Five Questions: A Military Perspective of the Gettysburg Campaign, with Paul Severance

It’s not very often that you have the chance to take a staff ride with a retired colonel who also happens to be a newly retired senior leadership faculty member of National Defense University. But that’s exactly what BGES is offering, when Paul Severance takes a group to Gettysburg on May 30-June 2, 2019, on a specially tailored visit guaranteed to give you a brand-new perspective on this legendary battle. We caught up with Paul and asked him some questions about his tour, “A Military Perspective of the Gettysburg Campaign,” and his longtime interest in Gettysburg.

BGES Blog: What is your personal interest in Gettysburg?

Paul Severance: Beyond my life-long passion for the Civil War, my personal interest in Gettysburg derives from my professional interest in the campaign and battle. I had the honor of serving as a faculty member at National Defense University for 25 years, and Gettysburg was a superb “carrier wave”–both in the seminar room and on the battlefield–for educating aspiring national security professionals on an immense array of factors, theories, virtues, influences, and principles which link national military endeavor to the attainment of strategic national security aims, goals, and objectives. As a consequence, I have devoted significant energy and effort in my tenure as a professor of strategy to developing multifaceted frameworks for analysis that national security professionals can utilize to analyze and evaluate complex military dynamics to support decision-making and leadership development. These “frameworks” run the gamut from traditional strategic thought of the “Dead Saints” of Strategy (Frederick the Great, Vegetius, Napoleon, Jomini, Clausewitz, Liddell-Hart, Douhet, Mahan, Svechin, etc.) to the functional principles of war to such contemporary concepts as Joint Functions and Effects-Based Operations (EBO). If you want to go there, Gettysburg has it all, and it is a great learning laboratory for–including engaged citizens–desiring an enhanced understanding of the utility and use of the military instrument in the pursuit of over-arching strategic imperatives.

BGES Blog: Why this tour? What do you offer that others don’t?

Paul Severance: As suggested above, I’ve tried to create a Gettysburg learning experiences that is a mosaic of strategic-operational-tactical perspectives that embrace a wide array of disciplines or what I characterize as “Areas of Inquiry.” I’ve built my Gettysburg learning intervention around strategy, operational art, and operational design, discrete engagements, the value of information and intelligence, decision-making, leadership, technology, logistics, and human interest vignettes (the sugar that makes the medicine go down). I try to engage each of these areas of inquiry at each engagement (or “Stop”) on the battlefield. Also, with this trip, we are planning to cover, in some detail, Lee’s retreat and Meade’s pursuit, operations that often get short shrift when the staff ride traditionally terminates at The Angle.

BGES Blog: What on-the-ground elements are you most excited to share with your tour participants in the upcoming tour?

Paul Severance: I’ve got a thousand! One area that I’ve always had a passion for is Geography at the Strategic and Operational levels of war and topography at the tactical level. Succession of Command in combat is also something that captivates me and is a staple of my staff ride. I also rely on the Military Estimate of the Situation and how that process impacts the decision-making process. Said differently, I endeavor to address the eternal question for leaders: “What’s changed and What Do I Do About It?” My mantra in this respect can be boiled down to: What? So What? Now What? On the subordinate level, this approach also addresses what is known, what is unknown, what are the load-bearing assumptions, and what are my available courses-of-action. In this vein, some of my favorite battlefield analyses address Ewell’s non-decision to “take” Cemetery Hill; Sickles’ decision to pull his III Corps out of Meade’s established defensive scheme; Warren’s performance on Little Round Top on Day 2; Chamberlain’s and Oates performance on Vincent Spur; and the Lee-Longstreet imbroglio on the conduct of the campaign and the management of the battle. There are a hundred others we could jump!

BGES Blog: What are the biggest takeaways about Gettysburg do you hope the tour participants will have?

Paul Severance: I have three or four that I hammer home at the conclusion of the learning experience. The first and most “cosmic” takeaway is the necessity for a nation’s war strategy to be cordial to both the economic and societal strengths of the nation. A second takeaway I hope to impart is the difference between courage and leadership in the conduct of ground combat as a human endeavor. The third, also somewhat ethereal, is the impact of “conceptual unity” vs. “conceptual dissonance” in the planning and conduct of military operations. Finally, I try to encourage people to rethink the enduring “strategic-operational-tactical” framework to appreciate that the goals and objectives that undergird the strategic and operational domains are physically won or lost by tactical engagements and that tactical events–in their own right–can have operational and strategic impacts. This is sort of the “Butterfly Effect” on steroids, but it’s fun to engage in “intellectual popcorn” of this ilk.

BGES Blog: What do you hope BGES tours–and yours specifically–add to the discussion about what the Confederacy means today?

Paul Severance: Oofta! That’s a hard one. There’s a lot of emotional baggage swirling around that subject, and I’m not sure I really understand the point of question. Indeed, it’s a question that could well be the subject of a Master’s thesis or even a Doctoral dissertation. Sidelining the emotion-laden “monuments” and “slavery” issues for the present, and seeking to meet the publication deadline, I guess my thoughts initially coalesce around the incredible solidarity and “grit” of The Confederacy, or more properly, its populace during the course of the conflict. Viewed from a Geo-political perspective, the unquestioned courage, commitment, and resilience of The Confederacy’s armies and its citizenry in the American Civil War was, as they say in Boston, “Wicked Awesome” and of import today, clearly a virtue or “end-state” to be pursued by any nation seeking to wield geo-political clout on the extant international stage. For Americans today, this level of resilience and solidarity is of critical import as the United States experiences what has come to be termed a period of “persistent conflict” replete with military challenges, cyberwarfare, proxie military operations, and most insidiously, terrorism. Boring down some, I am reminded that, unlike the North, despite the horrendous casualties, the incredible domestic hardships, and the incremental chipping away of its territory by Union military operations, no significant peace movement ever emerged in the Confederacy. That reality of domestic support was critically important to retaining the esprit and morale of the Confederate forces fighting on both land and sea. On the other hand, from a more practical “structural” purview, I would opine that the concept of “confederacy” (in a generic sense) as a political, governing entity, is fundamentally not well-equipped to engage in a “long war” of attrition or exhaustion where all the elements of power of the nation must be mobilized, marshalled, and employed in the defense (survival) of the nation. This particular opinion parallels my views with respect to the cordiality of economic and societal strength above. Good question. I need to wrestle with it a bit more.

BGES Blog: Other thoughts?

Paul Severance: Final thought. I am an adult educator (Ph.D. in Adult Learning) and prefer to engage in “collaborative learning interventions” every chance I get. From that perspective, it is my fondest hope that the folks who sign-on for the BGES Gettysburg Campaign will come to the scrum prepared to contribute to the overall learning of the group.