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News | Aug. 17, 2016

DIA Staff Rides Detail Practical Lessons Learned

By Greg Elder

“What has occurred in this case must never recur in similar cases. Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents of this as philosophy, to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.” - President Abraham Lincoln

“It is painless and faster to learn from the failures of others than from your own….that is why we study history.” - Paul Hemphill in Gettysburg Lessons in the Digital Age.

According to noted intelligence historian Christopher Andrew, the Intelligence Community is suffering from Historical Attention Span Deficit Disorder (HASDD), or a reluctance to look at the past to inform our understanding of the present and assist in forecasting the future. At DIA, analysts have been working to prevent HASDD from setting in. Since 2008, DIA has sponsored dozens of battlefield staff rides for Department of Defense and Intelligence Community personnel examining lessons learned from the past for application today. This year, DIA conducted trips to the Civil War battlefields of Bull Run, Monocacy, Gettysburg, and has trips to Antietam and Second Bull Run remaining. The trips provide individuals an out-of-office environment to consider important factors impacting military operations, such as planning, intelligence, technology, leadership, communications, logistics, unit cohesion, adversary strengths and weaknesses, and external factors like topography and weather. The instruction provides real-world case studies for the development of analytical frameworks for military analysis and encourages the study of military history.

A key concept examined in DIA’s staff ride program is unity of effort – concentrating resources to address an objective. Achieving unity requires an understanding of the desired end state and – equally important – a vision on how to achieve the mission. All too often, leaders are unclear on their mission, lack the vision to unite their resources to achieve the mission, or fail to clearly articulate the objective to subordinates.

At the April 16 staff ride to Gettysburg, participants spent time considering whether or not General Robert E. Lee achieved unity of effort in his 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania. Lee was faced with a daunting strategic situation for the Confederacy: Union General Ulysses S. Grant surrounded one Confederate army at Vicksburg, Miss. and central Tennessee faced a threat from another Union army. If the Confederacy were to win the war, Lee believed it would need to do so in the eastern theater under his command. His Army of Northern Virginia, fresh off two victories on Southern soil, could not remain on the defensive – time, resources, and the strategic situation were not advantageous. In developing an offensive strategy, Lee demonstrated his understanding of national strategy and his own mission. Lee’s vision involved an invasion of the North, which would take the war out of Virginia, allow his forces to live off the land, potentially lead to international recognition of the Confederacy, and – most importantly – reclaim the strategic initiative for the South. He could judge the environment and enemy dispositions to determine the right time and place to initiate a decisive battle of his choosing. Lee failed, however, in effectively articulating his vision to key subordinates and communicating roles and objectives. As a result, his invasion ultimately failed.

Preceding the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), the Army of Northern Virginia reorganized from two corps to three as a result of the death of Second Corps commander Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Lee promoted two division commanders – Lieutenant Generals A.P. Hill and Richard Ewell – to corps commands to join First Corps commander Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. While Lee did not have the same relationship with Hill and Ewell as he did with Jackson, he seemingly assumed they would understand his vision just as well. Lee was entering what he believed to be the most important campaign of the war with a new command structure, two new commanders with no corps leadership experience and little previous command interaction with Lee, and made no provisions for managing this change.
Furthermore, Lee recognized that subordinate commanders were better postured to appreciate the tactical environment and therefore needed discretion to exploit opportunities. This often resulted in Lee giving open-ended, vague orders. This proved fruitful with subordinates who understood Lee, such as Longstreet who had fought in four major battles as a chief subordinate. However, Lee’s loose leadership style proved disastrous with his other subordinates during the Gettysburg campaign. Lee provided poorly worded discretionary orders to cavalry chief Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart in late June, which Stuart used to take his forces on a mission away from the main army. With the cavalry away, the Army of Northern Virginia lost virtually all intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities, screening and reconnaissance forces, and forced infantry to conduct missions typically conducted by cavalry during key junctures at Gettysburg. Lee also provided three sets of ambiguous discretionary orders to Ewell, who misinterpreted Lee’s intentions and failed to take key high-ground on the first day of fighting.

Finally, Lee’s vision was not communicated down the chain of command, resulting in a lack of understanding by subordinate commanders. On two occasions on the first day of Gettysburg, corps and division-level subordinates exceeded Lee’s unusually direct orders not to bring on a general engagement with Union forces. This resulted in Lee reacting to Union movements rather initiating a fight at a time and place of his choosing. This resulted in Lee facing Union forces holding the high ground, utilizing superior interior lines, and maintaining a greater force-to-space ratio against his own inferior numbers.

At Gettysburg, Lee failed to achieve unity of effort. The lessons learned remain applicable today: understand the mission, have a vision, effectively communicate the mission and the vision to the command, and ensure that all the appropriate resources are being effectively utilized to achieve the desired end.

While DIA’s staff rides place attention on the roles of resources, leadership, technology, environment, and other operational factors in military affairs, lessons derived from the role of intelligence are always a key theme. Intelligence is an enabler in achieving unity of mission. Understanding the mission and communicating it effectively only goes so far – the adversary and environment play a role as well. Knowing the enemy enables a commander to choose when and where to take the initiative, what resources to deploy, and how to manage the conflict. There are few examples in military history where this was more evident than Gettysburg. In his presentation to staff ride participants, DIA analyst Greg Elder stresses the operational impact of an army equipped with exceptional intelligence and another rendered virtually blind. During the Civil War, the Union established the first modern all-source intelligence unit in history – the Bureau of Military Information (BMI) –to address consistent misestimates of enemy strength by more than 100 percent. In April of 1863, the BMI compiled an assessment of Confederate forces that was within 2 percent of actual Confederate forces under Lee. On July 1, as the Battle of Gettysburg raged, a BMI assessment noted an enemy force of 92,000 with 6,000-8,000 cavalry and 270 cannon based on information available, which proved remarkably accurate.

Further, BMI information proved critical in the Union decision to stay and fight at Gettysburg after the second day, articulating enemy strength, dispositions, and the likely avenue of attack. With this information at hand, Union commanders knew the most advantageous location to concentrate their forces for success. Conversely, operating in enemy territory without Stuart’s cavalry, Lee was compelled to make decisions devoid of intelligence on enemy strengths and dispositions. Additionally, Lee’s options for maneuver were limited by the lack of accurate maps and scouting reports on avenues to exploit. Lee noted in his after action report, “[T]he movements of the army preceding the battle of Gettysburg had been much embarrassed by the absence of cavalry,” and that “the advance of the enemy to Gettysburg was unknown.” Regarding Lee’s choice to stay and fight at Gettysburg, Civil War historian and former National Security Agency analyst Edwin Fishel noted in his seminal work The Secret War for the Union, “Lee was making a military decision utterly divorced from reality.” While Union intelligence prepared the battlespace for the third day of the battle, enabling the concentration of superior forces at precisely the right location, Fishel notes, “[P]erhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Lee’s battle plan for day three, as he conceived it that Thursday evening, is how barren and uninformed it was.”

DIA staff rides also consider other lessons learned applicable to today. At the July 9 Gettysburg staff ride, conducted jointly between Elder and noted Civil War author Mike Priest, several additional vignettes were presented:

• Character wins!: Today, the U.S. Army has 23 traits associated with character in leadership: assertiveness, bearing, candor, commitment, competence, confidence, courage, creativity, empathy/compassion, flexibility, integrity, decisiveness, humility, justice, endurance, tact, initiative, coolness, maturity, improvement, self-discipline, sense of humor, and will. At several key junctures in the battle, Union forces neared defeat but – often at the cost of their lives – held firm because of the inherent trust in the character of their commanders. Throughout 1862 the Army of Potomac command structure suffered from politicization of its command and promotion system, but changes in early 1863 paid dividends. By Gettysburg, many brigade and division commanders were demonstrably more effective in leading their men.

• Yesterday’s tactics make todays defeat: At the end of the first day of battle, Union forces held high ground – Culp’s Hill – on their right flank. Believing that the Confederates would assault the flank, Brig. Gen. George Sears Greene, a West Point graduate and an experienced civil engineer, instructed his men to dig trenches and fell trees to bolster the earthworks. Defensive positions of this nature were perceived as detrimental to the offensive spirit of fighting, and Greene’s division and corps commanders did not share his opinion; they only grudgingly let Greene proceed with construction of the fortifications. Late on July 2, a large Confederate assault was initiated against the Union left flank requiring units to be stripped from other points along the line, which left Greene’s lone brigade of 1,350 men to defend a front covered earlier three brigades. Greene’s men continued the construction of defenses and dispersed along the unoccupied line. At dusk, when it appeared that the Union right was safe, roughly 4,700 Confederates attacked. Today, visitors to Gettysburg flock to Little Round Top on the Union left to see where Col. Strong Vincent’s brigade, which included Col. Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine and faced only slightly great odds, while avoiding the Union right on Culp’s Hill. Greene’s men fought against successive assaults for four hours, using the fortifications to their advantage, inflicting horrendous casualties on the Confederates. When the fight concluded later that evening, Greene’s brigade suffered slightly more than 300 casualties while inflicting more than 2,400 by Greene’s estimate. One solider noted, “[H]ad the breastworks not been built, and had there only been the thin line of our unprotected brigade, that line must have been swept us away like leaves before the wind, by the oncoming of so heavy a mass of troops by the enemy.” Greene thought outside the box, considered the mission against the resources at his disposal, the technology and capabilities of his adversary, and how best to achieve his mission while limiting casualties to his own forces – and did so against the doctrinal tactics of the past. Following Gettysburg, the use of trenches became standard operating procedures for both Union and Confederate forces. It was not until the introduction of the tank that another generation learned the lesson yesterday’s tactics make today’s defeat!

• Impulsiveness clouds judgment: On several occasions during the battle, Confederate leaders acted impulsively, placing their men and the mission in jeopardy. A notable example was Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes’ attack on the first day of battle. Rodes division approached Gettysburg from the north and found itself on the exposed flank of Union forces. Ewell ordered them to attack against the direct orders of Lee, who wished to avoid a general engagement. As Rodes got his 8,100 men into battle formation, Union forces rushed 2,600 men to defend their right flank. Despite the potential weight of forces at his disposal, Rodes’ brigades were impulsive in their assaults, failing to coordinate and attacking piecemeal. The first attack, executed in haste, was conducted with less than one brigade and rapidly collapsed. The second assault, carried out by a lone brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Iverson, moved forward without any knowledge of the location of the enemy or terrain. Expecting to see Union forces to their right, they marched into an ambush from behind a stone wall to their left. Iverson, who failed to advance with his troops, watched as his brigade lost nearly 1,000 men in a matter of minutes. The next assault failed as a 2,300-man brigade was split with three of the five regiments moving to support Iverson, and two attacking the portion of the Union line as ordered. Rodes ultimately recommitted his forces and helped drive the Union from his area of operations, but the piecemeal attacks bought the Union two hours of vital time to prepare stronger defenses on better ground while simultaneously committing the Confederates to a general battle. Impulsiveness by Ewell to exploit an opportunity against Lee’s direct orders, Rodes deployment of forces before coordination could occur, and the brigade commanders’ haste to engage their forces all impacted the outcome at Gettysburg. Each failed to strike the appropriate balance between initiative and impulsive leadership.

DIA’s staff ride program will continue to offer valuable insights from the past in defense of the future. Mark Twain was reported to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” In this spirit, DIA will continue studying these historical battles and learn from them to advance our current missions.


Andrew, Christopher. “Intelligence Analysis Needs to Look Backwards Before Looking Forward.” History and Policy. 1 June 2004. Found at:

Elder, Greg. 20-part Lectures on Intelligence in the Civil War. Defense Intelligence Agency. 2008-2016.

Fishel, Edwin C. The Secret War for the Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War. Kent State UP, 1996. Pgs. 275-538.

Hemphill, Paul. Gettysburg Lessons in the Digital Age. One Bond Press, 2013.