The Commercial Appeal
New map may explain Lee’s decisions at Little Round Top
He simply couldn’t see all the Union troops
Civil War reenactors have converted on Gettysburg, Pa., and are staging battles during ongoing activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the pivotal fight of July 1-3, 1863, which ended in a terrible defeat for the Confederacy.
GETTYSBURG, Pa. — On the second day of fighting at Gettysburg, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee listened to scouting reports, scanned the battlefield and ordered his secondin-command, James Longstreet, to attack the Union Army’s left flank.
It was a fateful decision, one that led to one of the most desperate clashes of the entire Civil War — the fight for a piece of ground called Little Round Top. The Union’s defense of the boulder-strewn promontory helped send Lee to defeat at Gettysburg.
Historians have long wondered why Lee sent Longstreet against a superior force commanding high ground. Now, geographers and cartographers have come up with an explanation, by way of sophisticated mapping software that shows the rolling terrain exactly as it would have appeared to Lee. That modern maps show that from where he stood, Lee simply couldn’t see throngs of Union sol- diers amid the hills and valleys.
“Our analysis shows that he had a very poor understanding of how many forces he was up against, which made him bolder,” said Middlebury College professor Anne Knowles. Her team produced the most faithful re-creation of the Gettysburg battlefield to date, using software called GIS, or geographic information systems.
Developed for t he Smithsonian Institution to mark Gettysburg’s 150th anniversary, the panoramic map went live on the Smithsonian website Friday, giving history buffs a new way to look at the Civil War’s pivotal battle, which took place July 1-3, 1863.
“Our goal is to help people understand how and why commanders made their decisions at key moments of the battle, and a key element that’s been excluded, or just not consid- ered in historical studies before, is sight,” Knowles said. “We know that Lee had really poor information going into the battle and must have relied to some extent on what he could actually see.”
The geographer applied GIS to find out what Lee could see and what he couldn’t.
To reconstruct the battlefield as it existed in 1863, researchers used historical maps, texts and photos to note the location of wooden fences, stone walls, orchards, forests, fields, barns and houses, as well as the movement of army units. High-resolution aerial photos of the landscape yielded an accurate elevation model. All of it was fed into a computer program that can map data.
Lee is believed to have surveyed the battlefield from a pair of cupolas, one at a Lutheran seminary and the other at Gettysburg College, both of which yielded good views. But a GIS-generated map, with illuminated areas showing what Lee could see and shaded areas denoting what was hidden from his view, indicates the terrain concealed large numbers of Union soldiers.
“What really came through as a new discovery for us in this project was seeing how few federal forces Lee could see, particularly on Day 2, when he decides to send Longstreet,” Knowles said.
Historian Allen Guelzo, who wasn’t involved in the project, agreed that Lee’s view probably misled him. Guelzo, director of Civil War-era studies at Gettysburg College, took a visitor up to the school’s cupola and motioned toward Little Round Top.
“You can see a lot from up here, and Robert E. Lee might have thought on July 2 that he had seen everything,” said Guelzo. “But, in fact, the dips and folds of the ground, the foliage as it was on the ground in various groves and woods, all of that concealed what turned out to be the deadly truth.”