An Atlas Whose Time Has Passed?

The good people at National Geographic asked me to take a look at their new book, Atlas of the Civil War: A Comprehensive Guide to the Tactics and Terrain of Battle, which I was happy to do.  As a kid I could spend hours studying military maps and imagining the ebb and flow of battle or fanciful what-if scenarios.  Today there are scores of Civil War atlases available and just about all of them blend into one another with the same photographs along with the standard campaign and battle breakdown.  The narratives tend to move along the surface and rarely tread new interpretive ground.  It’s pretty much a dead end. The atlas includes computer generated maps along with a nice collection of historic maps from the Official Rebellion and even a number of hand drawn maps by Robert Fox Sneden and assorted birds-eye views.  Locations on maps are numbered and referenced in the text which makes it easy to locate places for their significance.  This is indeed a very nice collection of maps and will make for an ideal gift for someone who is being introduced to the Civil War for the first time.  However, in many ways this particular atlas fits the standard mold.  There are no surprises here.  This is not an atlas that attempts to use maps to show something new about the war. The problem is not simply that the book fails to add anything of interest to our understanding; rather the printed atlas itself may be obsolete.  Not all printed atlases mind you.  Consider Aaron Sheehan-Dean’s Concise Historical Atlas of the U.S. Civil War, which was recently published by Oxford.  The atlas contains your standard campaign and battle maps, but it also contains the fruits of a great deal of numbers crunching and trying to connect the battles with  broader political, social, and economic factors.  The atlas also contains maps covering such subjects as economic capacity (both agricultural and industrial), enlistment rates, and the movement of escaped slaves. The maps also integrate information on the divisions that existed within the North and the South themselves.  Readers will also learn about the geographic patterns behind issues like emancipation, occupation, and internal conflicts.  Sheehan-Dean uses the printed atlas format to introduce new research and to enrich our understanding of the Civil War through a much broader range of maps.  In short, the atlas becomes a medium to impart new research rather than simply tell the standard story. However, even considering the novel ways in which Sheehan-Dean utilizes the atlas format I suspect that the printed form as a whole is already obsolete.  Over the past ten years historians and others have utilized GPS and other technologies to organize vast amounts of data and present it in ways that are visually appealing and educational.  One need look no further than the Valley of the Shadow project.  National Geographic utilizes Jedediah Hotchkiss’s maps and they are useful for understanding military movements, but take a look at how they are used here as a vehicle for understanding slavery in Augusta County, Virginia.  Best of all the digital world allows us to utilize maps to show change over time.  It may be something as simple as VoS’s Interactive Battle Map or the University of Richmond’s Voting America which tracks national elections geographically.  The Civil War Preservation Trust’s interactive battle maps are some of my favorites and I also love the level of detail that one can find over at Brian Downey’s Antietam on the Web.  Even this little YouTube video that made the rounds a few months back contains much more information than the most detailed static map that you will find in a standard print atlas. I can’t remember the last time I handed out a hard copy of a map to my students.  I am constantly projecting maps onto my white board for analysis, but the vast majority are pulled from websites that include some kind of functionality that allow students to consider tough questions or see topics from new perspectives thus leading to new interpretations. No doubt, the traditional Civil War military atlas will contine to find a place in the homes of history enthusiasts.  Even I still have those moments where I can get lost in one of those beautifully detailed maps and birds-eye views.  It is yet to be determined, however, if the limitations of the print format will be superseded by the pace of change and innovation that we continue to see in the digital world.

17 thoughts on “An Atlas Whose Time Has Passed?

  1. Andrea

    I don't know how many hours I've lost because of the CWPT's map collection. Those suckers are addictive. What I'd love to have at this point is an atlas of detachable maps that I could tote with me to battlefields.

    PS: I think I've figured out my Disqus problems, I'm one of 4 people in the world who use Opera for a web browser and for some reason it's not getting along with Disqus. Testing Firefox now and it's doing just fine. Just a note in case one of the other 3 people using Opera pops up!

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      1. Andrea

        I loved Firefox v2.x but v3.x has had a whole host of problems, including being a memory-hogging slow-to-load nuisance. I ran through Chrome, Safari, and Opera looking for my replacement and keep Firefox around for the few things that Opera just doesn't like to do. And now have more web browsers on my computer than some web developers, heh.

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  2. Aaron Sheehan-Dean

    Kevin,
    Thanks for the generous comments about the Concise Atlas. I agree that in many respects digital maps are superior to print maps but like printed books I don't think printed atlases will disappear (or at least I hope they don't). I project a variety of maps in my classes and I hope students learn from them in ways they don't from my descriptions or from reading about battles or campaigns. But I also do an exercise where I ask students to fill in a blank map of the US with state boundaries, rivers, mountains, etc. It's not for a grade but it's a very good exercise for stimulating a little cartographic thinking in students. Trying to draw a map by hand engages them with space in the same way that writing forces them to think about narrative and time. Hard copy atlases allow a more sustained analysis (and, of course, without the need for a power supply). Not every student takes advantage of that, but I encourage those who can't put Tennessee underneath Kentucky or who “forget” Arkansas altogether, that some time spent with an atlas would be profitable. I think we'll have both formats around for a while, though I agree that we have enough traditional battle atlases.

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      1. msimons

        Thanks Kevin and thanks for the links to the internet based civil war map sites. I learned the importance of maps and geographical features in Miltary Science Class in College and when I did teach History, I used maps weekly in my lessons. Cleburnes great tactial retreat at Riggold Gap in a fine example of using the land to your advantage.

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  3. Bob_Pollock

    You may already know this but, the Civil War in Four Minutes video is from the Lincoln Museum in Springfield. I didn't know it was on YouTube, so thanks, Kevin. I think I will post it on FB so my family out west can watch it. I think it is quite a powerful four minute snapshot of the war. When I first saw it though, I was very surprised that the Battle of Wilson's Creek was skipped. In fact, I watched it again just to make sure I hadn't missed it. How could they do that? Second major battle of the war, first major battle west of the Mississippi. Almost 2000 casualties, more than 500 dead, and the first Union General to be killed in combat.

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    1. Kevin Levin

      I didn't even notice that they skipped Wilson's Creek. At first I thought it was just another one of those cheesy videos, but after I watched it a few times I started to see its value. The one thing that stands out is how little the balance of territory changes at certain points during the war.

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  4. scott s.

    I think there is almost no point today to publish geo data, including cartographic data, without GIS or at least kml digital formats available. And supplying links to processed data that must be used on a web-based only map server isn't much better.

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  5. msimons

    Wilson's Creek like most battles West of the Mississippi get little notice unless you live West of the Mississippi or your a hardcore CW history lover.

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  6. msimons

    Thanks Kevin and thanks for the links to the internet based civil war map sites. I learned the importance of maps and geographical features in Miltary Science Class in College and when I did teach History, I used maps weekly in my lessons. Cleburnes great tactial retreat at Riggold Gap in a fine example of using the land to your advantage.

    Reply
  7. msimons

    Wilson's Creek like most battles West of the Mississippi get little notice unless you live West of the Mississippi or your a hardcore CW history lover.

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  8. WD

    I must say though that having had a classroom with laptops, there’s nothing like having something great planned that you worked on for days, and having the server crash or a myriad of other technology issues that are beyond your or your student’s control. In those cases, it always pays to have a hardcopy available.
    On another note, a GOOD atlas contains much more than the standard. I do love those that include data that most folks don’t think of when they think “map”.

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