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.
An Atlas Whose Time Has Passed?
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