GIS at Civil War Battles

by Fred Ray on July 29, 2011 · 0 comments

The New York Times has an interesting article on the use of GIS (Geographical Information Service) in analyzing history, including Civil War battles like Gettysburg. Personally I have always felt that the 2-D maps we see in books are inadequate for conveying the flow of the battle. Things that look obvious on a flat surface might be entirely different when you see the actual terrain.

The article looks at what General Lee could actually see on July 2 when he sent Longstreet on his flank march.

Today visitors to Gettysburg can climb to the cupola of the Lutheran seminary, where Lee stationed himself on July 2, the second day of fighting; or stand on Seminary Ridge, where the next day Lee watched from behind the Confederate lines as thousands of his men advanced across the open farmland to their deaths in the notorious Pickett’s Charge. But they won’t see what the general saw because the intervening years have altered the topography. Over the decades a quarry, a reservoir, different plants and trees have been added, and elevations have changed as a result of mechanical plowing and erosion.

Geographic Information Systems, known as GIS, allowed Ms. Knowles and her colleagues to recreate a digital version of the original Gettysburg battlefield from historical maps, documented descriptions of troop positions and scenery, and renderings of historic roads, fences, buildings and vegetation. “The only way I knew how to answer the question,” about what Lee saw, Ms. Knowles said, “was to recreate the ground digitally using GIS and then ask the GIS program: What can you see from a certain position on the digital landscape, and what can you not see?”

Now that books are being distributed in digital form I see no reason why we shouldn’t see maps in 3-D with the units on the appropriate terrain, so we can see what they saw at the time. Might be an eye-opener.


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