Cutting-Edge Technology Reconstructs the Battle of Gettysburg 150 Years Later


Today, as the U.S. cel­e­brates the “nation’s birth­day,” we also round the cor­ner of the 150th anniver­sary of Get­tys­burg, the blood­i­est and arguably most deci­sive bat­tle of an inter­nal strug­gle that nev­er ceas­es to haunt the nation­al psy­che. With over 50,000 Union and Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers killed, injured, gone miss­ing, or cap­tured dur­ing the days of July 1–3, 1863, his­to­ri­ans con­tin­ue to pore over the most minute details of the bat­tle strate­gies of Gen­er­als Lee and Meade. Today’s dig­i­tal imag­ing and satel­lite tech­nol­o­gy means that our views of the action are in many ways far supe­ri­or to any­thing com­man­ders on the field could have hoped for.

Since 2000, the Nation­al Park Ser­vice has used mil­i­tary engi­neer­ing tech­niques to restore the his­toric bat­tle­field to some­thing resem­bling its 1863 state, and, in the past few years, car­tog­ra­phers and researchers Anne Kel­ly Knowles, Dan Miller, Alex Tait, and Allen Car­roll have ana­lyzed new and old maps of the Penn­syl­va­nia ter­rain in and around Get­tys­burg to get a renewed appre­ci­a­tion for what the gen­er­als could and could not see dur­ing the con­flict. Con­fed­er­ate offi­cers had their views obstruct­ed not only by lim­it­ed map­ping tech­nol­o­gy and rel­a­tive field posi­tions, but also by their own com­mu­ni­ca­tion fail­ures. As Knowles points out at the Smithsonian’s web­site:

We know that Con­fed­er­ate gen­er­al Robert E. Lee was vir­tu­al­ly blind at Get­tys­burg, as his for­mer­ly bril­liant cav­al­ry leader J.E.B. Stu­art failed to inform him of Fed­er­al posi­tions, and Con­fed­er­ate scouts’ recon­nais­sance was poor. The Con­fed­er­ates’ field posi­tions, gen­er­al­ly on low­er ground than Yan­kee posi­tions, fur­ther put Lee at a dis­ad­van­tage. A strik­ing con­trast in visu­al per­cep­tion came when Union Gen. Gou­vernour K. War­ren spot­ted Con­fed­er­ate troops from Lit­tle Round Top and called in rein­force­ments just in time to save the Fed­er­al line.

Using so-called GIS (Geo­graph­ic Infor­ma­tion Sys­tems), Knowles and her team are able to show what was hid­den from the sol­ders’ views dur­ing such key moments as Pickett’s Charge. The team used sev­er­al peri­od maps, like the 1863 “iso­met­ri­cal draw­ing” at the top, in their recon­struc­tions. They also used satel­lite images from NASA, includ­ing the May 2013 pic­ture below from the Oper­a­tional Land Imager (OLI). You can see Knowles and her team’s painstak­ing geo­graph­i­cal and topo­graph­ic recon­struc­tions of the coun­try’s costli­est rift at the Smith­son­ian Magazine’s site.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hiroshi­ma Atom­ic Bomb­ing Remem­bered with Google Earth

The Get­tys­burg Address Ani­mat­ed

Behold Charles Laughton Deliv­er­ing the Get­tys­burg Address in its Entire­ty in Rug­gles of Red Gap

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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