Shenandoah, Va. -- Dr. Brad Wineman, a professor of military history at the Marine Corps’ Command & Staff College, laid out the problem for his students, the Marines and sailors of the 2nd Civil Affairs Group, Force Headquarters Group, Marine Forces Reserve:
An American general sits fuming in his field headquarters. His commander has given him the daunting task of clearing the enemy from the fertile valley that has long provided those enemy forces with support and assistance. That enemy is weakened now, after years of bitter fighting and frustrating and humiliating setbacks delivered by a resilient foe. At long last, victory seems within reach.
Complicating the general’s mission, however, are the civilian inhabitants of the valley. Sympathetic to the enemy, they have harbored and fed its fighters throughout this long war. With that help and support from the valley’s residents, the enemy has been able to withstand the American Army’s superior numbers, supplies, and fighting power. Until the valley itself is eliminated as an enemy haven and source of provisions, the war seems likely to drag on and on.
The civilian residents of the valley are not the enemy, however - and the general knows he must distinguish between the two. But now, after weeks of a furious campaign to destroy the enemy's access to the valley’s resources, the general has discarded those distinctions. A report has just arrived, bearing terrible news - an outstanding young officer, a rare talent, has just been killed in the valley, shot down by murderous civilians, sympathizers of the enemy. The lieutenant was the son of one of the Army's senior leaders - entrusted to the general's care, he is now the latest American to die in this valley. The general is furious at what he sees as fresh evidence of the valley's unyielding support for the enemy. He gives an order that casts aside any distinction between combatants and civilians: Burn every residence within 5 miles of the place of the lieutenant's murder.
The smoke is still rising through the valley when the General summons his civil affairs officer to demand solutions. Fix this problem, the general demands – give me a way to control this valley. Tell me how to convince or persuade these people to support the American Army, or at the least, to stop providing support and supplies to the enemy’s fighters.
Stripped of further details, the Marines of 2nd CAG could have been excused for thinking they were once again reviewing the long, recent fights in Afghanistan’s fertile Helmand Valley, or Iraq’s Sunni Triangle.
Wineman’s scenario, though, sat closer to home – the American general seeking answers was Union General Philip Sheridan; the fertile valley, Virginia’s Shenandoah; and those resilient enemy fighters? Americans, too, but wearing the grey and butternut of the Confederacy. In late 1864, General Sheridan drove his Union forces through the Shenandoah Valley, the Confederacy’s bread-basket, destroying anything that the reeling Confederate armies could use to feed or supply themselves with. The civilian occupants of the Shenandoah, many of them pacifist Mennonites, suffered the brunt of Sheridan’s efforts, watching their barns and mills torched during “The Burning.”
Col. Michael Griffin, the commanding officer of 2nd CAG, had previously worked 2nd CAG through tactical decision making exercises at the team level (based on Marine Corps actions in the Dominican Republic and Vietnam), but wanted to expose his Marines to a real-world historical event that would allow 2nd CAG’s detachments to plan at the operational and strategic level.
“Most exercises are based on fictitious scenarios and role players,” Griffin explained. General Sheridan’s campaign through the Shenandoah, however, “involved real people and tangible locations.”
The destruction caused by Sheridan’s troops also served to demonstrate another important concept for Col. Griffin’s Marines.
“I wanted to have the Marines understand how tactical actions can create strategic problems, and the power of memory and history of touchstone events. The burning had an impact on the local populace that carried throughout the war, into Reconstruction, and following the end of Reconstruction,” said Griffin. “Even though the burning was 150 years ago, it lingers in people's memories. This is not unique to the war, or unique to the American South. I think it’s human nature.”
Over the course of three days, from Sept. 8 – 10, 2nd CAG executed a professional military education exercise that married Griffin’s focus on operational planning with an emphasis on the strategic consequences of seemingly minor tactical choices. Maj. Andrew Bauer, a 2nd CAG detachment commander, was tasked with planning and organizing the staff ride in the winter of 2016.
Coordinating with staff at the National Park Service, the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation, Marine Corps University, and the City of Winchester, Bauer mapped a training itinerary that spanned much of the Shenandoah Valley. Wineman joined 2nd CAG for the staff ride, providing additional historical perspective and leading the Marines through the operational decision-making games described above. A Reserve Marine himself, and the Enlisted Career Counselor for Reserve Affairs, Master Sgt. Wineman often provides such in-depth PME – but typically, those opportunities are available only to active duty Marines, or conducted in the formal academic settings of Marine Corps University courses.
The 2nd CAG Marines stopped at a number of historical sites throughout the three-day exercise, confronting scenarios that helped the Marines understand and appreciate the civil-military operations applied by their predecessors some 150 years ago.
“These scenarios allow the 2nd CAG Marines to analyze actual historical events and apply those circumstances to the same mission set that Marine Corps civil affairs trains to,” Bauer explained. Working through those decision-making games, “puts the Marines in a position that requires them to apply their training and decision making abilities to the same set of facts that faced General Sheridan and his commanders in the Shenandoah over 150 years ago – and to then use their civil affairs training to provide viable courses of action to their commander today.”
The Marine Corps’ Civil Affairs units are tasked with planning and executing civil military operations – to include population and resource control – in order to advance a commander’s mission. In years past, those civil affairs missions have included working closely with tribal leaders in Afghanistan, local sheiks in Iraq, and town councils in the Philippines. Bauer and Wineman, however, developed a curriculum that required the Marines to apply their civil affairs training to a conflict and a population much closer to home. Using operational decision games and physical reconnaissance of the environment, the Marines studied General Sheridan’s efforts through the lens of Civil Affairs’ core tasks and the Law of Armed Conflict.
Convoying to the Shenandoah from Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, the 2nd CAG Marines started their crash course in Civil War Civil Affairs with a review of the “Meigs Incident” described above, discussing General Sheridan’s order to burn civilian residences in retribution for Lt. Meigs’ killing (done most likely by Confederate scouts, however, not the civilian “bushwhackers” that Sheridan assumed were responsible).
The Marines bivouacked at the site of one of the opening clashes of the Battle of Cedar Creek, traveling on Sept. 8 and 9 to several other selected sites. Moving from the site of the “Meigs Incident,” the Marines convoyed to the Breneman-Turner mill in Harrisonburg. There, they learned of Sheridan’s decision to destroy the industry that fed the grain-rich Shenandoah Valley: the mills that turned those grains into flour, feeding families – and Confederate soldiers. As those mills burned, the Confederacy was deprived of the food it needed to keep its armies marching – but the civilian occupants of the valley faced a long, hungry winter, suddenly deprived of the year’s harvest. Throughout the first two stops, the 2nd CAG Marines discussed General Sheridan’s actions through the lenses of both functionality (were the orders effective in both the short and long-term?) and legality (were the orders consistent with the law of armed conflict?).
That second question came into stark relief at 2nd CAG’s final stop of Sept. 8: an overlook of the Shenandoah and a review of the refugee crisis that Sheridan’s destruction precipitated. Tasked with advising a commander on effective population and resource control measures, Wineman challenged the Marines to consider how they would have advised a commander in responding to such a crisis, and whether other, earlier decisions could have been altered to avoid the crisis altogether. Griffin noted that the same issues identified by 2nd CAG’s Marines as they analyzed Sherman’s campaign – “access to food and shelter, local security problems, and regaining the trust of the local population – are issues Marines are dealing with now in Afghanistan, and dealt with in Al Anbar, Iraq, and Vietnam.”
One of the primary takeaways for his Marines, Griffin pointed out, was identifying “courses of action that could have mitigated” the suffering of the Shenandoah’s civilian populace “had civil military operations and civil affairs planning considerations been used.”
Day two included lessons at Belle Grove Plantation, General Sheridan’s headquarters during the Battle of Cedar Creek (October 19, 1864), where the Marines gained a better understanding for the economy that drove the Shenandoah. The Marines ended the day by conducting a civil reconnaissance of the city of Winchester. Canvassing the city, the Marines collected information on Winchester’s layout and architecture, occupants and leaders, and resources and limitations. The Marines briefed their findings to their commanding officer later that evening. As they would be expected to in Marjah or Mosul today, 2nd CAG’s detachments laid out what their recommendations would have been to General Sheridan some 150 years ago.
Griffin later acknowledged the rare opportunity that Wineman’s curriculum had provided his Marines, pointing out that “many if not all of [the 2nd CAG Marines] will not be able to take advantage of formal, resident professional schools like Command & Staff College or Marine Corps War College, where staff rides and battle studies are part of the curriculum. I think staff rides and battle studies are an invaluable part of preparing Marine leaders for combat.”
The Marine Corps’ Warfighting Publication, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1-0, notes that “war is timeless and ever-changing.” Over the course of three days in Sept., the Marines of 2nd CAG gained a fresh appreciation for that basic truth.
U.S. Marine Corps story by Maj. Thomas Garnett