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Imaging Shows Generals’ Views At Gettysburg

July 4, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Emergency Radiology
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One hundred fifty years ago today, the remains of two great armies faced each other through heavy rain just south of the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Each side wearily waited for a final attack from the other (which never came). Cries and moans sounded ghostlike above the steady clatter of the raindrops. The water washed from the ground the blood left from three days of fierce fighting that had left approximately 50,000 men missing, wounded, or dead.

The Battle of Gettysburg marked the turning point in the Civil War. The Union Army stopped Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North. During the fighting, the brilliant commander and some of his subordinates made a series of questionable decisions. Most notably, the July 3 attack known as Pickett’s Charge failed to pierce the center of the Union line and resulted in the loss of nearly half of the 12,500 men who undertook the assault.

Now, geographers have used sophisticated imaging from aircraft and spacecraft, along with modern topographical data and historical information from a detailed 1874 map, to reconstruct exactly what the Civil War generals were able to see during the battle. Suddenly, the puzzling decisions have become not only understandable but even obvious.

Anne Kelly Knowles, PhD, professor of geography at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, spearheaded the project. She explained:

Our mapping reveals that Lee never had a clear view of enemy forces; the terrain itself hid portions of the Union Army throughout the battle. In addition, Lee did not grasp—or acknowledge—just how advantageous the Union’s position was.

Dr. Knowles has collaborated with Smithsonian magazine to create a very cool interactive map of the area and the armies throughout the July 1–3 battle. Particularly fascinating are “viewsheds” that display exactly what various generals could see at crucial points of the battle. On July 2, the battle’s second day, Lee surveyed the respective armies’ positions from a cupola atop a building at the Lutheran Seminary. Dr. Knowles’ map (calibrated so precisely that it factors in the extra height afforded by Lee’s boots) shows in white the areas Lee could see and in gray the positions that were screened by hills, vegetation, or buildings.

Lurking unseen in the gray areas are most of the Union forces.

Union commanders, in contrast, had much better vantage points that allowed them to react to Confederate maneuvers by moving reinforcements to where they were needed—sometimes barely in time.

For more details about the imaging and what it reveals, see the Smithsonian profile of Dr. Knowles here.

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We wish a happy (and safe) Independence Day to all.

Related CME seminar (up to 17 AMA PRA Category 1 credits™): Emergency Radiology


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