A Map Study of the Battle of Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg proved one of the largest and bloodiest battles in American military history. In just three days, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia sustained roughly a combined 50,000 casualties (killed, missing and wounded) in armies that exceeded 130,000 soldiers. Though the war would continue for two more years, the Army of the Potomac's victory provided renewed hope to the Northern war effort, in the shadow of seemingly incessant Confederate victories. The maps used in conjunction with this lesson plan serve to explain the geography and topography of Gettysburg during the battle and how the Army of the Potomac's utilization of it served to facilitate it's victory.

Map making constituted an integral part of military operations during the Civil War. For commanders, map making allowed them the opportunity to better understand the land over which their armies marched and fought. Commanders entrusted topographical engineers to undertake the task of mapping the topography of a given battlefield to ensure that they intimately understood the surrounding terrain. Prior to March 31, 1863, United States topographical engineers operated within their own corps or groups within the military and otherwise. Thereafter, however, topographical engineers were integrated into the United States Corp of Engineers and most officers had a topographical engineer on their staff. Throughout the Civil War, the Confederate Army suffered from a lack of topographical engineers, thus putting the north at an advantage.  

The first of the two maps used in conjunction with this lesson plan was produced by a topographical engineer during the battle, while the second was produced a few months after the battle, using eyewitness accounts from the townspeople, press correspondents, and extractions from diaries, for accuracy.  Though little is written on the maps’ respective backgrounds, they accurately assess the situations during the three days of fighting at Gettysburg. They take into account the topography of Gettysburg, the strategic formations pursued by both the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac throughout the battle, while additionally providing specific dates and locations of certain units and brigades during the battle.

The first map, created by Captain and Aide-de-Camp, William Willcox of General John F. Reynolds’ Staff, who also served as his topographical engineer, shows much of the aforementioned. Willcox’s map provides the viewer with a macro-view of the battle situation at 2pm on July 2nd, just as the Army of Northern Virginia was preparing its assaults against the Union flanks. Furthermore, Willcox’s map provides depictions of railroads, road networks, infantry and artillery positions, the names of Union units as well as Corps and their commanders. Moreover, Willcox depicts Confederate battle formations, Union breastworks, and cavalry positions. Special attention is also given to vegetation, and civilian landmarks such as churches, and cemeteries.

Much like the first map, the second, created by Theodore Ditterline, a northern map maker, provides the viewer with an understanding of troop and artillery locations and movements, drainage ditches, road networks around the town, railroads, and houses with the names of residents, for all three days. In essence, these maps have the ability to tell the story of the Battle of Gettysburg through a different lens and at a macro level, allowing the viewer to see and understand the Gettysburg battlefield in its entirety, rather than in a fragmented micro-level manner. From a macro-level view, the viewer can also better understand the significance of geography during the battle, as it allows one to evaluate the entirety of the military situations throughout the battle, as opposed to isolating them.   

Just as strategy, numerical superiority and advanced weaponry are assuredly conducive to military strength and thus victories, so too is the geography of the land on which battles are fought. According to military geologist, Professor Peter Doyle of University College London:

“Geology has controlled the outcome of battle since warfare began. Understanding the nature of ground, the opportunity for active defense and tunneling, the ability to move freely across tracts of terrain and the provision of natural resources are some of the problems that have faced armies for centuries.”

The Battle of Gettysburg proved no exception to this assertion.  

    

Topics

19th century
Military conflict
Civil War
Pennsylvania

Big Ideas

Historical Context

Essential Questions

What role does analysis have in historical construction?
Why is time and space important to the study of history?

Concepts

  • Historical literacy requires a focus on time and space, and an understanding of the historical context of events and actions.
  • Historical literacy requires a focus on time and space, and an understanding of the historical context of events and actions.

Competencies

  • Articulate the context of a historical event or action.
  • Analyze the interaction of cultural, economic, geographic, political, and social relations for a specific time and place.

 

Background Material for Teacher

"Geology and the Gettysburg Campaign" by Andrew Brown

Doyle, Peter. “Military Geology and the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1863.” Geology Today 22, no. 4 (July – August, 2006): 142-149.

End of Unit Assessment

  • A short essay in which the student chooses a key moment during the Battle of Gettysburg and explains how that episode contributed to the overall outcome of the battle.

OR

  • A short essay explaining how one of Gettysburg’s topographical features contributed to a Union victory and a Confederate defeat.

OR

  • Students create dioramas of a specific event from the battle and either explain the episodes significance via a short essay or class presentation.

AND

  • Instructor gives a multiple choice quiz in which students must identify key figures, events and geographic landmarks which shaped the battle.