Officer Education at CGSC: The Origin, Revival and Value of the Staff Ride

Article excerpt

In the early 1900s, a group of Army officers attending what would become the modern U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., boarded trains to travel to the South. They had prepared for the study of the Civil campaigns of 1864 by reading extensive reports from both sides of the conflict. For the next couple of weeks, in what became known as a "staff ride," they rode the routes on horseback and visited the numerous battlefields of the Civil War.

The staff ride began as an analytical exercise used by the Army School of the Line (predecessor of the U.S. Army CGSC) Tactics Department to encourage students to conduct original research and delve into a level of study now known as operational art. It was part of the second-year course for selected students, intended to bridge the gap between tactical studies at the School of the Line at Fort Leavenworth and strategic studies conducted at the Army War College, originally located in Washington, D.C.

While the staff rides used historical venues, their primary purpose was the study and application of operations and tactics. History was only the vehicle for the study, not the primary purpose of the ride. The staff rides were conducted by tactics instructors with history backgrounds. The rides provided the context for intellectual discussions and analyses. Staff ride topics covered a wide variety of military subjects, including leadership, tactics, logistics, political considerations, strategic planning and the employment of large units over extended distances - operational art. The focus was the application of lessons learned to modern tactical circumstances.

One of the foremost tactics instructors at the School of the Line (subsequently known as the School of Application for Infantry and Cavalry) prior to World War I was Maj. Arthur L. Conger, a firm believer that military history served its best purpose not in rote memorization and lecture by pedantic instructors but in "doing." He advocated that students perform detailed analyses of campaigns. Maj, Conger considered the process of deduction the most important learning aspect. The staff ride format fit Maj. Conger's teaching model perfectly. Students conducted extensive preparations for the staff rides, studying battle reports, reading accounts and studying maps before actually going to campaign and battle locations.

Until the staff college closed during World War I, officers continued to conduct staff rides as part of the educational reforms instituted by Gen. J. Franklin Bell. Significantly, a number of the officers who led the Army in World War I participated in the first staff ride to Atlanta, which had a considerable impact on their understanding of the complexity of large-scale operations and logistical planning.

After a hiatus of more than 60 years, staff rides were revived in the early 1980s through the newly formed Combat Studies Institute (CSI). When CSI opened in 1979, it was staffed by a core of professional military historians - civilians with detailed military history knowledge but little or no practical military experience - and U.S. Army officers who were certified military historians with field expertise that enhanced the academic aspect of study with practical application. Staff rides were normally conducted with a mix of active duty officers - with their military experience - and civilian faculty - with their particular historical expertise.

Today U.S. Marine Corps students entering CGSC are introduced to tactics and operational art concepts in their annual Westport, Mo., staff ride. Westport saw one of the largest western battles during the Civil War, only 30 miles from Fort Leavenworth. Fought between federal forces and a cavalry corps under Confederate general Sterling Price, the battle of Westport offers a number of opportunities to discuss a campaign using modern doctrine. Because the culmination of the campaign was essentially at the town of Westport (now downtown Kansas City), it allows the study of the movement of large units on both sides over extended distances during relatively long periods of time. …