Digital Mapping: Gettysburg

I would like to discuss the Smithsonian’s interactive map of the Battle of Gettysburg, by Anne Kelly Knowles. The Smithsonian’s online magazine boasts that visualizing the battlefield, using digital technology, can help us put ourselves in the commanders’ shoes, see what we saw, and better understand the decisions they made. Now let me explain why I don’t think this map lives up to these claims.

First, I know enough about military tactics and strategy to know that I, in fact, know very little. Most of us know terms like “high ground” and “flank” from movies. But troop movement is a game of trade offs, and “taking the high ground” or “flanking the enemy” are never just advantages without disadvantages. Things get more complicated when we factor in questions terrain and the comparative capabilities of each opposing side’s weapons. I know enough to know that these are really complicated considerations; and for me to fully understand them, I would need a military expert to explain them to me.

For example, why is occupying high ground considered an advantage in all cases? With projectile weapons, aren’t there cases when the high ground is a disadvantageous position? And why is being spread out, in the case of the Confederate Forces at Gettysburg, a disadvantage? Yes, the authors argue that Lee couldn’t receive info from his subordinates as quickly, but why? Why couldn’t they just use runners? And why did the advantage of not providing your enemy with a concentrated target not outweigh any communication challenges posed by having your forces spread out?

Thus, simply looking at a map that displays the topography of the battlefield and identifies troop positions does little by itself to help me understand the tactical and strategic questions at hand. But not only are these lines on the map not enough for me to understand the trade offs that General Lee and Meade faced (and not even the ground view feature), the narrative that accompanies the points on the timeline lack in their explanation of these military factors.

This brings me to my second point: Digital mapping, in the case of this project, was a tool that helped the researchers interpret battlefield events. It was not a useful tool in disseminating their findings to a lay audience. I have to take Knowles analysis of battlefield events at Gettysburg at face value, because I don’t know any better. When she asserts that the Union’s “compact position” conferred a “strategic advantage,” I have to take her word for it. I’m suspicious, because “strategy” refers to planning at a high-level of command for an entire campaign, not a single battle, (I suspect that what she meant was “tactical advantage”), but also because it just isn’t explained why this is advantageous, all things considered. Nonetheless, Knowles came to this position by reading her digitally generated maps along with the primary sources. Regardless of whether or not she came to the correct conclusions, any understanding that I’m walking away with is coming from the timeline narration and not the visualization.

In sum, digital mapping, in the case of this project, appears to have been more useful to its researchers than to the audience it was intended for.

2 thoughts on “Digital Mapping: Gettysburg”

  1. You bring up some interesting points about the usefulness of digital mapping to a general audience. One of the biggest issues of visualization tools is the lack of analysis and context. Without this information, digital maps are not useful to those who are not already familiar with the wider historical context. You also bring up a good point about specialized language. I think that the creators of digital maps need to think vary hard about their intended audience. Do they want to create a map as an education tool? Or, do they want to create a map to improve their own research interests and that of other researchers?

  2. I agree with you about the issue with using digital mapping as a tool vs using it to convey information to a general audience – how is a layperson supposed to interpret battlefield tactics on their own? What’s more, how can they place them accurately in context of the war, the politics and sociology of the societies involved, the strategies of the commanders, etc., when that information is not easily accessible? I can certainly see how a historian would use these things, but I have serious doubts about its educational application.

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