Dordt College News

In their footsteps

January 11, 2009

Dr. Paul Fessler admitted he was a bit nervous the day before the staff ride he planned for the history students in his American Civil War and Restoration course.

He knew the success of the trip rested as much on students’ preparation as his. He needn’t have worried.

Despite having had to read four books and numerous primary and secondary source articles on the Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge battles, the students were ready and eager for the trip.

“It’s part of the reason why I took the class. There was a rumor going around that we might be going to do something like this, and I’ve always been interested in how place affects history, so looking forward to going to the actual battlefields was exciting. We were talking about it all semester,” said Krystle Van der Waal from Boyden, Iowa.

“The trip was one of the greatest moments in my educational experience,” said Sarah Roth from Escondido, California. She and the other students each became experts on different characters and had to weave their knowledge together as they recreated and analyzed the battles.

“I wouldn’t have missed it for anything,” said Ryan Jensema from Oostburg, Wisconsin. “It was a great opportunity to learn history in a different setting and also to get to know the people in my class much better.”

Staff rides were first used by Prussian generals in the early nineteenth century. Following a battle, they went on a “staff ride” to analyze what had happened and what went right or wrong. The military continues to use them today, as do forest fire fighters, as a way to learn from what has happened before. Some business schools use staff rides to examine leadership decisions. Today the United States Army College uses staff rides as part of its leadership training for generals. Fessler got the idea for doing a ride with his class following his participation in one during a seminar for twenty historians during the summer of 2007 at West Point.

“On the staff ride at Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge, we stood where the battle took place and asked why they made the decisions they did,” says Fessler. Some things became very clear to Fessler’s students just from being there. They saw that the hollows at Wilson’s Creek created acoustic shadows that prevented the army from hearing the battle already going on. Walking through the cornfields and seeing the terrain of the battlefi eld helped them sense the soldiers’ fear of not being able to see far and know what they were facing. The experience helped them get a better sense of what the soldiers had gone through and how exhausted they would have been aft er hiking with their equipment and ammunition.

But it did much more. Prior to the trip students did extensive research on the battles and each person Wilson’s Creek in Missouri and Pea Ridge in Arkansas were the third and fourth battles of the Civil War, but many people don’t know much about them because they were so far west and most attention went to battles further east. No photos of these battles made it into Ken Burns “Civil War” documentary. Yet, understanding something about these battles helps historians understand why there was basically a guerilla war in Missouri following these events, says Dr. Paul Fessler.became an expert on one or two people who were involved in the battle.

Soldiers were black and white, wealthy and poor, said Fessler. Many were Christians,
most had left families. They were driven by passions, hatreds, and commitments. Fessler
wanted his students to know not just the facts of the battle but understand how their characters’ worldviews shaped their actions. Why did they fight and continue to fi ght?

Drawing on the preparation he and his students had done, Fessler played the role of
facilitator throughout the trek through the battlefi elds, asking questions to help them
come to a deeper understanding on a micro level—from describing the anti-slavery Union general who hated Southerners to the privates from Missouri who wanted to defend their homes and property—even though relatively few owned slaves.

The students jumped in with enthusiasm and knowledge, sharing what they knew, adding to what others contributed, challenging assumptions, and making new discoveries as they combined their research and their experience on the battlefield.

“Having to conduct in-depth research to understand a worldview diff erent than my own was a unique challenge and blessing,” said Roth. “I learned the importance of examining motivations. We had to leave our comfort zones of learning and stretch ourselves into another time and place.”

“We usually look at large themes and philosophies in history,” says Fessler. “It’s hard to understand individual participants and see that they were on the battlefield for a variety of diff erent reasons. How did those factors infl uence judgment—especially of the offi cers?”

Fessler shared his students’ feeling that the trip had been successful.

“Students learn more if they are wellprepared and are excited about what they’re learning,” he said, noting that experiential learning often cements knowledge in a way classroom lectures can’t.

Another benefi t of the trip for students was getting to know other history students better. “The highlight of the trip for me was going on this trip with people who were really interested in the Civil War and eager to learn more about it,” said Emily Sajdak from Pella, Iowa.

“All of us share an interest in history, so we could make historical references or jokes in the middle of the conversation and everybody actually knew what we were talking about,” says Van der Waal.

“Besides hiking around the battlefields, one of the highlights for me was cooking supper and having ‘homemade’ meals together,” said Phillip Van Maanen from Sioux Center.

Fessler had rented a cabin with a kitchen. Following the evening meal the fi rst evening, the students pored over their studies to make sure they were well prepared for the battlefi eld trips. Other evenings they carried on their discussions of the day’s events and what they’d learned.

“The hard work paid off,” said Fessler. “The students knew as much as many of the staff members at the battlefields.”


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