Dennis Mahan’s Leadership and Tactics: How a West Point Professor Shaped the Course of the Civil War

By Nick Tarchis ’18

This summer, while doing research at Stratford Hall, I happened across the name of one West Point professor who quite literally taught every cadet who fought in the Civil War. It is fairly common knowledge than many of the war’s great commanders were classmates together at West Point. For example, the class of 1842 contained George McClellan, James Longstreet, and John Pope. Such commanders influenced the course of the war by drawing upon their West Point education, and while they may have held different military outlooks, they all drew upon the teachings of one man: Dennis Mahan, professor of mathematics as well as military and civil engineering. Thus, Mahan, a relatively unknown figure, had a direct impact on how the war was waged during some of its most crucial days.

Professor Mahan graduated at the top of his class at West Point in 1824 and began his teaching career almost immediately after. The U.S. government even sent him to France for a number of years to observe European tactics. While abroad, he saw how the French used forts and extensive defensive positions to protect their cities. His class on military science at West Point directly correlated onto the battlefield, one of his key points being the use of fixed fortifications and defenses in theatre. Mahan also stressed the importance of using the surrounding geography to an army’s advantage. By 1863, the war came to a head when George Meade and Robert E. Lee, both students of Mahan, clashed here at Gettysburg. From the beginning of the engagement, Mahan’s teachings were visible. For example, Lee famously used the mountains around Gettysburg to mask his movement from the Army of the Potomac. Culp’s Hill is another area where Mahan’s teachings were used, though it tends to be overshadowed by other areas of the battlefield.

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Dennis Mahan. Photo via National Park Service.

This is not to say that certain areas are more important or noteworthy than others, but much of the history of Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge already has a large scholarly following. For example, the Second Corps’ action on July 3rd has been the focus of numerous books every year–most recently Pickett’s Charge: A New Look at Gettysburg’s Final Attack by Phillip Tucker–while many facets of the battle still remain untouched. Pickett’s Charge often takes the spotlight when it comes to discussing the third day, but a considerable part of the battle centered around Culp’s Hill and culminated in a Confederate attack at dawn on July third. On that morning, Richard Ewell’s forces clashed with the Union 12th Corps commanded by George Greene, a descendant of the famed revolutionary general Nathaniel Greene and a classmate of Dennis Mahan. Greene clearly subscribed to Mahan’s philosophy of battle, as the Confederate attack was crushed against the Union’s strong fortifications and stymied by its defensive strategy. When the Confederates attacked, they were met with entrenchments that Union soldiers dug during the fighting. The troops were able to dig thanks to Greene’s strategy of shuttling troops from Cemetery Ridge up to Culp’s Hill and using these men to stave of the repeated attacks while others dug entrenchments. It was these defensive tactics that were vital to holding to Culp’s Hill, and if Greene and his corps had failed, the Union Army’s right flank would have collapsed in on itself.

After living and working in Gettysburg for almost four years, I have come to realize that there are many stories surrounding the battle and the war that go somewhat unnoticed to many of us. After all, visitors love to learn about Pickett’s Charge, and it is important to continue to interpret the popular parts of the battlefield. For example, Gettysburg National Military Park is meeting visitor needs by presenting three ranger programs this fall between Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top, and the Third day as a whole. It is important that we continue to tell the stories of these better-known sites, as it draws audiences in and makes them excited to learn more about the park and its history.

But stories like that of Dennis Mahan and his teachings also help us understand the war at a more detailed level. Due to time constraints and an overwhelming amount of content to cover in the classroom, the way Civil War history is taught can be confusing, and the maturation of leaders is a subject that we tend to save for figures like Lincoln and Grant. While some commanders definitely had an “X factor,” most were not born the strategists they became by the end of their careers. The great soldiers of the war honed their skills over a series of events. For many commanders, it began in the West Point lecture hall. Those young men then quickly found themselves in their first field test in Mexico. Not all of them stayed on a military track: Grant left the military and saw failures like the failed business and sickness that shaped him into the man we remember today, while Meade continued his military training and worked on topographical research. By the time the war started, Mahan’s students had a wide variety of experiences under their belts and began to piece together their lessons, a process that culminated in some of the greatest battles in American history.


Sources

Ranger Programs at Gettysburg.” National Park Service. Accessed October 31, 2017

Phipps, Michael. “Mahan at West Point, ‘Gallic Bias,’ and the ‘Old Army’”: The Subconscious of Leadership at Gettysburg.” National Park Service

Cullum, George. “Dennis H. Mahan.” Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Accessed October 31. 2017.

Point/Counterpoint: The Gettysburg Battlefield Marathon

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By Jeff Lauck ’18 and Matt LaRoche ’17

Jeff: On November 6, the small town of Gettysburg will be swarmed by runners during the first ever Gettysburg Battlefield Marathon. The event has provoked heated discussion from many in the Civil War community, bringing up many questions regarding the use of our most hallowed grounds for recreational use. In this post, Matt and I will engage in a back and forth conversation about the concerns and advantages of the race. I’d like to begin by noting that the views that we each express in this piece may not necessarily be our own and that we may merely be bringing them up to contribute to the conversation surrounding the marathon.

My first concern about the marathon is an obvious one. The Gettysburg battlefield was the site of unspeakable horror and suffering. Is it appropriate that this sacred space be used for “fun” activities like a marathon? Runners will cross areas whose names have been immortalized for pain, agony, and death: McPherson’s Ridge, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, the Angle. Few would view a marathon through the hallowed ground at Arlington National Cemetery as appropriate. Indeed, the Gettysburg marathon itself avoids the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. However, the Gettysburg battlefield is likely still a final resting place for hundreds of soldiers, so in reality, a marathon running through the battlefield is itself a marathon running in a massive cemetery. The battlefield was preserved as a memorial to those who fell. It should not now be trampled on by hundreds of runners in a spectacle marathon.

Matt: Well, Jeff, your point about the space’s sacredness is certainly well taken. However, I think the underlying question here may be what kinds of history we choose to preserve and commemorate, and why. No one can deny the world is an old and embattled place. Recognizing this begs serious questions of our traditional efforts at memorializing loss and sacrifice. First, what metrics determine what sufferings are legitimately worth remembering? For example, people the world over clearly feel a duty to remember their soldiers, but what about the civilian dead? Wars almost always cost more civilian than combatant lives, but the public’s imagination almost always centers on soldiers. Indeed, the ongoing scholarly debate as to the specific ratio is a testament to not just how overwhelming the reality of civilian deaths is, but also how little we like to think about this particularly senseless aspect of human conflict. Bringing civilians into the mix robs war of what glory it had, as one man’s honorable sacrifice is undone by a child’s meaningless slaughter. It becomes a story few really want to hear, and a serious problem for historical interpretation. And yet this is a key part of war’s story. Continue reading “Point/Counterpoint: The Gettysburg Battlefield Marathon”

Find Your Park Friday: For the Love of Nature

By Jeff Lauck ’18

The Civil War Institute will be celebrating the National Park Service Centennial this spring with its brand new “Find Your Park Friday” series. Inspired by the NPS #FindYourPark campaign, the series will challenge our fellows to share their experiences exploring America’s national historical, cultural, and natural resources through trips and internships with the NPS. In our second post, Jeff Lauck discusses his passion for photography and the park that started it. 

Anyone who follows me on any social media will soon learn that I love to travel almost as much as I love taking pictures of the places I visit. From Chula Vista, California to Quoddy Head, Maine; Ramallah in the West Bank to the DMZ in Korea, I have been to many places in my less than 20 years of existence. Yet nothing has left more of an impression on me nor fueled my wanderlust as much as the natural beauty of America’s national parks. They are, indeed, “the best idea we ever had,” according to writer Wallace Stegner.

The author and his father at Glacier Point, overlooking Half Dome, during the author's first visit to Yosemite. Photo courtesy of Doreen Lauck.
The author and his father at Glacier Point, overlooking Half Dome, during the author’s first visit to Yosemite. Photo courtesy of Doreen Lauck.

My love of national parks began at a very young age. Lauck family vacations have always entailed some cross-country trek in the family minivan, stopping in small towns off the interstate to pitch up the tent while traveling thousands of miles from home. When I tell my friends tales of these legendary road trips, they marvel at how we kept our sanity while being cooped up in a car for 14 hours a day as we racked up miles on the odometer. While these trips were, admittedly, filled with temper tantrums and wrestling matches, the destinations–landscapes of mountains, valleys, beaches, canyons, and deserts– have made these trials all the more rewarding. Continue reading “Find Your Park Friday: For the Love of Nature”

I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts

By Kevin Lavery ’16

I had no plans of writing a blog post this week. I said my piece on ghost tours last year. This Halloween, it was the next generation’s turn to share their opinions on the matter. Jules and Jen both did a spectacular job on the subject, and I commend them even though our perspectives differ. But when I learned that my stance had come under fire from another blog, I eagerly leapt from the comfort of my editing armchair and returned to the front lines to compose this piece.

Gettysburg skyline from the roof of the Appleford Inn on All Hallow's Eve Eve.
Gettysburg skyline from the roof of the Appleford Inn on All Hallow’s Eve Eve. Photograph by the author.

In a post earlier this week, The Sundance Kid of the History Bandits wrote a piece arguing that I “missed the point” of ghost tours. He argues that they are an expression of folklore that should be considered an equally important part of the town’s historical landscape. I didn’t miss the point. I rejected it.

Now, I should clarify that I’m not rejecting folklore as a valid form of making sense of suffering. I firmly believe that it is a core component of Gettysburg’s heritage. I am only rejecting ghost tours as an authentic expression of folklore. It is true that spiritualism has long predated the emergence of the ghost tours industry. But I believe it is problematic to confound folklore with the stories told by ghost tours. Continue reading “I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts”

GettysBOOrg, PA: Complicating the Ghost Tour Debate

By Jen Simone ’18

Whether you believe ghosts exist or not, I think most visitors would agree that if they did in fact exist, there would be a whole community of them living in Gettysburg.  Upon entering the stores downtown and looking at the merchandise, it becomes very clear that store owners feed this fascination.  Any visitor is bound to see the typical “got ghosts? Gettysburg does” t-shirt or similar merchandise elsewhere in town.  The Gettysburg Tour Center even features a selection of books ranging from The Big Book of Pennsylvania Ghost Stories to I Met a Ghost at Gettysburg.  Just a few aisles over, next to the “Heritage Not Hate” mugs, there are mouse pads, shot glasses, and even snow globes with “Gettysburg Ghosts” printed all over them.

Some of Gettysburg's public art, found near Steinwehr Avenue. Photograph by the author.
Some of Gettysburg’s public art, found near Steinwehr Avenue. Photograph by the author.

While many historians ardently oppose the ghost tour industry for its inaccurate portrayal of historical events and trivialization of atrocities, paranormal tourism remains ubiquitous in Gettysburg. What explains this industry’s success?  I decided to go out into town and ask employees and visitors why they believe it is so successful, for they, not the historians, are the ones fueling it. Continue reading “GettysBOOrg, PA: Complicating the Ghost Tour Debate”

Not All Spooks: In Defense of Gettysburg’s Ghost Tours

By Jules Sebock ’18

Many moons ago, I visited Gettysburg as part of the CWI Summer Conference High School Scholarship Program.  One night, though exhausted from our daily lectures and tours, a group of us decided to continue indulging in the history around us in a method only a band of curious teenagers would compile:  a self-led ghost hunt of the College campus.

The night served to unite us as we exchanged stories of the Blue Boy and the mysterious basement of Penn Hall.  We didn’t have fancy equipment for our hunt, but led one another through the dark, unfamiliar paths, intermingling fact and fiction.  We didn’t catch sight of any ghosts on Stine Lake, but we made lifelong friendships.

This anecdote leads to a question:  where does the concept of Gettysburg’s spookier past fall in a landscape dominated by history?  On that night, that group of kids found a way to incorporate it, innocently and with as much truth as we knew.  Why, then, is it so difficult for many to reconcile it with the tales of Lee and Meade that haunt this hallowed ground?

Gettysburg College's Pennsylvania Hall is just one of the sites where tour guides interweave the historic and the spiritual to intrigue and entertain their patrons.
Gettysburg College’s Pennsylvania Hall is just one of the sites where tour guides interweave the historic and the spiritual to intrigue and entertain their patrons. Photograph by Kevin Lavery ’16.

Continue reading “Not All Spooks: In Defense of Gettysburg’s Ghost Tours”

“We Can Never Forget What They Did Here”: What Draws People to Gettysburg?

By Jen Simone ’18

“I am so sick of hearing about the Civil War every single day.”
“I didn’t expect there to be so many history nerds at this school.”
“I don’t get why so many tourists come to a little place like Gettysburg.”

I hear constant complaints from fellow Gettysburg College students about how tired they get of hearing about the Civil War. What did they expect coming to Gettysburg College, situated in one of the most visited historic towns in America? More importantly, what is so wrong with hearing about the Civil War so often? I decided that I wanted to investigate—why are so many people drawn to this small town in rural Pennsylvania? What draws millions of people to take time out of their busy lives to explore this special place? I’m hoping that my findings will convince college students that it is worth exploring this history-rich town and maybe for once, get them to stop to read the interpretative markers while they’re out jogging on the battlefield instead of simply passing by.

What draws people again and again to this battlefield? Photograph by author.
What draws people again and again to this battlefield? Photograph by author.

I conducted my whole investigation by walking up to random people I met in town and asking them all the same simple question: “Why are you here?” I expected to get very similar answers throughout all of my interviews and was ready to keep a tally of people visiting because they are either history buffs or because they have never been to Gettysburg before and just thought they should visit and see what all of the hype is about. I was shocked, however, for no two responses I received were the same. Continue reading ““We Can Never Forget What They Did Here”: What Draws People to Gettysburg?”

Report from the Headquarters: A Reflection on the Lee’s Headquarters Public Forum

By Elizabeth Smith ’17

On October 6, approximately seventy people gathered at the Gettysburg Visitor’s Center to attend a public forum discussing the future of the site commonly referred to as Lee’s Headquarters. The property is located on Buford Avenue near the Lutheran Seminary and the Seminary Ridge Museum. On July 1, 1863, the area was the site of several artillery pieces, part of the Union retreat route through the town, and on July 2nd and 3rd, it would serve as Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters. After the battle, the site would serve as one of the first automotive tourist spots for the millions of visitors who traveled to view the first day’s battlefield. Small cottages, motels, and eventually the Quality Inn would emerge to cater to the mass of tourists.

Photograph by J. Stephen Conn, via flickr.com.
Photograph by J. Stephen Conn, via Flickr.

The forum began with information relating to the work and reports that have already been completed regarding the Lee’s Headquarters site. These reports detailed what, if any, adverse effects the demolition of the buildings currently on the site—specifically the old Quality Inn motel—would have on the environment and future archeology. The tentative answer is that the removal of the motel would have no such effects. Representatives from the Civil War Trust, the organization that purchased the land, spoke about their goals for the Lee’s Headquarters’ site. Their mission is to either demolish or remove the buildings on the site to another location in order to restore the view of the first day’s battlefield, replant the orchard that use to be on the site, put in period-accurate fences, and create a simple battlefield trail that will tell the story of the battle, the headquarters, and the tourist industry that thrived in the years following the battle. Continue reading “Report from the Headquarters: A Reflection on the Lee’s Headquarters Public Forum”

On the Fields of Glory: A Student’s Reflections on Gettysburg, the Western Front, and Normandy

By Kevin Lavery ’16

I’m very fortunate to have had no shortage of opportunities to get out into the field and put my classroom learning into practice. I am especially lucky to have twice had the opportunity to travel to Europe. Two years ago, I went with my first-year seminar to explore the Western Front of World War I in France and Belgium. This year, I traveled with The Eisenhower Institute to tour the towns and beaches of Normandy where the Allies launched their invasion of Hitler’s Europe during World War II. Having experienced these notable sites of military history, and having taken a number of strolls through the battlefield in my backyard here in Gettysburg, I thought that it might be nice to reflect on each of these special places in a blog post.

Since many of you are likely most familiar with Gettysburg, let’s use it as a point-of-reference for my descriptions of the battlefields in Europe. In many ways, Gettysburg is unique even among Civil War battlefields—in its scale, the ubiquity of its monuments, and the quality of its preservation. Nevertheless, Gettysburg is a site intimately linked with what battlefield tourism looks like to Americans. Continue reading “On the Fields of Glory: A Student’s Reflections on Gettysburg, the Western Front, and Normandy”

Gettysburg: A Town Built on Tourism

By Kevin Lavery ’16

In my most recent blog posts, I’ve adopted a rather unforgiving stance on the rampant consumerism that pervades the town of Gettysburg. Essentially, I have argued that the borough’s tacky gift shops sell odious little trinkets to gullible tourists and profiteer from the public’s morbid obsession with war and death. But while I firmly believe that this zealous consumerism is a persistent threat to healthy historical engagement, there is another side to the issue that demands to be recognized: Gettysburg kitsch is part of what has made Gettysburg into a town brimming with opportunities to broaden the public’s historical consciousness.

Photo credit to the author.
Photo credit to the author.

Gettysburg is among the most prominent sites in Civil War memory, if not the most prominent. No other battlefield has quite the same name-brand power in the public mind. It is no surprise, therefore, that Gettysburg’s reputation perennially yields a large crop of tourists and pilgrims.

Continue reading “Gettysburg: A Town Built on Tourism”