Teaching Civil War Battles and Leaders through Classroom Simulations

Teaching Civil War Battles and Leaders through Classroom Simulations

For as long as historians have chronicled and interpreted war, they have confronted the intertwined issues of contingency and battle. Historical contingency is a difficult concept, but it is fundamental to historical thinking and essential to understanding the significance of battles, military leaders, and decisions in war. A working definition of contingency is how past events, circumstances, contexts, and outcomes influence possible futures within the context of that past. For purposes of teaching the Civil War, then, war’s military history is why and how the war unfolded on the battlefield and beyond, which determined what followed. None of it was predetermined, and the decisions that created and shaped military operations, subject to friction, fog of war, chance, weather, logistics, incomplete or erroneous information, and human frailty, provide historians with avenues to explore contingency, possibility, and leadership in war.[1]

One of the toughest challenges in teaching the military history of the Civil War is to get students to fully understand the complexity and contingency of war from the perspective of its participants. Historians such as Ken Noe and Carol Reardon encourage us to think of perspective in war and to consider battles as puzzles or mosaics with multiple pieces making up the whole.[2] Put another way, Civil War battles were complicated, frightening, confusing, and uncertain, and outcomes often hinged on key decisions or actions. These were fragmentary experiences lacking clarity and, in some cases, even coherence for participants. Most of what we know about Civil War battles and leaders stems from more than a century-and-a-half of hindsight. Therefore, to understand why the Civil War unfolded as it did, and more fully empathize with its participants, we ought to try to experience, in some small way, a measure of that fear, uncertainty, and pressure of critical decision-making that Civil War military commanders often faced. As my review essay in the June 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era demonstrates, careful deliberation and comprehension of the decisions, alternatives, and context of military events, and the leaders who shaped them, can open important avenues into our understanding of the Civil War. To accomplish this, students must be equipped to engage in judicious interpretation of evidence, contextualization, and empathy.[3]

The Battle of Antietam, 1862. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

How might historians bring these issues into a teaching environment? Professional military educators have already been doing this sort of thing for years, and with excellence. Campuses across the United States incorporate some form of participatory military history exercises into their curriculum. These “staff rides” trace their origins to the Prussian general staff of the nineteenth century and have proven extremely useful in imparting the complexity and contingency of battle to military professionals, historians, and students for decades. The U.S. Army Center of Military History explains the purpose of these exercises as exposing students “to the dynamics of battle, especially those factors which interact to produce victory and defeat,” along with the so-called “face of battle,” or “the timeless human dimensions of warfare.” Through case studies, intensive preparation, and field trips to battle sites, staff ride participants learn the specifics of combined arms operations, technology, doctrine, leadership and group dynamics, unit cohesion, logistics, terrain, and any other number of aspects of war.[4]

While staff rides may be too technical, complex, or impractical for some faculty to incorporate into their curriculum, many of the techniques and principles that go into the professional staff ride are readily adaptable to a classroom environment for undergraduates or graduate students. I have conducted simulation exercises for the battles of Gettysburg and Antietam alike, and I find both to be stimulating and useful in helping students come to grips with many of these issues. Antietam is particularly suitable for this sort of thing, for several reasons. First, the Battle of Antietam unfolded over a single day, and in several distinct and easily grasped phases, simplifying the technical details students would need to master. Second, Antietam involved a number of famous episodes that appeal to students, including Robert E. Lee’s infamous “Lost Order,” A.P. Hill’s last minute arrival on the battlefield, the heroics of units like the Irish Brigade at Bloody Lane, the tragedy of Burnside’s Bridge, the difficult relationships between leaders like George B. McClellan and Abraham Lincoln, and so on. Third, and perhaps most important, Antietam illustrates both the importance of battles to historical contingency, and the relationship between war, politics, race, and slavery in paving the way for President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Naturally, any number of Civil War battles can accomplish these goals; Antietam is simply a good place to start.

Lincoln and McClellan at Antietam. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The simulation itself is not a game; there is no dice rolling or tactics. The purpose of the exercise is not to win or lose the battle, nor is it to change the outcome of history or “improve” a flawed strategy of the past. Rather, students should understand from the beginning that a simulation is an attempt to recreate the process of battle, and in doing so to gain a deeper and clearer understanding of the decisions and actions that informed the sequence of events that followed. In the simulation, as in a staff ride, students are assigned roles to assume; these are usually commanders, from army leaders like Lee or McClellan, to corps commanders like James Longstreet or Joseph Hooker, all the way down to division, brigade, or in some cases, even regimental level. Once students have their roles, it is their responsibility to dive into the sources to discover as much relevant information about their assigned leader’s experience in the battle. As I point out in my review essay, historians and students seeking a deeper understanding of issues like motivation, personality, and relationship dynamics among military leaders can take on the approach of the historical biographer. Students can, in uncovering these details, see how patterns of behavior often spring from the lives and experiences of military leaders and thus help to shape military operations.[5]

This can be a great opportunity to teach students how historians conduct research, introducing them to the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, letters, diaries, postwar memoirs, and other archival material, along with the vast corpus of scholarship on the Civil War. I have found it helpful to compile lists of relevant resources for students and even to provide them with some of the many freely available staff ride and primary resource collections available online from the Center of Military History, the Civil War Trust, the Library of Congress and National Archives, National Park Services sites, and other institutions or organizations. If you are fortunate enough to be near an actual battlefield site, as I am, field trips are also invaluable. It may be necessary to guide students’ research efforts through handouts or worksheets, so they have a clear understanding of their objectives and are not overwhelmed.

Map of the battlefield of Antietam. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In my experience, students react favorably to a physical representation of the battle simulation. The Library of Congress and the National Archives provide copyright free historical maps of battles like Antietam and Gettysburg on their websites. These images may be transferred to posters or, even better, to large photo blankets, at many retail photo centers. Students can mark the locations and movements of their leaders by using simple paper markers, and troop lines and columns are easily represented with popsicle sticks or even toy soldiers. Providing participants with a detailed timeline of the battle helps keep the simulation moving along, and as the ebb and flow of the simulation unfolds, students chime in by sharing their research and explaining their participant’s role in the action. Students should come prepared to explain their figure’s biography, their place in the chain of command, their objectives and orders during the battle, their historical actions, and the student’s plan to implement and explain all of this to their fellow students.

Implementing a battlefield simulation in the classroom requires extensive preparation. Students, particularly undergraduates, may be at a loss as to how to approach an exercise like this. There are, of course, many ways a simulation like this can develop, and, as in war, there are many opportunities for confusion and even disaster. I have found that preparing a briefing packet for students containing the timeline, a copy of the map, detailed orders of battle and chains of command, and additional readings beforehand is essential. Perhaps the most important component to a simulation like this comes after the fighting ends; students ought to provide a written reflection on the experience, describing lessons learned, insights gained, questions raised, and possibilities for further inquiry. I suggest posing questions such as:

  • What did you learn about your person’s participation in the battle, and how did their decisions or actions shape the outcome?
  • Were you confused, and does that confusion tell you something about the nature of battle in the Civil War?
  • How does your experience correlate to how historians have written about your person or this battle?

These kinds of questions encourage students to think historically about contingency, complexity, perspective, and war in ways that stretch the limits of what we can normally accomplish in a traditional classroom setting.


Resources and Recommended Reading:

Ballard, Ted. The Staff Ride Guide to the Battle of Antietam. CMH Pub 35-3-1. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2018, https://history.army.mil/html/books/035/35-3-1/cmhPub_35-3-1.pdf.

Bledsoe, Andrew S. “Beyond the Chessboard of War: Contingency, Command, and Generalship in Civil War Military History.” The Journal of the Civil War Era 9, no. 2 (June 2019), 275-301, https://doi.org/10.1353/cwe.2019.0029.

Johnson, Robert Underwood, and Clarence Clough Buel, eds. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume II. 4 vols. New York: The Century Company, 1887, 545-695.

McPherson, James M. Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Robertson, William Glenn. The Staff Ride. CMH Pub 70-21. Washington, DC.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2014, https://history.army.mil/html/books/070/70-21/CMH_Pub_70-21(2014).pdf.

Sears, Stephen W. Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1983.

U.S. War Department. War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901. Series 1, Volume 19, Parts 1-2 contain most of the relevant material on Antietam, including reports, returns, and orders of battle, http://collections.library.cornell.edu/moa_new/waro.html.



[1] Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?” Perspectives on History, January 2007, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/january-2007/what-does-it-mean-to-think-historically. Civil War historian James M. McPherson believes that “at numerous critical points during the war things might have gone altogether differently.” James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 858.

[2] Carol Reardon, “Writing Battle History: The Challenge of Memory,” and Kenneth W. Noe, “Jigsaw Puzzles, Mosaics, and Civil War Battle Narratives,” both in Civil War History 53 (September 2007): 252-63, 236-43.

[3] Andrew S. Bledsoe, “Beyond the Chessboard of War: Contingency, Command, and Generalship in Civil War Military History.” The Journal of the Civil War Era 9, no. 2 (June 2019): 275-301.

[4] William Glenn Robertson, The Staff Ride. CMH Pub 70-21 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2014), 3-6.

[5] Bledsoe, “Beyond the Chessboard of War,” 287.

Andrew S. Bledsoe

Andrew S. Bledsoe is associate professor of history at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. in history from Rice University in 2012. He is the author of Citizen-Officers: The Union and Confederate Volunteer Junior Officer Corps in the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2015), and co-editor (with Andrew F. Lang) of Upon the Fields of Battle: Essays on the Military History of America’s Civil War (LSU Press, 2018).

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