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Two of my favorite things: Gettysburg and maps

I missed it.

The 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg? I missed it. I suppose it would have been too crowded anyway. But I do have the latest Gettysburg book by Allen Guelzo and am working my way through the Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels, Martin Sheen movie version of the battle.

And now thanks to Patrick’s suggestion, I’ve got some absolutely awesome maps. Two of my favorite things – Civil War battles and maps.

Some quick context. There has been a lot of discussion over the years concerning the different decisions made by leaders on both sides during the battle. Particularly the decisions made by Confederate general Lee on both the second and third day. Did Lee’s orders to attack the Union left flank on the second day and the frontal attack on the Union center on the third day make sense?

We know how the battle turns out. Confederate defeat. And often, because Lee is seen by many Confederate supporters to be infallible, Lee’s subordinates – especially Longstreet – get most of the blame for that. But the question remains. Why did Lee order attacks that with hindsight seem so wrong?

The Smithsonian might have the answer. Using new technology and old information, they’ve put together an awesome set of Gettysburg battle maps that helps explain what Lee might have been thinking.

. . . geographers and cartographers have come up with an explanation, by way of sophisticated mapping software that shows the rolling terrain exactly as it would have appeared to Lee: From his vantage point, he simply couldn’t see throngs of Union soldiers amid the hills and valleys.

“Our analysis shows that he had a very poor understanding of how many forces he was up against, which made him bolder,” said Middlebury College professor Anne Knowles, whose team produced the most faithful re-creation of the Gettysburg battlefield to date, using software called GIS, or geographic information systems.

Using a wide variety of data, including historical maps, texts and photos to note the location of wooden fences, stone walls, orchards, forests, fields, barns and houses, the recorded movements of army units, and high-resolution aerial photos of the landscape that yielded an accurate elevation model, researchers were able to create a new series of maps.

gettysburg viewshedThe maps provide not just panoramic views of the battlefield but also provides “viewshed” versions of the battlefield. Viewshed maps provide a sense of what a person could see, and in Lee’s case, not see, on the battlefield.

The new maps provide insight into what information was available to Lee at the time he decided to attack on the second and third days. They reveal that Lee could not see the full extent of the Union troops arrayed against him. The reverse was true for Union commanders – because of their positions on the high ground of the battlefield, they could see much of what Lee’s troops were doing.

Would Lee have ordered the attacks even if he had more fully known what he was up against? I think probably yes. He and his men were confident – perhaps by this time, over-confident – in their ability to “whip the Yankees.” But these new maps can provide you and your students an amazing tool to research, argue, and continue the conversation.

They seem like an excellent tool for for encouraging high levels of historical thinking.

And seriously? Who doesn’t love a great Civil War map?

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. I noticed the latest edition of National Geographic is on the Civil War. Summer fun!

    July 9, 2013
    • glennw #


      I’m loving the 150th! No matter where I can get it. And the NG mag was a nice surprise in mail box!


      July 9, 2013
  2. One of the advantages of living in Central Pennsylvania is that I’m 40 minutes from Gettysburg and 60 minutes from Antietam. Spent 5 days there including being at the first shot marker at 7:30am on July 1 and in the Rose Woods on July 6.


    July 9, 2013
    • glennw #


      Incredibly jealous! Seeing your pics and watching Youtube videos makes me so want to go back.


      July 9, 2013
  3. Amy #

    Did you catch the c-span coverage? Realized what a history nerd I am when I found myself gravitating to the coverage! Exciting to be in Central Pennsylvania this summer.

    July 10, 2013

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