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Digital Mapping for Military Historians


Mapping is perhaps one of the most exciting facets of digital humanities available to historians, particularly military historians. Maps have always been critical pieces of the history of the military, but historians have also despaired about how to depict a fluid and ever-changing battle with static maps. Digital technologies, particularly web technologies, can allow historians to overcome some of the obstacles that paper maps present.

Rather than dealing with different types of mapping technologies, I want to structure this post instead around some of the affordance of digital mapping, and you’ll get to see some different mapping technologies along the way.

Precision

Digital maps can be aligned with each other and with coordinate systems much more easily and accurately than paper maps. This is particularly important for working with historical paper maps, which are often aligned on different and inconsistent coordinate systems. Warping map images to align with a standard latitude and longitude system allows historians to think through the space of a battle or fortifications in ways that are not always easy with paper maps. In addition, this alignment (called georectification) makes map comparisons much easier.

Motion

The feature of digital mapping that people are most drawn to is motion. The ability to see spatial changes in motion can radically improve historians’ understanding of military events. Spatial data ripe for animation appears throughout military records. Here’s an example of spatial data recorded by U.S. Navy officers in the Mediterranean.

This is only one ship’s movements (the U.S.S. Philadelphia), but there were several other American ships in the Mediterranean at the same time. One could plot them onto a static map, with different-colored lines representing each ship, but with anything more than two or three ships, those types of maps get messy quickly. Animating the maps would allow a clearer and cleaner picture of where each ship was at any given time. (Once I’ve gotten all the spatial data I can from each American ship in the Mediterranean, I’ll be creating one of these animations myself. Stay tuned. It may be a while.)

Few historians have taken advantage of this ability to animate spatial data. Most of the high-quality animations available are produced by film companies or are available only for purchase. But historians with a little programming experience can produce animations such as Ben Schmidt’s ship-path animations that provoke new questions and provide new answers about history.

The trouble I’ve found with many military-history map animations is that they don’t provoke new ideas. Schmidt’s animation shows the movement of hundreds of individual ships, from which we can discern a spatial pattern, but most animations are much more general.  Animating a few arrows that show troop movement, en masse, may be useful for a national park’s introduction to a battle site or a campaign, but detailed spatial data, which is often available at a much more granular level (specific battalions, ships, even people) is underutilized in operational analysis.

Data Layering

Digital maps can take advantage of data layering. Sometimes this technique is called “deep mapping.” Because the digital map is not strictly limited to a static page, other information can be embedded into the map that enhances our understanding of the space. This could be statistics, such as census data, or photographs of the site, or oral history recollections of the battle fought, or anything that is digital. A great example of how all of these things can work together is the recently released “Histories of the National Mall,” an interactive exploratory map of the National Mall in Washington, DC. Another is “Locating London’s Past,” which sets information about London’s society and culture in the context of a historical map of the city. Making deep maps is easiest for cities, where spatial data and cultural and social data are tightly compacted, but the same could be said for battlefields, where memory and space converge with such force.

An example of how the space of a battlefield is enhanced by other data occurs in this map of the Battle of Chancellorsville. Though the map does use monolithic arrows to indicate troop movement, it also uses photographs, primary sources, and other media. This function of telling the story spatially and chronologically at the same time makes the battle easier to understand.

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In this post I have only scratched the surface of what mapping can do for the military historian. It has so many possibilities that it’s remarkable that so few historians have gravitated toward mapping. As the field of military history progresses, I hope that mapping the military will become a more important part of the story.

Abby Mullen is a graduate student at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. She studies the navy of the United States in the early republic. She is also a fellow at Northeastern’s NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, researching for the Viral Texts project.

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Abby Mullen

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