tuesday after dozens of top Army generals and command sergeants major toured the killing fields of Cold Harbor and reviewed the initial sparring at Petersburg during the final months of the Civil War.
It was more than a bus tour. Senior Army leaders have gathered in Williamsburg for a leadership conference that brings together the various Army schools from the Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC, headquartered at Fort Monroe in Hampton. The conference began Wednesday and ends today.
Donning jackets, sunglasses and walking shoes, the Army brass resembled a typical group of tourists - albeit highly educated ones - as they inspected old breastworks and gazed across former battle lines, relating that to the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lt. Gen. Michael Vane's official title is deputy commanding general, Futures; and director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center. Among his many writings has been a white paper about robots on the battlefield.
As someone who thinks a lot about the military's near-term future, he found much to ponder about 1864.
"The way they thought about how to organize themselves, how to integrate the various war-fighting functions, as we call them ... the development of information and intelligence," he said. "Oftentimes, these lessons repeat themselves in battle continually."
Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant suffered horrendous losses at Cold Harbor, but he continued to press the fight against Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. It earned Grant a measure of respect among his men.
The enduring lesson for today's warfighter is in "the value of personal relationships," said Vane.
"From young privates, young soldiers who look up at their general and see what kinds of actions they display on the battlefield, how their general talks about things, which inspires confidence - or not," he said.
Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster ticked off a number of parallels between Cold Harbor and today.
On the tactical side, cohesion of combat units at Cold Harbor suffered because of losses, attrition and soldiers rotating out. It speaks to the value of keeping units together.
But McMaster also spoke of the human dimension, turning his attention to Grant, who pursued Lee with a single-minded obsession, not content to simply "manage" the conflict.
He said America needs that same determination to win today's high-stakes fight, even though the world is more complex.
"You're not going to drive into Richmond, capture the Capitol, accept the surrender of the army and the war's over," he said, adding that the long period of Reconstruction meant that the war wasn't really over anyway.
"If victory is the object, you have to think hard about that and define it," he said, and then explain it to soldiers who are taking the risk.
Copyright © 2010, Newport News, Va., Daily Press
(Reprinted with permission from Daily Press)