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Making Sense of Battles

Speaker: Stephen Chowns

(Text taken from 'Crossfire' No.88 - December 2008)

Let me say straight away that I have never taken part in a battle - and perhaps many readers have; so this will not be an article in which personal expertise and erudition are on display! I want, instead, to guide you through some aspects of the recording, depiction and visualisation of the battlefield experience - especially, but not exclusively, in relation to the American Civil War.

I am a lover of maps, though again NOT an expert cartographer; and it is this interest which I particularly inherited from my father Leslie Chowns - who WAS a surveyor and engineer in the public service, and an ardent student of the 'War between the States'. I won't examine any particular battles or skirmishes in detail but will consider the purpose of battlefield studies and the relative merits of the many ways in which we gather evidence and draw conclusions about military clashes of all kinds.

Why do we study battles at all? Is it in order to somehow re-live them, or at least to experience some of the sensations and emotions of those who did take part? Is it to explain them - to understand why they occurred, why they happened when they did, why they followed the particular course they did, and why they ended as they did? Perhaps we study battles in order to apportion praise or blame between the commanders, the officers, or even the weapons. Is it our intention to learn for the next time; to avoid making the same mistakes, and to reproduce successful strategies or tactics in another situation?

Or do we have some other reason? Perhaps even a less worthy reason, such as simple voyeurism, or an unhealthy fascination with violence, weapons and so on.

Whatever our purpose, how do our techniques of visualisation, representation, recording and analysis help or hinder us in achieving our purpose? Can we ever truly experience or understand a battle if we haven't taken part in ourselves? For that matter does anyone who did take part in or lived through a battle ever completely understand what went on?

Historians, both professional and amateur, will argue about a battle for ever, it seems. Whole careers are built upon the meticulous analysis of battles recent and ancient. And modern techniques are widening the scope and opportunities for such careers. Look at the father and son team of Peter and Daniel Snow, for example. We all remember how Peter Snow pushed tiny model tanks and aircraft about on a sandboard during the first Gulf War - and how computer graphics changed all that by the time of the Iraq War. Father and son have now applied these techniques to a whole series of television programmes exploring battles through the ages.

Our aim in studying a battle, I suggest, is to gain the fullest possible understanding of why things happened the way they did. It's important to appreciate all of the interweaving factors of timing, communications, the skill or ignorance of commanders, logistical problems, weather, topography, and the many other elements which led to the outcome that history records. But let's be careful about that last phrase because it raises the whole issue of perspective, bias and subjectivity.

The Summer 2007 issue of the American Journal of Heritage Stewardship contained an interesting article by Dr John Latschar, Superintendent of the Gettysburg National Military Park. He makes two powerful points, among others. First, our modern society finds it almost impossible to comprehend the sheer scale of the war and its disruptive effect on American society. If there were another Civil War today, he wrote, and there were the same percentages of the population involved, it would mean there would be 37.3 million in the armed forces, and 6 million casualties. He gave a particularly stark statistic: there were 42 civil war battles in which the death toll exceeded that of the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 - that amounts to almost one such attack every month for four years.

So the first challenge of representation and visualization is to convey the scale, the drama and the awesome price of battles. The second point Dr Latschar made is that the victors and the losers have different memories.

"The North", he says, "tended to move on to other issues after the war, (such as the settlement of the West and the expansion of industry) whereas the South tended to look back in search of a way to understand and cope with what it took to be an unprecedented tragedy'

(Latschar 2007, 9).

This was brought home to me at the Civil War Museum at Tredegar in Richmond which I visited in 2007. My father had visited civil war museums in Richmond in 1988, and he brought back a guidebook which barely mentions the issue of slavery. Yet now there stands at Tredegar a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln and his young son, and the Museum's new Director since February 2008 is a black woman, Christy S. Coleman. Both of these things would have been almost unimaginable just a few years ago. I say this to emphasise Latschar's point that perspectives change, and time allows us to take a more balanced view of conflicts in general and battles in particular. History, it's often said, is written by the victorious. Our reasons and motives, then, for studying battles are not irrelevant.

So to the task itself. What are we looking for when we try to 'represent' a battle? A number of considerations come to mind:

  • What is the physical appearance of the battlefield from an aerial viewpoint?

  • How would the battlefield have looked to the various participants?

  • What was the condition of the battlefield in terms of ground conditions, gradients, obstacles andbarriers, woodland, marsh, crops, buildings; and of course how did the weather affect the course of the engagement?

  • How can we sense the noise, heat, smoke and violence of the battlefield experience?

  • Do we have a realistic sense of the size of the forces engaged?

  • How can we accurately demonstrate the movements - the ebb and flow - of the engagement?

  • A wide variety of methods have been employed historically to answer these and similar questions, including:

  • Maps - probably the most significant resource, ranging from sketches drawn before and during the battle to those prepared with great skill and care (but also hindsight) after the events.

  • Pictures - there is a vast record of contemporaneous drawings, engravings, etchings, paintings, and photographs available in relationto the American Civil War. A very substantial quantity of fine art has grown up, and more recently filmmaking has made its contribution.

  • The written word - the war was the first in which significant numbers of participants at all levels were literate, and so there is a rich archive of diaries, letters, memoirs, military and journalistic reports of various kinds.

  • The spoken word - significant numbers of veterans survived until the era of sound recording, and thus contributed their oral history to battlefield research. Even the music and songs of the era make their contribution.

  • Before the invention of the motion picture various static forms of representation were devised, including dioramas, vast 'Cycloramas' and relief models on various scales.

  • It is perfectly reasonable to regard re-enactments as a form of battlefield research. 'Living history', as it's called, has shed much light on tactics, logistics, and individual and group behaviour.

  • Finally we have what the Americans call 'motion pictures' -the movies, both live action and animations, which depict the battlefield experience so vividly.

But there are yet other techniques to help us understand the battlefield. With the passage of time, the sites of battles become overlaid with irrelevant debris and new construction, and serious study requires the techniques of archaeology. Excavation, air photography, radar, chemical analysis, metal detection - even DNA matching - can reveal much about the progress of a battle and the people who took part in it. We have learned what soldiers ate and wore, what diseases they suffered from, and in some instances it is possible to trace where individuals moved as an engagement proceeded. Members will recall the lecture by Doug Scott at the British Library two years ago, about the battlefield of Little Big Horn. We were told, among other things, how forensic scientists had examined bullets found on the battlefield and shown that particular weapons had moved about and even changed hands during the various clashes. This was pioneering work and it has opened up a substantial field of battlefield archaeology.

Tony Pollard heads the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University, and some may have seen the BBC programmes 'Two Men in a Trench' which he presented with Neil Oliver. Professor Pollard makes the same point that Dr John Latschar made:

"There is a saying that goes 'history is written by the victor', and there is undoubtedly some truth to it. Particularly so in the case of a battle, where it is the victor who is most obviously left at liberty to revel in post-battle glory, and to exaggerate the magnitude of his victory'"

To summarise, there is a wealth of data available to us in our search for the truth about battles - and it's growing all the time.

As I suggested earlier, my own starting point was with the world of maps, itself a rich field of study, worthy of its own series of Round Table sessions. But it must be remembered that maps aren't equally helpful to everyone -there are individuals who cannot make sense of any maps, no matter how wellresearched and skillfully drawn. Some maps are certainly more useful than others. The first maps were literally 'lines drawn in the sand'. They were used by commanders to help explain their orders; to indicate direction and intended movements. But of course they were easily misunderstood, and were based on very limited observation and information. In time it became possible to make such sketches in ink on paper, and some examples have survived hundreds of years.

The engineer officers of the warring armies in the American Civil War were trained together at West Point, and senior ranks had fought in the Mexican War. Their skills were focused upon a static form of war, and their studies informed by the Napoleonic era. There were skilled cartographers among them, of course.

What must surely be clear is that Gen. Winfield Scott and the other army commanders investing the city would have had no map of quality available to them as they conducted the siege. Sketch maps would have been prepared piecemeal, as reports came in from scouts, and as local people and prisoners were questioned. Evaluations of gradients, terrain types, watercourses and so on, would have been made from a distance through telescopes. No use was made of balloon observation by US forces in the Mexican War. Most military maps and charts used in action were literally prepared 'on the hoof'- and during the Civil War there were many topographers who worked in this way; the most famous mapmaker of this kind was Jedediah Hotchkiss.

He was a school-teacher, who supplemented his income by working as a mining geologist. Map-making was essentially his hobby. Though born in the State of New York he was living happily in Virginia when war broke out, and he clearly identified with the southern cause, or at least the cause of Virginia, because he offered his skills first to Brigadier General Richard B. Garnett and then to Robert E Lee and Thomas Jackson. His maps are credited with helping some of Jackson's most daring exploits.

If we ask ourselves for a few moments what a map can and cannot tell us, we shall see why maps take the form they do - and why some maps are frankly useless and confusing.

A classic map of the battlefield of Waterloo, for example, will simply tell us where the various formations, regiments and corps were physically located at one particular point in time. This is the kind of map that used to confuse and irritate me, especially as often they are part of a series drawn at varying intervals and to different scales or orientations! Such maps are rarely successful in conveying the actual landscape. However, there's been a trend in recent books to try to represent relief.

Strategic movement is readily illustrated on a map. It's much more of a problem to represent the tactical movement of formations during an encounter.

One approach used in a number of battlefield parks is to create a large relief map fitted with sequences of tiny coloured lamps. Some of you will have seen the example at Waterloo, or the so-called 'electric map' at Gettysburg's old Visitor Center:

Another approach to representation is to build a scale model or diorama, such as the Artillery Ridge Diorama at Gettysburg. It contains 20,000 model soldiers - but even this represents only a fraction of the personnel actually engaged and a tiny part of the battlefield - and cannot satisfactorily depict movement.

More elaborate still was the Cyclorama, which before the era of movies was the best way to help the visitor experience the look and feel of a battle. There were several of these created by Paul Philippoteaux and his teams. The new Visitor Center at Gettysburg contains a restored version - a vast circular painting in the foreground of which are life-sized figures, scenery, weapons and other battle artefacts. Another cyclorama, created in 1893 at the height of their popularity, can be found in Atlanta. Some will have seen the rather dog-eared cyclorama at the Waterloo battlefield - much in need of restoration.

But to return to maps for a while. Gettysburg is probably the most mapped battle in history. This is not a surprise when one considers that the area over which the battle and campaign were fought is enormous, yet it is easily accessible, generally well-preserved, revered for its historical significance, and of course is still wonderfully controversial! Books are published every year about the battle, and they usually contain classic maps or specially-drawn diagrams and charts. A recent book by Bradley M Gottfried, for example, contains 140 newly-drawn maps of the campaign. (Gottfried 2007)

As with most battles the key was elevation; in this case Little Round Top. And the man who reached it and then used it effectively was Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren. Not only did he play a central part in organising the defence of the Union's left flank, close to this spot, but he later carried out the first and most comprehensive survey of the entire battlefield. His maps formed the basis of the series drawn up by John B Bachelder for his guide to the battlefield published in 1873. These in turn led to the 1904 map published for the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association - which some regard as the best of the lot.

The dream of all generals has been to be able to see from the air - and various attempts have been made to create the ultimate 'bird's eye view' of the Gettysburg field. The Pennsylvania Railroad published a very colourful view, as a marketing tool, but perhaps the ultimate bird's eye view has been provided, in the era of satellite imaging, by Google Earth and similar internetbased resources. With these wonderful one can hover over the site at various altitudes, and view from any angle, in amazing detail.

Now let's consider what many consider to be the ultimate medium for visualisation and representation, film and video, in relation to our originally stated objectives in representing battles, I have seen two very effective films in recent years, both aimed specifically at young people visiting battlefield parks. There is a difficult balance to be struck, I suggest, where children are concerned; we don't want to glorify war as such, and we don't want to mislead them, and yet we don't want to send them retching into the loo and give them nightmares for a week.

At the Waterloo battlefield a film is shown to visitors which uses scenes from the movie directed by Sergei Bondarchuk skilfully interwoven with a group of modern children at play in the nearby fields. It's dramatic, and a little scary at first; but it's conveying a message about the feel of a battle, rather than trying to explain exactly what happened. Human passions and emotions are effectively illustrated. At the New Market battlefield military park in the Shenandoah Valley a similar approach is used in the presentation of a moving 45 minute film which depicts the contribution to the battle made by the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute from Lexington. It's effective at many levels, and can be shown to youngsters without denying any truth or exaggerating any errors of the war.

For the general audience there have been a number of big-budget movies set during the civil war period; some of them pure dramatic fiction, others attempting to dramatise real events.

All civil war buffs have their opinion of the credibility and authenticity of these film; my own favourites are 'Glory' and the opening sequence of 'Dances with Wolves'. Even Hollywood budgets are not limitless, however, and it is rarely possible to do justice to the sheer scale of the largest battles. There are only so many re-enactors available to the filmmakers, and unspoilt locations, in the Eastern theatre at least, are becoming more difficult to find. But for all their shortcomings these 'blockbusters' do bring the nearest thing we have to the complete experience of battle - movement, noise, realistic violence, tension and suspense, emotion and drama. They are extremely powerful aids to the viewer's imagination, and it is only the stony-hearted that are not moved at all by them. Films can and do stir individuals to action; there are people who have become committed pacifists after seeing a war film.

So the question remains - why do we study battles? What are our motives? Are they always worthy motives? Who are battlefield studies intended for - our children, our military forces, our veterans or just our curious selves?

It is frequently said that truth is the first casualty of war - or to give the quotation of Senator Hiram Johnson, speaking in 1918, correctly: "The first casualty when war comes is truth".

This suggests to me that historical veracity and completeness must remain the primary objectives of battlefield studies, as they are of any research. We owe it to future generations to understand as much as we can about what actually happened and why. We must unravel the subjectivity and duplicity, avoid the bias and partisanship, and work towards the truth, I say 'works towards' because in this post-modern world there may well be no such thing as absolute truth, especially in relation to war. We inevitably see things from different points of view, and bring our individual personalities into the tasks of analysis and evaluation. But we can be alert to evasion, deception and distortion; we owe it to our children.

Personal motivations can twist some people's perspective, and it is even possible to revel in the misery and carnage of war. At times, the depiction of violence goes beyond the realistic to the voyeuristic. When I was a child the cowboys who bit the dust in 'Laramie' and 'Rawhide' were, as far as I was concerned, simply written out of the story. There was rarely any blood, let alone any flying limbs. My parents had no qualms about giving me a cap pistol as a toy - and I grew up a committed pacifist.

"It is well that war is so terrible - lest we should grow too fond of it".

These words of General Robert E Lee strike home powerfully when considering the purpose of war studies and battlefield research. I believe that we need to know - not just intellectually, but deep down - that war is terrible. My generation has been spared a total conflict of the kind that my parents and grandparents lived through, and consequently many of my peers might be excused for not truly appreciating the total dislocation of life that war brings, even to the uninjured. It is important that this understanding should not be lost or blurred; and I believe that Lee would have approved of diligent and thorough study into the causes and the course of the Civil War.


Gottfried, B (2007) The Maps of Gettysburg: The Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 - July 13, 1863, Savas Beatie Publishing,

Latshchar, J (2007) 'Coming to terms with the Civil War at Gettysburg National Military Park' CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship Vol 4:2 pp 7-17

Sharpe, M (2001) Historical Maps of Civil War Battlefields, PRC Publishing, London

http://www. bbc. co. uk/history/ archaeology/excavations-techniques/ two_men_03.shtml


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