The First Civil War “Staff Ride” and a Call for Preservation

On our way back from my talk on the Battle of Franklin May 19 to the North Carolina Civil War Round Table in Burlington, NC, we stopped at the Guilford Courthouse Battlefield.  This Revolutionary War battle was a costly British victory, forcing Cornwallis to withdraw for supplies and reinforcements.

While there I recalled that in his memoirs, Jacob Cox, who was the military governor of western North Carolina after the war, described how he led his staff on what was probably the first “staff ride” of a battlefield and why historic preservation was so

important. In modern times our army has led hundreds of future officers on such rides to Civil War battlefields to learn the lessons of tactics and strategy.  They also learn a lesson about historic preservation.

Here is what I wrote in my biography of Cox about this event and why we visit Civil War battlefields.


In the last paragraph of the reminiscences, Cox made an appeal to preserve the memory and reality of the war as he had fought it. While military governor of North Carolina in 1865, he and his staff visited the Revolutionary War battlefield of “Guilford-Old-Court-House” near Greensboro. With an official report in his hand, he and his staff “could trace with complete accuracy every movement of the advancing enemy and his own dispositions to receive the attack.” Cox recalled, “We could see the reasons for the movements on both sides.” He found himself critiquing the movements “as if they had occurred on one of our own [Civil War] recent battlefields.” That in turn, he noted, “made us realize, as perhaps nothing else could have done, how the future visitor will trace the movements in which we have had a part; and when we have been dust for centuries, will follow the path of our battalions from hill to hill, from stream to stream, from the border of a wood to the open ground where the bloody conflict was hand to hand, and will comment upon the history we have made.”

He concluded that future historians would assess “what is accurate in our reports and narratives.” Further, they will come to understand that “the face of the country itself will be an unalterable record which will go far to expose the true reason of things…to show what statements are consistent with the physical conditions under which a battle was fought, and what, if any, are warped to hide a repulse or to claim a false success. Nature herself will thus prove the strongest ally of truth.”

Cox could not have anticipated the degree to which his nineteenth century vision has been fulfilled in our time. Every year millions of visitors walk on the ground where he and other Civil War soldiers fought, fell, and died, studying the strategy, tactics, and movements of two great armies, the memory of which Cox helped to make an indelible part of our nation’s history.”



Author: geneofva

Author of "Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era," and of seven more Civil War books -- with more to come!!

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