What could General Robert E. Lee see at Gettysburg? – A 2D Spatial Humanities Project

What could General Robert E. Lee see at Gettysburg?

This project is a good example of an initial academic research idea becoming the basis of a larger spatial humanities project. In 2008, Dr. Anne Knowles, a historical geographer utilised Historical Geographic Information Systems (HGIS) to interrogate pre-existing concepts and narratives surrounding the Battle of Gettysburg, a seminal event during the American civil war, in her essay “What could Lee see at Gettysburg?” in Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship (ESRI 2008). Her essay re-examined the physical location of Robert E. Lee during the Battle of Gettysburg and using ArcGIS created a digital composite map of the battle from a number of historical maps including John Bachelder’s Gettysburg maps created in 1873 (Codex99 2013).

What could Robert E. Lee see?
Map showing Robert E. Lee’s line of sight  (Knowles 2008)

As shown in the topographical map above, Lee was positioned within a clocktower at the Lutheran seminary which provided him with a wide line of sight from which he could direct his army in the field. This map is not interactive but is highly detailed, a simple colour code shows the areas where Lee could see and the areas he could not. However the map is of the opening position of a three day battle. The emphasis upon line of sight is important as during the nineteenth century, physical eyesight was often decisive in the planning and organisation of one’s army for an upcoming battle. In addition to good intelligence filtered to the command level by scouts, spies and acquired local knowledge (maps, local sympathisers etc.)

In 2013, Dr. Anne Knowles and a team of researchers were asked to create a larger project on the Battle of Gettysburg for the Smithsonian Magazine. This project is currently hosted here. This public humanities project was created during the U.S. sesquicentennial of the American civil war which ran from 2009 to 2015. The Smithsonian project should be viewed as the continuation of Dr. Knowles initial research but with a greater emphasis upon the general public. As a result the maps created are more interactive while remaining topographical maps. The entire three days of the battle have been mapped and the positions of the armies and units are colour coded. Each day can be displayed by a slider that allows for a chronological examination of the battle.

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Day 1 – Battle of Gettysburg (Copyright. Smithsonian Magazine)
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Day 2 – Battle of Gettysburg (Copyright. Smithsonian Magazine)
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Day 3 – Battle of Gettysburg (Copyright. Smithsonian Magazine)

The focus upon the general public is indicative of the needs of the hosting institution, in this case the Smithsonian Magazine. The project is, as of the writing of this blog accessible and has not become abandon-ware, however the functionality of the interactive map is problematic. Firstly the map is not full screen and sits within a window, framed by an article describing the project and its significance. Secondly although a user can scroll through the different days of the battle, the ability to focus upon a given area is limited, for example it is not possible to focus upon Cemetery Hill during the three days of the battle exclusively. This would seem to be a major flaw with the project as the ability to narrow the field of view to one area or unit that took part in the battle was the basis of the original concept underpinning this project, namely the field of vision that was available to General Robert E. Lee.

In conclusion this spatial humanities project is a good example of the problems that arise when an academic essay is transformed into the basis of a public humanities project. Although the final product works well and is useful for researchers as well as the general public, the initial essay with its simple research statement presented much more useful information and added greatly to the discuss of the Battle of Gettysburg. The public humanities project does add new details and provides a more distinctive way of viewing the battle but with the level of specificity and the ability to track an individual unit or area of the battle, the level of granular detail provided by Dr. Knowles initial research is lost.

There are a number of websites and articles that contain parts of the project and provide some of the background information like the types of maps utilised. I have listed all the website below that contain relevant information for the project, starting with the initial topographical maps for Dr. Knowles essay and ending with the Smithsonian Magazine. It would have been more appropriate for the Smithsonian Magazine as the host of the public humanities project to have collated this information into a side website that gave a viewer the full context of this project.

Website articles containing relevant information for this project are listed below

‘Gettysburg’ Codex 99

‘A second cutting edge look at Gettysburg’  Smithsonian Magazine

‘General Lee’s Birds Eye View’ Kenneth Wong Cadalyst

Work Cited

‘Gettysburg’ Codex99 www.codex99.com/cartography/gettysburg