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Midshipmen Battle for Sacred Chicken Story by MC2 Dana D. Legg

Midshipmen enrolled in the course Fall of the Roman Republic took to their kayaks during Operation Sacred Chicken, in a game similar to capture the flag, on the Severn River and at Hospital Point, Oct. 26.

The game was a simulation of the Battle of Drepana, which took place during the Punic War in 249 BC and resulted in Rome’s defeat by the Carthaginians.

“We can examine historical battles and learn lessons that can be applied to modern day tactical situations,” said Dr. Kelcy Sagstetter, an assistant professor of History at the U.S. Naval Academy. “Like in ancient Rome, midshipmen ran campaigns and made speeches about their leadership abilities before the battle and were elected as fleet admirals. It gave them real-world leadership experience.”

The idea for the game was born after Sagstetter and Claude Berube, director of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, discussed a video of school-age children learning Roman maneuvers.

“We started kicking around the idea that if you can teach younger students these fundamentals, why not apply that to midshipmen?” Berube said. “We had planning session, and Professor Sagstetter was able to convey the history of the real battle to the midshipmen.”

Prior to entering battle, the senior magistrate of the Roman fleet would “take the auspices” by observing the feeding behavior of sacred chickens kept aboard Roman ships. If the chickens accepted the grains, the Roman gods were believed to favor the Romans in battle, and the opposite if the chickens rejected them. The chickens refused to eat the grains the morning of the Battle of Drepana, but the Romans decided to attack regardless, costing them 93 ships and between 8,000 and 20,000 men.

In tribute to the auspice, the “Romans,” midshipmen wearing red fought to secure a “sacred rubber chicken” from the beach at Hospital Point, heavily guarded by their enemy, the “Carthaginians,” wearing blue.

“It’s important to give tribute to history,” said Midshipman 2nd Class Allen Sand, who played a Roman. “As future officers, we learn military history, so we can apply it to real-life situations.”

During their paddle from Santee Basin to the battlefield at Hospital Point, the Romans discussed their plan of attack for storming the beach and securing the chicken. They were soon greeted by the pounding of a drum and the war cries of the Carthaginians, ready and waiting in their own warships.

Sand embodied his role as the Roman fleet admiral, donning the galea, a Roman soldier’s helmet. He shouted orders at his ships and led the charge to the Carthaginian stronghold.

“There was definitely a thrill, especially since I was elected to be the admiral of the Roman fleet,” said Sand. “It was an interesting way to study something most people think is boring.”

The two fleets met on the water, dashing to remove the flags from the bow of their opponents’ kayaks, signifying the sinking of their ships. In an effort to sink a Carthaginian ship, one midshipman leaned too far and tipped into the chilly water of the Severn River. After a half-hour of glorious battle, the Carthaginians sunk the Roman fleet, successfully guarding the “sacred chicken.”

As the undergraduate college of our country's naval service, the Naval Academy prepares young men and women to become professional officers of competence, character, and compassion in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

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Josiah Pearce
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