The Center of Military History published a book about the Gettysburg Staff Ride. Their one-page forward, as written by Billy Arthur and Ted Ballard, provides the best justification for why one of these should be conducted. Their text is copied below.
Buford came to Gettysburg late one night
Riding west with his brigades of blue horses,
While Pettigrew with his North Carolinians
Were moving east toward the town with a wagon-train,
Hoping to capture shoes. The two came in touch.
Benet, John Brown’s Body
If neither General Meade nor General Lee planned to fight at Gettysburg, how did it happen that the first three days of July 1863 were to become arguably the most important span in the Civil War? That question cannot be fully answered without viewing McPherson’s Ridge or Oak Hill, nor can one really understand the urgency of Chamberlain’s bayonet charge nor the audacity of Pickett’s division at the Angle without visiting those places.
Accordingly, the purpose of a Gettysburg staff ride is to visit these and other locations on the battlefield and analyze the battle through the eyes of the men who were there, both leaders and rank and file soldiers. Hopefully, by understanding the actions, inactions and reactions of commanders and their troops in real situations we may gain insights into the human condition under stress and decision making during combat.
In 1906, Major Eben Swift took twelve officer-students from Fort Leavenworth’s General Service and Staff School to the Chickamauga Battlefield on the Army’s first staff ride. Since then staff rides have been used to varying degrees in the education of Army officers, usually in the formal school system to add realism to training and narrow the gap between peacetime and war. The staff ride, therefore, not only assists participants to understand the realities of war, it is mental training for warfighting. Indirectly, it enhances unit readiness.
In summary, the staff ride is a training method which commanders can use for the professional development of their subordinates and to enliven the unit’s esprit de corps – constant objectives of all commanders in peacetime.
At some time in their careers most officers have memorized the in-vogue principles and maxims of military art, probably without fully understanding or analyzing them. Now, whether you think of yourself as a tactician, operational artist, strategist, or just a soldier as you walk the battlefield, you should search for those principles and human characteristics which do not change over time. Place yourself in the minds of the leaders in the battle, analyze their decisions and determine if they could have done better. In this way you can fix in your mind the principles and thought processes that must be second nature to you in the
crisis of combat.
We are convinced that the staff ride is the one of the best ways to do this.