Why maps are essential tools for understanding history 

A section of John Bachelder’s map of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, 3 July 1863. The map was produced in 1863 from first hand accounts of combatants and Bachelder’s personal visits to the battlefield.

The map above was produced over 150 years ago by John Bachelder to help explain Pickett’s Charge, the denouement of the Battle of Gettysburg (1-3 July 1863).  Even though it was produced all those years ago it still fascinates and engages me.  To me maps are essential tools in interpreting history, yet I still find history books being published that lack adequate, and in some cases any, maps. It is a failing that I find inexcusable and very frustrating. History is all about the relationship between people, events and places.  To fail to provide visual material to support this is to leave the reader without key information and context.  In this blog I wish to explore the important role maps have to play in understanding history, and to highlight a few excellent and useful examples.

One of the most crucial areas of history to require maps is military history.  Without good maps it is impossible to really understand battlefields. The relationship between military operations and the terrain over which they are conducted is inextricable. The International Guild of Battlefield Guides nicely summarises this in its approach to interpreting battlefields. This seeks to examine and understand battlefields from three different but interrelated perspectives. The historical. The topological. The archaeological.

In this triumvirate, history is the story of the battle. This considers who took part and why, the armies, their commanders, the weaponry used, the chronology of the events, the narrative and how they all relate.  But these in themselves make little sense without looking at the topology, or terrain, over which the battle took place and how that ground affected the battle. The terrain could be the macro-terrain such as the impact of an impassable river, rugged mountains or an impenetrable area of forestry.  It could equally be the micro-terrain, the folds in the ground or other small features that influenced the tactical action.

The final element to be considered is the archaeology. That is what has changed since the battle, and what the terrain looked like at the time.  This information is crucial especially where modern life has encroached, be it housing, foliage or any other modern intrusions.  Interestingly enough, on some of the world’s best-preserved battlefields, this is especially so in America, work is often conducted to remove buildings and vegetation that were not on the battlefields at the time in order for modern day visitors to appreciate the terrain as it was.

Now I have digressed a little from my title, but I think that by highlighting how these three perspectives are linked, helps signpost how a map can bring history to life.  A simple but well crafted map can show all these elements in great clarity.  It can depict the terrain, its undulations, its habitation, its vegetation, its rivers, in fact any physical feature, as they are today and/or at the time of a battle or historical event.  Very importantly a map can give an idea of scale, which is very difficult to do in any other way.  The history can then be overplayed on this for a rich informative picture. There are many excellent examples of maps being produced today that do just this.  Some of the best I have seen are those prepared by Steven Stanley for the Civil War Preservation Trust in America, who now have a series of battlefield maps for all the key sites of the American Civil War.  The map below is an excellent example of this series.  The painstaking attention to detail employed in depicting the terrain, the troop deployments and movement, and the difference between the modern landscape and the historic, allow the viewer to understand the battle in detail.

One of the Civil War Preservation Trust’s extensive range of maps of America Civil War battlefields.

Now the same logic I have outlined so far can be applied, with varying degrees of modification, to other environments and types of history equally well. To me it would be inconceivable to write the history of a city without a map to show how it had developed over time.  Or to write a history of railways, or a railway line, without a map illustrating the route or the network.

Thus far  I have really only looked at modern maps designed and produced specifically to explain a battle or place.  But there is of course huge value in using primary source maps, contemporaneous to the events.  A good example, and a source I use regularly on battlefield tours, are the trench maps produced in the First World War to aid the troops in the front lines.  These are now readily available to modern day historians from a variety of sources, and provide an invaluable resource to help envisage and understand battlefields on which the trenches and fortifications of the War have, by and large, been removed and the landscape returned to farming.

Thiepval Trench Map
A typical First World War trench map. This one produced by the British Army shows German trenches (in red) in and around the village of Thiepval in 1916.

Historic maps come in all shapes and guises.  A set I also particularly like were produced by Charles Booth (1840–1916) an English social researcher and reformer.  A example of Booth’s maps is seen below and is taken from a multi-volume work called ‘Life and Labour of the People in London’ which surveyed the lives and occupations of the working classes of London in the late Nineteenth century. The maps were colour coded by social group. The red areas were classified as ‘middle class, well-to-do’, purple as ‘Mixed, some comfortable, others poor’, the pink areas ‘fairly comfortable, good ordinary earnings’, the light blue areas as ‘poor, 18s to 21s a week for a moderate family’, the dark blue areas are ‘very poor, casual, chronic want’, and black areas are the ‘lowest class vicious, semi-criminals’.  The resulting maps give an illuminating insight into the social construct of the city at that time, in particular the juxtaposition of a range of social groups sometimes in quite small geographic areas. Very importantly this sort of insight and impact is very difficult to convey in just words, with the maps providing a crucial spatial dimension.

One of Charles Booth’s maps of the social composition of the population within Bethnal Green, London during the late Nineteenth Century.

Maps can also go beyond the basic and familiar format. One of my favourites, because it so graphically illustrates the subject matter it is portraying, is Charles Minard’s map of the Napoleon Bonaparte’s ill-fated expedition to Russia in 1812-1813.   (See images below.) Produced in 1869 it was described as a figurative map and illustrated very dramatically the devastating losses incurred by Napoleon’s army as it first invaded and then retreated from Russia. To my mind no words can sum up as well, nor have as much impact, as this map does in displaying the destruction of this huge army.

Minard French
Charles Minard’s figurative map of the cumulative manpower losses of the French Army during the Russian campaign 1812-1813. The light brown line illustrates the size of Napoleon’s army on the way to Moscow, the black line during the retreat. (en.wikipedia.org) [Click image to see larger version.]
A English translation of Charles Minard’s figurative map. (en.wikipedia.org ) [Click image to see larger version.]
Modern technology and interpretive techniques, now makes all this sort of information even more accessible, useable and much easier to portray on a map.  A great example is the Bomb Sight project which is, as stated on their website:

‘…mapping the London WW2 bomb census between 7/10/1940 and 06/06/1941. Previously available only by viewing in the Reading Room at The National Archives, Bomb Sight is making the maps available to citizen researchers, academics and students. They will be able to explore where the bombs fell and to discover memories and photographs from the period.

The project has scanned original 1940s bomb census maps, geo-referenced the maps and digitally captured the geographical locations of all the falling bombs recorded on the original map.

The image below illustrates how the information is overlaid very simply onto a modern base map.  This allows someone with the map on a mobile device, to explore the streets of London and understand the impact of the ‘Blitz’ on its streets and buildings.

A snapshot of the Bomb Sight Blitz map of London available online.

Modern graphic techniques are also now being used to build on the sort of work originally undertaken by the likes of Charles Minard, and combine mapping, strong imagery and rich information into ‘infographics’. These perhaps push at the boundaries of what I have been discussing and are probably not considered to be a map by the purist.  However, as the example below demonstrates very well, this genre can create an engaging and interesting visual which clearly links locations with actions or events,and the historical story, thus providing the viewer with a great deal of useful information in an easily digestible form.

Pearl Harbour Infographic
A very good infographic that combines mapping and information to provide a rich visual source of information. (Image from The Orange County Register)

So to return to my title, why are maps essential to understanding history?  I hope I have begun to show that the interrelation between people, events, activities and places is at the heart of history.  A good map is able to take all these elements, place them on a two-dimensional space, and bring these interactions to life.  To produce good maps requires accurate content, meticulously researched and cross-referenced.  It also requires high quality presentation of this information to engage the viewer and entice them to explore the detail.  Properly executed, whether a map is a modern one designed to explain a specific battle or event, or an historic map created for a particular purpose at the time, the way a good map can relay factual information far exceeds the ability of words to do so.  Indeed to paraphrase an old saying, it is very much a case of ‘… a map paints a thousand words…’.