Civil War Leadership class atop Little Round Top, Gettysburg, Pa.

Students walk hallowed ground at Gettysburg

April 26, 2022
A trip to Gettysburg brings to life a landmark Civil War battle

A biting wind whipped across the hill known as Little Round Top on March 28, 2022, wailing like the tortured ghosts of thousands of men who died on the fields below in three days of fighting in Gettysburg, Pa., in July 1863. Undeterred by the wind and snow flurries, students in Dr. George Goethals and retired Brig. Gen. John Mountcastle’s Civil War Leadership class gazed northwest from their perch atop the hill toward the fields leading to Cemetery Ridge.

Some 12,000 Confederate soldiers streamed across those very fields on July 3, the final day of the battle, military historian Mountcastle told the students. The soldiers were under orders from Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to take the high ground from 6,500 Union troops under the command of Maj. Gen. George Meade. Named Pickett’s Charge after one of the Confederate generals who led the assault, it ended with more than 50 percent Confederate casualties. The Battle of Gettysburg marked a turning point in the Civil War.

“I realized just how physically demanding and terrifying it must have been to charge across that open field toward a hill with bullets and cannonballs raining down on you,” said Westen Doran, ’23.

Brian Taylor, ’22, considered the charge from the perspective of the Union troops defending their positions on Little Round Top. “What fear does it invoke in you when you see thousands of men who are not afraid to die charging at you?” he asked.

“I could feel the dread of ordering your men to their death,” said Benjamin Mathios, ’23, reflecting on the dilemma of Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. The commanding officer of the July 3 assault, Longstreet repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to dissuade Lee from ordering the attack.

These reflections about the feelings and interactions of leaders and followers were exactly what Goethals and Mountcastle hoped to elicit from their students.

“The Gettysburg trip gives students a much grittier, clearer sense of the difficult decisions leaders and followers made in stressful, dangerous, and rapidly shifting contexts,” said Goethals, a leadership studies professor and social psychologist. “They never forget what it feels like to stand where men fought and died.”

Throughout the semester, Goethals and Mountcastle’s 17 students explored the military and political leadership of the American Civil War through readings, documentary films, and class discussions. The Gettysburg National Military Park (GNMP) trip gave them a chance to see firsthand where the Civil War’s bloodiest battle unfolded.

On the afternoon of March 27, class members toured the GNMP Visitor Center. There they watched a documentary film and experienced the fully restored cyclorama, a massive 1884 oil painting in the round, complete with sound and light effects, that depicts Pickett’s Charge in vivid detail. The next day, they embarked on a tour of the battlefield led by Mountcastle.  

“When thinking about this battle, differentiate between management—the efficient use of resources—and leadership—the ability to inspire people to do something,” Mountcastle told the students.

The retired brigadier general’s colorful, detailed storytelling at each stop along the battlefield route brought to life the heroism, horror, hope, and despair of the men who fought so valiantly almost 160 years ago.

After Lee’s army retreated on July 4, thousands of corpses and injured men littered the battlefield. By some estimates, over 3,100 Union and 4,700 Confederate troops died. Tens of thousands from both sides were wounded and captured.

The stench of bodies rotting in the hot summer sun could be smelled for miles away. Flocks of vultures descended to feast. Gettysburg residents reported the return of the scavengers, hoping for another such grisly banquet, for many summers thereafter.   

Rows of graves at the Gettysburg National Cemetery pay tribute to the fallen. Standing under the cemetery’s Soldiers Monument, Dermot McDonough, ’23, delivered President’s Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live,” he read.

At their final stop along the battlefield route, students pondered the enormity of the sacrifice made to preserve the Union, while a lone vulture circled overhead in a darkened sky.