Week Seven Practicum Blog: Google-Mapping the Civil War

My first foray into the world of the Google Map Engine was very informative and productive. For this exercise, I captured, using single-point graphics, the various locations where one Civil War soldier, the oddly named Consider Flowers, and his regiment, the 1st Michigan Cavalry, traveled during the Civil War.  Typically, much of the regiment’s activities were characterized by simple movements from one place to another in an effort to locate and engage the Confederate forces or to conduct raids along major logistical lines of communication (main roads, waterways, etc.).  In some cases, the regiment fought pitched battles in places such as Winchester and along the Totopotomoy Creek during the years 1864 and 1865, years which defined the time limits of this exercise.

Overall, I found the Google Map Engine to be a very user-friendly tool. The speed of the zoom-in and zoom-out features was remarkable and allowed me to double-check my search locations to ensure that I was not adding to the map similarly named locations in different parts of the country. I chose as my base map the colorized, highly detailed terrain map that depicts foliage and elevations clearly. As a former infantryman, I am highly sensitive to the importance of these features on a map and how they impact an army’s ability to move quickly and efficiently across the battlefield space. Thus, I think the full impact of this seemingly ubiquitous cavalry regiment’s travels become much starker when considered in the context of the difficult terrain the troopers had to traverse, often at great speed.

In order to distinguish between events occurring in several of the same places during both 1864 and 1865, I selected one layer each for the two years in question. I opted to use named balloon icons to represent the general movement locations; and, for the first layer, I allowed the Google Map Engine to select varying colors for each icon.  As I progressed in  my data entry, I grew to dislike these auto-generated colors, but I left them in place anyway. They were too light in shade to stand out effectively, but I wanted to retain them in order to compare a different color scheme I planned to use for the second layer.  The only time I changed the balloon icon was to represent locations where I knew from memory or from the available data that a battle or skirmish had actually occurred (I’m sure I missed a couple, though). In these cases, I selected an icon indicating, for lack of a better term, an “explosion.” I tested yellow as the “explosion” color, but it did not stand out as well as the shade of blue that I also tested. Thus, I went with the blue.

For my second layer, I used the same approach for the icons; but, in this case, I colored the balloon icons “red.”  When compared on the map simultaneously with the icons from the first layer, the differences jumped out easily.  The only icons I changed were for two events: the surrender at Appomattox and the Grand Review in Washington, DC. For the Appomattox surrender, I selected a horse icon, mainly because of the image I have of General Lee riding off with great dignity following the ceremony. I used a “sun” icon to portray the Grand Review in DC in May 1865, primarily as a metaphor for the postwar “dawn of a new day.”  I would have preferred the ability to use flag or soldier icons to portray the activities of the different armies, but I made due with what the program offered.

Many of the locations listed in the regiment’s history had no accompanying references on the online map. Unsurprisingly, locally named references to certain crossroads, ferry crossings, and the like have long since vanished. Therefore, in order to compensate for the “fuzziness” of my data, I used Google to pull up sites discussing the Civil War and, using online maps (and even Mapquest in one case), I located the 1864 and 1865 locations and then identified the closest named town or road intersection that was still identifiable on the Google base map. I then used that spot as the closest reference to the Civil War-era location and then, after adding it to the map,  renamed it for the wartime location.  I tried to get as close as possible to the original location, and I refused to settle on something that was more than three or four hundred meters off.  For example, the map engine did not recognize Milford, Virginia, but my Google research showed me that it was located within around four hundred meters of Bowling Green, Virginia. The map engine recognized Bowling Green, so I used that balloon icon to represent Milford.  In some cases, I never found a reference to a wartime location in the context of a map that would correlate with today’s Google Map. For example, I never managed to locate Mallory’s Crossroads or Jones’s Bridge.

Actually, I know a great deal about the Civil War and record-keeping during that period. Yes, they generated a lot of paper, but many of the journal entries for troop locations were nothing more than a “swag”  at best — unless it was a large town or city like Winchester or Richmond.  Maps were scarce and seldom accurate. Local people tended to tell the troops where they were (and not always precisely), and the soldiers recorded these names as ground truth. Few soldiers had ever ventured far from home before the war and did not know intimately the geography of Virginia or other parts of the country. Thus, my efforts to reconcile the “fuzziness” of my data may have either clarified or compounded the inherent “fuzziness” of the primary-source data.

In any case, the Google Map Engine proved to be phenomenal tool.  The point balloon icons worked well, and the labeling application was very easy to populate and save. I experimented with linking locations using lines, but those lines only seemed to confuse the visual depiction.  Overall, I enjoyed using this tool, and I plan to use it again in the future.

Steve Rusiecki


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