A historian explains how troops and their equipment crossed Stonebridge during the First Battle of Bull Run. 

Battalion staff ride teaches Soldiers benefits of learning about past battles

The late Harvard professor of philosophy George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

On Tuesday, Soldiers from Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall’s Headquarters Battalion gathered in Manassas, Virginia, for a battalion staff ride for lessons learned from the First Battle of Bull Run — one of the bloodiest battles during the Civil War.

Headquarters Battle Command Sgt. Maj. Jeremiah Grow said the staff ride was about professional development for the battalion. He said Bull Run was chosen because of its history and how the battle correlates to the nation’s past and present conflicts.

“The significance is there were a lot of battles fought in this area (and it) gave us (an) ability for the Soldiers to actually take part in roles and talk about the significance as you view it from the past to now,” explained Grow. “Just like anything else, (for) history to not repeat itself you (have) to learn the past and that goes for the military also. A lot of significance of these battles correlates to now when we talk about command and control, mission command, the use of warfighting functions.”

Grow pointed out that having Soldiers visit the location of the battle put them in that situation. The terrain is still there, and they can still see and visualize the significance of those battles. He said historians are used because they bring context and expertise about the battle.

He added that it was important to have Soldiers learn about various leaders from that battle because doing so provided a tie to the past and present and the lessons that were learned.

“War can be won by significant actions and military maneuvers and decisions,” he said. “Those actions and decisions helped shape how the battle turned out.”

Headquarters Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Vance Brunner also explained the importance of how relevant past wars are to current conflicts and how that ties into logistics, fire, intelligence and maneuver.

“Those big lessons learned (are) good knowledge and having the historians … walk it and see it and it, brings it to life,” Brunner said.

Brunner also wanted the Soldiers to understand while technology has furthered the military’s mission on the battlefield, some things remain the same on how wars are fought.

“I think they have to realize we get so wrapped up in technology being the solution (but) it’s really kind of the fundamentals of warfighting that have long tested time,” he said. “Coming out to the Civil War (battle) … this is where a lot of the Army learned its first lessons … so hopefully, we don’t make those mistakes.”

David Hilkert, the staff ride historian with the Center of Military History, said the staff ride provided Soldiers and opportunity to learn about leadership, organization, logistics and the importance of training. He added that having Soldiers tour and learn about the First Battle of Bull Run was also was about teaching them about training and how the Union and Confederate forces lacked training.

“Yes, they had some training on how to march and some turning movements,” said Hilkert, “but (they lacked) leadership and skill (in) terms of how to actually fight on the battlefield (and) how to even fire. They had no time on a range, and if you can imagine, there marksmanship skills are nonexistent, and some regular units later recount they were shooting at the stars. When you think (about) the regulars, most of the other troops were militia, you think the regulars are going to at least have those marksmanship skills. Those for the most part (were) green as well.”

Hilkert said he wanted the staff ride to teach Soldiers how the First Battle of Bull Run was significant to current conflicts.

“I think you will see at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom we are still fighting (and) using the tactics of the last war or conflict,” he said. “I think you are going to see that we (are) using tactics of the Mexican War the War of the 1812. (and) a lot of the Soldiers are still fighting with muskets that are not rifled, they’re using cannons at least on the Confederate side that are smooth bore so the range for the Confederates are not that great.

“We are always having new weaponry deployed to troops, (and it) takes a while to get used to that and learn how to use it and best deploy it on the battlefield. Even though the technology has changed and there are a lot of organizational differences between 1861, (and now) people are still the same. People never really change. There are still challenges of overcoming fear, taking leadership on the battlefield and getting troops to get up from where they are and move forward.”

After the Soldiers learned about the bloodiest battle during the Civil War, Brunner hoped they walked away with a better understanding of the past and how to apply it to the present and future.

“I (want Soldiers to have) a better understanding of the Civil War and how to relate past mistakes into future decisions they have to make,” said Brunner.