The Return of Gettysburg’s Electric Map

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If you are a Gettysburg enthusiast of a certain age than you likely have fond memories of the Electric Map, which first served as the centerpiece of the Rosensteel Museum and was later included in the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum. For many visitors it offered a helpful orientation to the three-day battle, but it was dismantled to make way for the new visitor center and placed in storage. I wrote about this decision back in 2008.

The Electric Map recently came out of retirement and has been acquired by Hanover, Pennsylvania businessman and entrepreneur Scott Roland, who restored it using modern wiring and LED lights. The map is now on display at the Hanover Heritage Center, where you can enjoy it at the price of $8 for adults and $4 for children/students. Roland hopes to use it to highlight Hanover’s local history and its connection to the larger Gettysburg Campaign.

I admit to have only seen it once during my first visit to Gettysburg back in the 1990s. Certainly, I can appreciate its usefulness as a teaching tool at one point, but I am skeptical that the map has much value beyond the nostalgic appeal that it holds for a certain generation. Of course, I may be wrong.

What do you think?

23 comments… add one
  • Garry Adelman Aug 28, 2016

    Its new location is indeed a problem as it cannot easily serve most visitors Eager for help in advance of their battlefield experience. Still, as an educational tool I can say that the hundreds of thousands if not millions of people who saw it were better prepared to see and understand the battlefield on their tour then those who did not. Every visitor I ever took on a battlefield tour who had seen the map before their tour knew where Cemetery Hill was, knew what the peach orchard was and remembered certain flashing lights that resonated on the tour. There has truly been no quick and easy replacement for the map ever since it left. It was out of date and cheesy and even included some questionable historic script but it was the sole thing I used to have people see before a tour.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2016

      Hi Garry. Location is indeed an issue.

      You make a compelling case for the map’s usefulness in orienting visitors. I also think you make a compelling case for a miniaturized landscape as a form of orientation as opposed to a film or touch screen. Am I to interpret this as pointing to certain inadequacies that you see in the new visitor center’s exhibits? Thanks.

      • Garry Adelman Aug 29, 2016

        I’ll just say that the “new” Museum (for which by disclaimer I was in charge of collecting the 900 hi-res images in the exhibits and I also fact-checked the script) does not offer a quick vehicle to prepare visitors about to hit the field. The Electric Map was great for that purpose.

  • Terry Beckenbaugh Aug 28, 2016

    Yes, Kevin, guilty as charged. I do have great sentimental attachment to the Electric Map. As a boy who grew up about 30 minutes from Gettysburg, we went to the battlefield multiple times a summer alone, and every trip started with an Electric Map session. I do think it has educational value, but wondered about the Hanover venue (disclaimer: I have not seen it since it reopened). But beggars can’t be choosers.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2016

      Hi Terry.

      Nothing to be ashamed about. 🙂 I think we all can identify things for which nostalgia drives the attraction. For me it’s 80s arcade games.

  • bob carey Aug 28, 2016

    I first saw the map back in the late seventies and I always thought it was a good orientation to the first time visitor, however, to the professional historian and the serious buff (I include myself in the latter) the map is not as useful as a source of information.
    I think that it is going to take a marketing genius to get your average tourist to go to Hanover to see the map. That being said the next time I’m in G’burg I’ll probably take a trip over.

  • Ben Butina Aug 28, 2016

    If memory serves, it was ugly but useful. Pretty much the opposite of the movie offered in the current Visitor’s Center.

  • Shoshana Bee Aug 28, 2016

    Oh dear: I have 20 days to weigh this decision to see or not to see this contraption! Since I don’t want to squander a moment of my inaugural trip to Gettysburg, Hanover would have to have more allure than the map. There is the cost, of course: $8 can purchase 4 days worth of MREs consisting of baguette & salami or pre-packed, ready mixed tuna salad + crackers, water & grapes. I dunno, were talking sacrifices of food intake vs the map. Makes me hungry just thinking about it; I guess I know where my priorities are 🙂

    • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2016

      You are certainly an interesting test case. Let us know what you decide and have a great trip.

  • Christopher Graham Aug 28, 2016

    Can’t speak to the Gettysburg map, but these sorts of maps are fantastic for folks like me who need to grasp the flow of the battles on the landscape to really understand what’s going on. In fact, I dropped in on the Gaines Mill/Cold Harbor visitor center the other day and they’ve got a pretty great led map for those battles that went further in helping me figure out how the geography of Henrico/Hanover/Chichahominy defined the Seven Days fighting. I’m a spatial learner so I don’t pick it up so easily from reading or even from static maps. Guess this is why I love those Civil War Trust animated maps so much.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2016

      Yeah, those Civil War Trust maps are very helpful.

  • Bill Aug 29, 2016

    Interesting. I just stumbled on your website. Also just returned from a brief visit to Gettysburg, where I lived from 1980-1993 (ages 5-18). My parents still live there. I used to love the Electric Map as a kid. I worked in the tour industry for a few years as a teenager. Yesterday, I learned about the “Witness Tree” markers for the first time I can remember. I agree with the other commenters it was a great way to orient people quickly to the lay of the land and the battle.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 29, 2016

      Hi Bill,

      Thanks for dropping by and for taking the time to leave a comment.

  • Michael Aubrecht Aug 29, 2016

    I fondly remember the map and was thankful that I got to see it shortly before it was moved. I remember my father commenting to me as a boy that the map did an excellent job at presenting the positions of the different lines (especially the fish hook formation). It put the overall scale of the battle in perspective. I am not sure about the new location but I would personally go out of my way to experience it again.

  • HankC Aug 29, 2016

    This is an interesting part of the battle’s (and war’s) historical depiction.

    At first there were paintings and written descriptions in newspapers and magazines (did they print maps?).

    The photography revolution matured with battlefield scenes.

    After the war came cycloramas, giving life-size 360-degree detail, the publication of the Official records and map atlas and the numerous paintings in state capitols and other public places.

    The 20th century saw more cycloramas and electric maps. I once saw a portion of a depression-era display in the Valley where lead soldiers depicted the battle of Winchester and moved in real-time via an under-table clockwork mechanism.

    In the 1960s, the Avalon Hill Gettysburg game ($3 at Toys’R’Us!) appeared. It was completely unrealistic except for the map and the units.

    Today the maps tend to use diodes depicting movement and battle action and of course there’s modern computer graphics.

    One could do quite a study of the history of battlefield depictions.

    • Richard Keyes Sep 6, 2017

      I loved the Electric Map. First saw it in 1971 when I was 14 on an 8th grade field trip. I enjoyed that trip so much that I managed to convince my parents to take our whole family to Gettysburg in June of that year and we started our trip with a visit to see it. Later that summer I purchased the Avalon Hill Gettysburg game (’64 edition) and my brothers and I played it endlessly for weeks thereafter, and on and off again for many years to come. (I still have that game, by the way.) I also saw the map again at least 2-3 more times in the late ’80s – early ’90s with my wife and young children, and we always started those trips with a visit to see the map before going on the various tours, etc. I happy to hear that it has been saved – I will definitely take a trip down to Hanover to see it sometime in the near future (I live about an hour away from there).

  • Buck Buchanan Aug 29, 2016

    I answered on your Twitter so I will dive in here. I am like the majority in these comments. I am a big advocate of the Electric Map. Cheezy, yes. Some errors, yes. But I found it to be an invaluable tool when leading first time groups on tours and staff rides of Gettysburg. I lead a multitude of varied groups from Boy Scout Troops to military officers. It was a quick and easy way to get folks oriented to the ground and major disposition of forces. Then when we were walking the battlefield tour members would often associate our place on the ground to the map. I had one trip of NATO officers who I took to see the map. A British colonel and Belgian lieutenant colonel both said though they had studied the battle for years seeing the map helped them better understand the battlefield.

    Not to mention it was a handy reference if you are touring in snow or fog…as I have done.

    As others, I am a spatial learner…that could be from my years as an Infantry Officer. When I pick up a battle history the first thing I look for is the listing of maps in the book. And when I read I use 3 bookmarks….one for end notes, one for the page I am on and one for the applicable map. And love the CWTs printable maps…use them all the time. Also love Hal Jesperson’s … http://www.cwmaps.com/freemaps.html

  • Ryan A Aug 29, 2016

    There is/was a video of the complete Electric Map presentation on YouTube somewhere I found. It was great to re-live it again – I last saw it live in 2002 and when I returned in ’08, it was only on display at the new center. I think it’s a nostalgia thing more than anything. Most people today may not get much more out of it considering the way our preferred mediums have changed. I remember as a kid, enjoying it not necessarily for the information it gave me (partly because at that age, it was hard keeping my attention) but for the novelty of it and that old visitor center on Cemetery Ridge.

    I will say this – it had a kind of “authority” in the way it told the story. I can’t describe it exactly, but there was this feeling that this was the real thing in a way, the real story of the battle, even if it’s from 10,000 feet up. Of course, I think I speak for everyone when I say that the little campfires that popped up while they dimmed the lights just added to the atmosphere. Such an enjoyable little display.

  • Rich Lander Aug 30, 2016

    The electric maps help me with the overall perspective, which I can then use to understand the individual engagements while touring the field. The same has been true for me with American Revolution battlefields.

  • Patrick Jennings Aug 31, 2016

    About seventeen years ago I was working for the NPS and our mission was to help sort and evaluate the Gettysburg museum collection for storage while they destroyed the old Rosensteel building and built the new center. Our work location was in the basement right below the Electric Map. For days we listened over-and-over to the narration. For a long time I had it memorized. In fact, there was one light that had come out from it’s hole and would blink on and off. At some point I simply climbed on the table and pushed the little light where it belonged.

    I remember when the map appeared on a government auction site. Kind of sad and forlorn sitting in two or three shipping containers. Because of the large amount of asbestos in the thing I though it was doomed, so I am glad someone picked it up. I think $8 admission is a reach, but I would certainly recommend it for nostalgia sake.

  • Patrick Jennings Aug 31, 2016

    Sorry for the double post, but I happened to remember that The Horse Soldier (you all know who I’m talking about) sell a DVD recreation the the electric map program! You can buy it here…http://www.horsesoldier.com/products/stock-items/12960. It costs more than a visit to Hanover…but then again it costs less than having a family of four see the real one!

    • Kevin Levin Aug 31, 2016

      Are you getting a commission for this? 🙂 Thanks, Patrick.

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