The Valley Campaign of spring 1862 secured Jackson’s legacy as a consummate military leader. Jackson’s “foot cavalry” marched 646 miles in 48 days and won a string of improbable victories against larger but separated Union forces, including memorable contests at Front Royal (May 23) and Port Republic (June 9). The Federals were prevented from reinforcing a drive on Richmond, and Jackson eventually slipped away from his befuddled enemies in the valley and joined the forces that drove the Union army away from the Confederate capital, fueling Southern hopes of winning the Civil War.
Retracing some of Stonewall’s steps heralds a new academic approach at the Annapolis academy, one of five federal service academies that train future officers. Midshipmen are among the few college students required to study leadership — and to learn the skills well enough to lead sailors or Marines into battle.
“We can’t take these kids over spring break to Afghanistan, nor would we necessarily want to,” said Joe Thomas, a professor of leadership education at the academy who led the Valley Campaign expedition from March 11 to 16. “But we can take them to somewhere in their back yard that has really valid, timeless lessons for people who are going to go to Afghanistan in a few years.”
Past generations studied leadership mostly in the classroom. In recent years, though, the emphasis of leadership training in Annapolis has shifted to what academy instructors call “epic” experience — lessons learned in real life. It’s part of a broader educational movement toward experiential learning. Groups of midshipmen go sailing in Maine, kayaking on the Chesapeake or hiking in Alaska, learning to lead in places where decisions can have life-
altering consequences. Other military schools, including the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and Virginia Military Institute, also teach leadership in real-world settings.
“Optimism is a force multiplier. Keep that in mind,” Thomas said, addressing a circle of weary midshipmen. It was dusk on Day Three of the hike, and Thomas was doing what he could to buoy spirits after 55 miles on foot.
Jackson’s troops crisscrossed the valley from February to June of 1862, marching from Winchester to Port Republic, up into West Virginia and across the mountains to Charlottesville.
(Civil War completists will note that Jackson’s men passed through Swift Run Gap, where Thomas and his midshipmen camped, around April 17. Confederate records show the “foot cavalry” slept “exposed in open bivouacs to the snow, rain and sleet,” a far cry from the balmy sunshine that greeted the midshipmen in mid-March 150 years later.)