June 29, 2013

Gettysburg Anniversary: New maps reveal what Lee couldn't see

The pivotal battle of the Civil War may have turned on poor intelligence and lines of sight.

By MICHAEL RUBINKAM The Associated Press

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 second-in-command, James Longstreet, to attack the Union Army's left flank.

click image to enlarge

Union re-enactors participate in a battle during ongoing activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the pivotal battle of the Civil War, on Friday at Bushey Farm in Gettysburg, Pa.

The Associated Press

click image to enlarge

A mounted Confederate re-enactor takes part in a demonstration of a battle commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg on Friday.

The Associated Press

CIVIL WAR RE-ENACTORS
DESCEND ON GETTYSBURG

GETTYSBURG, Pa. – An opening volley of musket fire ushered in the start of the milestone commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg on Friday, 150 years after the Union Army turned away a Confederate advance in the pivotal conflict of the Civil War.

Wearing period uniforms, thousands of Civil War buffs gathered on a private farm outside the actual battlefield to take part in the battle re-enactment considered the pinnacle of the hobby. The sights and sounds of faux warfare are also a big draw for visitors -- about 200,000 people are expected to descend on the small south-central Pennsylvania town during a 10-day period that started Friday.

It was one of two re-enactments planned to commemorate Gettysburg, the war's bloodiest conflict with up to 10,000 killed and 30,000 wounded July 1-3, 1863. The National Park Service's official ceremonies begin Sunday.

The events are years in the making after being jointly planned by the Park Service and a host of community organizers and volunteers. It's a lot of work to welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors to a town of 7,500 people.

The Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau set up five temporary welcome tents around town in addition to its two permanent facilities. Satellite parking areas and shuttle bus service are in place for the expected crush of drivers. Cellphone coverage is expanded to accommodate social media enthusiasts.

And don't forget the portable toilets.

"There are literally hundreds in this community," said visitors bureau vice president Stacey Fox.

So far, so good.

"Today, Day 1, seems to be going off very, very well," Fox said. "Everyone seems to be happy."

The Blue-Gray Alliance re-enactment group opened the schedule Friday with its first of three days of battle re-creations. Organizers expected about 10,000 participants to take part.

They began with a detailed, three-hour re-enactment of the battle's first day, when Union cavalry looking for the enemy encountered Confederate infantry. Other re-enactors took part in living history presentations, such as the demonstration of a Confederate field hospital at the Daniel Lady Farm.

Across the street, in a field doubling as the parking lot, Michael Sipes took care of his brown horse, Dale, before pulling on his gray wool cavalry topcoat to get lunch. He's portraying Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early - it says so on his business card. Sipes, 61, a gun shop owner from Hanover, does living history appearances regularly, too.

First, though, he had to finish a chore.

"Who thought a general would be cleaning up his own horses," he asked while shoveling waste out of the trailer.

Sipes, a descendant of a Confederate veteran, said he prefers smaller-scale re-enactments, though welcomes the opportunity at Gettysburg this year to teach history.

"If you don't know your past, you won't know your future," he said. "If you forget about your past and you don't know where you came from, you won't know where you're going."

Wearing a white smock over his dark vest and white dress shirt, Henry Trippe relished his role as a Civil War surgeon and answering questions about treating injuries and amputations.

Trippe, 59, a sales clerk from Ypsilanti, Mich., brought his own collection of scalpels, knives and anesthetics including powdered morphine.

Or at least, white power made to look like morphine.

"I do not have a drug permit," he joked to visitors. "Do not report me to drug enforcement."

The Park Service programs begin with a Sunday night ceremony. Another re-enactment held by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee is scheduled on a farm north of town July 4-7. Re-enactments are held on private properties.

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, and he never again ventured into Northern territory.

Why did the shrewd and canny Lee choose to attack, especially in the face of the Union's superior numbers?

While historians have long wrestled with that question, 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: From his vantage point, he simply couldn't see throngs of Union soldiers 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, whose team produced the most faithful re-creation of the Gettysburg battlefield to date, using software called GIS, or geographic information systems.

Developed for the 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 considered in historical studies before, is sight," Knowles said.

Long before the advent of reconnaissance aircraft and spy satellites, a general's own sense of sight -- his ability to read the terrain and assess the enemy's position and numbers -- was one of his most important tools. Especially at Gettysburg, where Lee was hampered by faulty intelligence.

"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," Knowles said.

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 generally excellent 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 the peak of Little Round Top, just visible in the distance.

"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, who has written a new book on the Battle of Gettysburg. "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."

Conversely, the Union Army occupied higher ground, and used it to great advantage.

Union Gen. Gouverneur Warren spied Longstreet's troops just as they were about to launch their attack on an undefended Little Round Top. Frantic, Warren dispatched an officer to round up reinforcements. They got there just in time, and withstood the Confederates.

For Knowles, the mapping project and the mysteries it revealed helped Gettysburg come alive.

"Commanders always had to make decisions with really limited information ... committing men's lives to scraps of information or intuition, or what you can see at a certain day or a certain time," she said. "This analysis, for me, is making the battle more human."

 

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