Winston Churchill once said, "Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it." Last week leaders from the 1st Cavalry Division and 3rd Cavalry Regiment spent time outside of the office participating in a three-day staff ride, which included visiting battlefields in southern Montana from the summer of 1876 Sioux War Campaign.
From September 17 thru 20, brigade commanders, the division cavalry squadron commander, their command sergeants major, and senior staff of the 1CD were given the opportunity to underpin their professional development by participating in the three phases of a U.S. Army Staff Ride: Preliminary Study Phase, Field Study Phase, and Integration Phase. The preliminary study phase included professional reading, followed by a series of classroom-based leadership professional development sessions (LPDs). The group then travelled to Montana to walk the ground and glean further insights during the field phase of the staff ride.
As part of the field study, the team was joined by subject matter experts from the Combat Studies Institute (CSI) out of Fort Leavenworth who facilitated the professional dialogue. The leaders walked the historic battlefields from the Battle of the Rosebud and the Battle of Little Big Horn both located in Big Horn County, Montana. This field study of two legendary U.S. Cavalry engagements with Native Americans enabled participants to deep dive into the decision-making processes of U.S. military and Sioux and Cheyenne leaders leading up to and during these military engagements. Those who participated in the staff ride each took on a role from key players involved in the battles allowing group members to critically apply those lessons learned from both battles into modern military training and operations.
Before the field study phase the team embarked on a collaborative LPD series that systematically analyzed the missions assigned to the US military at Rosebud and Little Bighorn, scrutinizing the situation, decisions made and perceived reasons for situational changes that caused decisions to be made or changed. Military historians have published an extensive number of books examining the conduct of this campaign. In order to enable the 1CD's staff discussions the CG provided 2 books, "Centennial Campaign, The Sioux War of 1876" by John Gray, "The Atlas of the Sioux Wars", by Charles D. Collins, Jr. and an article from Military Review "Custer and Cognition" by David C. Gompert, all of which provided a strong base for developed discussions enabling thought-provoking and challenging debates due to their well-balanced points of view and detailed analysis.
“This week’s staff ride was a great experience and provided the opportunity to walk the grounds and see firsthand the terrain at Rosebud and the Little Big Horn. We gained invaluable insight into leadership, decision making, and commander’s intent,” said Lt. Col. Hadiya O’Neal, 1CD adjutant general. “Being physically present, on the same ground as the 7th Cavalry Regiment, provided new perspectives for everyone.”
Maj. Gen. John Richardson, commanding general, 1CD, has been a major proponent of staff rides as training events. He believes the staff ride provides a very unique perspective for every staff member and the command teams using history as a vehicle to learn timeless lessons of leadership and military decision making. Richardson previously led staff rides to these two historic battlefields for his units at the squadron and the regimental levels in order to foster professional growth and development, nurture unit cohesion, and encourage a deeper appreciation and respect for military history.
“I am always trying to achieve an effect and one of the main effects we are trying to achieve on this staff ride as we pivot to building our warfighting capability as a division is unit cohesion,” Richardson said. “When I came into command over a year ago, I felt this staff ride would be a good transition at the one year point to consolidate the gains we had made over the year in team-building, and as we are preparing to stand up the new Division Cavalry Squadron(DIV CAV) and integrate the 3rd Cavalry Regiment into the division.”
In order to enhance the learning experience, Richardson invited two expert instructors from CSI, Mr. Chuck Collins and Mr. Kevin Kennedy, to lead the participants through the interactive field tour of the two battlefields. Both instructors are retired U.S. Army officers who studied the Sioux Campaign extensively and have led hundreds of CGSC students, over 80 staff rides, through the two battles between Sioux and Cheyenne warriors and U.S. Army.
Over a three-day period, participants traversed the landscape of the two battlegrounds on foot, by vehicle and ultimately on horseback while discussing the pros and cons of mental models and the balance between the commander’s reliance on intuition based on experience and reasoning based on new information and analysis, all which affect decisions made by key leaders on both sides of the conflict. Most valuable was the opportunity to analyze and understand the importance of terrain and its impact on military decisions, something that cannot be fully appreciated by simply reading a book or looking at a map.
Following the field tours, the leaders gathered at the Little Big Horn National Park cemetery to participate in the most important of the three phases of a staff ride, the Integration Phase. In this phase, leaders discuss the “so what?” What did we learn from the preliminary study and field work and how can we apply those lessons to be better leaders, commanders, and decision makers in the future, sharing leadership lessons they could apply today to strengthen relationships and improve training and overall readiness among leaders and Soldiers.
The Battle of the Little Big Horn, also called Custer’s Last Stand, named after the historical figure of Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer (brevet Major General during the U.S. Civil War), is considered the most significant battle of the Great Sioux War of 1876 because it marked the most decisive Native American victory and the worst U.S. Army defeat during the Plains Wars.
During final discussions at the Little Big Horn National Park Cemetery, participants noted the study of the campaign failures provided a platform from which to understand leadership challenges, the importance of adequate competitive intelligence, the advantage of resilient relationships and trust, effective and clear communication, and the need for focused un-biased decision-making under extreme pressure during an ever changing and highly fluid situation.
Through our detailed discussions, Richardson highlighted the key to making a good decision was to combine "reliable intuition with timely reasoning" something that was not executed on Little Big Horn.
As the only Canadian Army officer on the 1CD staff and also the G5 Plans Director, Col. Jordan Schaub reflected that he “was given the opportunity to support and oversee the final planning efforts of this event, as well as, attend a once in a lifetime professional development session which was extremely professionally valuable.”
“We all knew that we would be conducting research on the Battle of Little Bighorn, but I don't think we understood it would provide a forum where commanders and senior staff would come together to discuss, debate and exchange experience and thoughts with an intent to promote team building and strengthen our bonds further enabling the building of cohesive teams and unstoppable inertia towards success,” Schaub said.
The final day of the Staff Ride the group had the unique opportunity to ride horseback off the National Park grounds with tour guides from the Crow Nation, the Army’s Indian allies in the Sioux War, and ride the route taken by Custer and the 7th Cavalry on that fateful day, June 25th 1876, to see and experience the terrain the Troopers rode in 1876, adding another layer of understanding of the battlefield.
“It’s one thing to read about a battle and study the maps but to stand on the same hilltop, to actually see the terrain makes all the difference, “said Capt. Abigail Edwards, 1st Cavalry Division, Horse Cavalry Detachment Commander. “There’s a sense of understanding and perspective that you can’t find when you’re only looking at a paper. It helps to really learn and recognize the lessons of the past that we can use today and, in the future.”