Lecture #17:
Landscapes Made Red: Military Geographies

Suggestions for Further Reading:

John Keegan, The Face of Battle, (1976).

John M. Collins, Military Geography for Professionals and the Public (1998).

Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (2013).

Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels (1974).

Craig L. Symonds, American Heritage History of the Battle of Gettysburg (2001).

Mark Adkin, The Gettysburg Companion (2008).

I. Introduction

Today's lecture is about not just the Civil War in 75 minutes, but also about military geography and the landscape of organized violence. We'll talk about the land-related issues leading up to the Civil War, step back to landscape and military geography in general, and then zoom in slowly to a very close read of the battle at Gettysburg.

II. Territorial Conflicts Leading Up to the Civil War

Territorial conflict leading up to the Civil War was, in many ways, initiated right from the birth of the United States. The question of how western lands would enter the Union—as free states or as slave states—is something I'll return to on Wednesday. We already saw last time the slow migration of cotton into the middle of the continent. If we look out from the perspective of the Colonies on the eve of the Revolutionary War, the central question question was how the regions known as the Northwest Territories and Southwest Territories would enter the Union in the 1780s. You will notice a pattern moving forward historically: that as new states entered the Union, they tended to enter in pairs split north and south. As you know, each state entering the United State would receive two Senate seats; it was crucial that the balance of power not tip in the Senate. This role of the Senate as a resentative of states, rather than the general population, has been built into politics since the inception of the United States government. So one way to read American politics is a struggle to balance the Senate since its inception.

The Missouri Compromise in 1820 regulated slavery in the country's western territories by prohibiting it in the Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°30′ north, except within the boundaries of the proposed state of Missouri. This mean that, in theory, there would be no slavery north of that line. The agreement began to erode, and by the Compromise of 1850 the country would see the following:

  • Texas surrendered claim to New Mexico, plus claims north of Missouri Compromise line.
  • California admitted as a free state.
  • Wilmot Proviso nullified,citizens of new Utah and New Mexico territories given permission to decide onslavery by popular sovereignty.
  • Slave trade banned in the District of Columbia.
  • Fugitive slave law strengthened

The Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854, meanwhile, continued this trend:

  • Created Kansas and Nebraska territories to increase feasibility of a mid-latitude transcontinental railroad.
  • Established that popular sovereignty would decide slave v. free in the new territories.
  • Missouri Compromise was thereby nullified.

Tension continued to mount with the Dred Scott Decision of 1857 (Dred Scott v. Sandford), in which the Supreme Court suddenly re-made the politics that had been struggled over until that time by affirming the following:

  • No person descended of Africans, slave or free, could be a citizen of the U.S. under the Constitution.
  • Northwest Ordinance of 1787 could not confer freedom or citizenship on non-white individuals.
  • Missouri Compromise exceeded powers of Congress, and was therefore null and void (echoing the precedent set by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854).

Notice in this description of a lead-up to the Civil War how vast geopolitical contests were expressed on minute, concrete scales. We can treat the following as an example: In Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), a ardent abolitionist named John Brown decided he'd seize the armory at Harper's Ferry, seize the arms, distribute them to slaves in the south, and help spark a mass uprising. A federal group of troups arrived, led by Robert E. Lee, captured, tried, and eventually hung John Brown.

What finally triggered finally the Civil War itself was the Election of 1860. The apperance of the Republican Party, the splitting of the Democratic Party between free and slave Democrats reveals schisms in existing political organization. South Carolina seceded in 1860.

III. Military Geography

Let's step back: those are the geopolitical and territorial contexts yielding the Civil War. Now I want to talk briefly about military geography generally. It may be unfamiliar to you, but if you want to think about war in history, it's important to think about how war expresses itself as territorial claims on land, and how organized state violence also expresses itself as territorial claims to land.

John Keegan's The Face of Battle (1976) takes three separate and iconic wars—Agincourt (1415), Waterloo (1815), and Somme (1916)—and asks "What's it like to be in war?" What I want to do in today's lecture is ask, "What's the terrain of war?

You can find a lot of books from the U.S. military on the terrain of warfare. Everything we've been talking about in this class is relevant to the fighting of war: slopes, transportation, where rivers block transportation, cities, the contents of cities, the systems that allow cities to exist, the layout of streets, how roads are built, bridges, animal travel even ...

Here are some examples of military terrain shaping warfare. This bridge over the Rhine River at Remagen was, by March 1945, the only bridge across that river in all of Europe at the close of WWII. Controlling that bridge and keeping that bridge operating was crucial: an example of a single location on the landscape having implications for an entire military force. Moving out to a global scale, you can divide the whole world into different terrain conditions: areas that are cold, where iceberg movements might affect shipping; mountainous areas necessitating certain gear (that would spawn, incidentally, the 10th Mountain Division and the subsequent backpacking/camping gear industry in the U.S.); arid regions or tropical rainforests producing their own set of challenges of human dehydration or muddy roads and dense overgrowth. Shorelines are another example: the challenge of landing a ship on a beach and then determining how one fires from the shoreline is a huge part of terrain analysis. It would also become a huge part of trench warfare in World War I. So just think: the landing of vast numbers of troops and machines—the landing of troops at Normandy, i.e. D-Day for example—is a question of landscape, of geography.

So that's military geography in the abstract, with a few cherry-picked examples from U.S. history. Notice: after 1858, the bulk of military activity in terms of military deployment took place predominantly on non-U.S. soil. The aberration to this generalization, of course, is the conflict that took place between 1861-1865: the U.S. Civil War.

I'm going to work my way towards the battle at Gettysburg because it's such an important conflict in the Civil War. One of the virtues of Gettysburg from the point of view of a student is that today that area is a national park, so you can visit it and read interpretive signage along the way. Gettysburg remains the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil.

Before I get to Gettysburg, I want to retun to the election of Lincoln in 1860. Once much of the U.S. south concluded that his election constituted a non-negotiable threat to slavery, the secession of southern states followed except for Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. What triggered their succession in 1861 was two days of shelling at Fort Sumter, outside of Charleston, South Carolina, by Confederate forces.

To think about military geography, we need to think about these pieces of a functional military force:

  • artillery (large-caliber guns and the military detachment operating them, for shooting at a distance)
  • infantry (soldiers marching or fighting on foot)
  • cavalry (soldiers fighting on horseback)
  • logistics (Mark Fiege, whose scholarship you're reading for section this week, is particularly good at tracing logistics: food, fuel for transportation, ammunition, gunpowder, guns. If you're trying to think through the geography of a landscape, paying attention to logistics and how an army will be supplied will be crucial to thinking through how a battle will be fought.)

After two days of shelling, U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson would cede Fort Sumpter to South Carolina.

Here's the point that I hope you drew from last week's lecture: that southern agriculture, particularly by the middle of the 19th century, was largely designed for large-scale production for participation in the export trade, most of it sold into the international market. It was not a region that grew its own food, particularly the southern cotton plantations of the southern Mississippi. That these plantations were not producing their own food had significant implications, particularly if you're thinking in terms of logistics. How would these southern plantations feed themselves in the event of war?

Notice differing resources on the eve of the CIvil War: the North had a significantly larger industrial base than did the South. Add to that the more extensive railroad networks in the North, and the fact that the guages on the railroads didn't match up some different parts of the South.

In the war that was to come, there was an additional problem: the nation's capital was located in the District of Columbia, set up in 1790. Though there were debates at the time of founding over whether to move the U.S. Capitol south Philadelphia, there were problems with this proposal: D.C. allowed slavery and Pennsylvania, by contrast, was a free state where any slave who had lived there for more than six months would be legally free. On the eve of the Civil War, Maryland and Virginia were the two largest slave states in the U.S., meaning that D.C. was surrounded by slave states at the start of the Civil War, with all of the attendance concerns about the seizure of the Capitol.

The main thing I want you to take from this lecture—especially if you're not interested in war—is broad patterns. Look at this map and squint your eyes to notice: a great deal of fighting took place in the Virginia-Maryland orbit, all within 100-200 miles of D.C. These battles would become some of the most decisive battles of the Civil War: Antietam, Gettysburg, and Petersburg all warrant our attention. Controlling the Mississippi River, unsurprisingly, was another imperative of the War.

I'm going to show you a four-minute animated film in which you're going to see the boundaries of the Confederacy and the Union shift across the 1861-1865 period. Again, watch for the large patterns. Watch what happens to the Mississippi River. Watch what happens in the area around Virginia. And watch at the end the William Tecumseh Sherman's famous March to the Sea. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maYxZNQfovQ

IV. Landscapes of Conflict: Leading up to Gettysburg

One way of thinking about the Civil War is as was a struggle over territory that the two armies were trying to control. We already looked at Fort Sumter as an attack on a federal outpost that would spark the Civil War. The Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862) was the bloodiest single day of the Civil War (22,717 dead, wounded, missing); Gettysburg was the bloodiest single battle, though it occurred over three days of fighting.

War on the ground is never abstract and is always governed by geography, shaping how people can move across a landscape. Let's do a close-read of the geography of several crucial Civil War conflicts to better understand how terrain shaped the conflict itself.

The first zone of intense conflict at Antietam was called "The Cornfield." Fighting was so intense in this patch of land that after three days of conflict, every stalk of corn was on the ground because of the violence. The "Old Farmroad" renamed "Sunken Lane" and today called "Bloody Lane," created a trench where the Union troops and Confederate troops died by the hundred. In the climactic conflict of Antietam, it took 3 hours for Union troops to finally get across one single bridge, as Confederate forces fired down from nearby hilltops onto forces trying to assault them from below and moving across a narrow confined space (i.e. the bridge).

Now I want to switch to the western theater, the Mississippi River. U.S. Admiral David Farragut for the Union forces began taking his fleet upstream from the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1862, after seizing New Orleans and crucially, placing it in Union hands. The campaign to claim Vicksburg, the Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River in the state of Mississippi, was very difficult and eluded Farragut. Instead, it was another military leader, Ulysses S. Grant, who would make his name at Vicksburg. He needed to move across this a very wet, very difficult terrain that would constitute a huge engineering challenge—and this is just on the west side of the Mississippi River, not the east side of the river where the real assault would happen. Finally, on July 4, 1863, the Union forces moved in and took over Vicksburg, meaning that the Union controlled the full length of the Mississippi.

Notice: to get to Richmond, the Confederate capitol, Union forced needed to go through Petersburg. Union forces dug trenches—creating a landscape that could have been WWI, the Somme—and there was a standoff. Montgomery Meigs, the Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army, was the one who supplied all the armies in this difficult terrain and stalemate. Everything we've talked about in this lecture relied on Meigs' moving materials around: food, materielle, cannonballs, armaments, people, gunpowder, animals. How did one move all of this around? Dockworkers, horses, wagons—and you built a railroad. At Petersburg, Union forces built a railroad line from City Point (on the James River) to the trenches outside Petersburg holding Union soldiers.

Notice also the centrality of the Army Corp of Engineers to warfare: pontoon bridges, trestle bridges, canals were all crucial for moving supplies. Notice how we're seeing a recapitulation of so many themes we've seen in this course about the history of transportation.

V. Landscapes of Conflict: The Battle of Gettysburg

So let's zero in on one place to think about big themes: Gettysburg.

Lee made the decision in June of 1863 to head north, to bring the war to the north. He wanted to get northerners who were not happy about the war to sue President Lincoln as a means of bringing the war to a close. He also wanted to destroy the northern armies. The North's chief cavalry officer Joseph Hooker, trying to anticipate Lee, didn't know where the Confederate troops were going. Meanwhile, Confederate General J.E.B. "Jeb" Stuart would make the long trip north and wouldn't arrive in Gettysburg until July 2nd, the second day of the battle. Lee was furious because the cavalry are the eyes of the army, and Lee had been forced to start this battle blind: Stuart was not present to tell him where the Union troops were located. Eventually all converge on a tiny town called Gettysburg.

What's interesting and unusul about Gettysburg is that is located on a high ridge; if one can control that high ground, they'll have commanding control of the low valley nearby in addition to the ridge. The person to arrive first at Gettysburg from the Union side was the John Buford, Brigadier General of the U.S. Cavalry. He figured out that Confederate troops were amassing in the west and he decided that it was crucial that Confderate forces not gain control of the ridge on which Gettysburg was located. Though he only had 2500 cavalry troops, Buford decided to try and hold the ridge. Officer John Reynolds was killed almost immediately upon arrival at Gettysburg, but he arrived in time to replace Buford's troops and hold the high ground.

Here's one brief aside about time: recall that it's not until 1884 that there was standard time, i.e. the establishment of the Greenwich Meridian and the railroad-created time zones. This meant that everyone at Gettysburg was setting their watches to a different time, which created confusion since troops coming in from the west would initiate different tasks depending on what time they were arriving. Union troops began to dig in and build fortifications that would be pivotal in the events at the battle to follow. Here's where the clock matters: should the Confederates have attacked to prevent these fortifications from being built, arguably a crucial turning point in solidifying the Union position? The answer to that question depended on what time in the day Confederate forces arrived, which is still unclear in the historical record because of the differing times to which generals were setting their clocks—so differing times reported in the historical record we use today to understand the battle.

Notice another feature on the landscape: medical facilities. These tents were constructed to treat the wounded and dead. Sepsis and gangrene were major problems, so the amputation of limbs was often necessary to prevent injured soldiers from contracting these deadly diseases.

By the morning of the second day, July 2, 1963, the Union forces were aligned in a hook-shape along Cemetary Hill and Culp's Hill, where there would be fighting. Union General Sickles rode out with forces to the end of Peach Orchard, leaving the western ridge undefended. Union Governor Morse, in response, moved his troops to the hill called "Little Round Top" to keep Confederate troops from charging uphill. That landscape, littered with boulders, became known as "Devil's Glen" for all the soldiers killed trying to climb the hill and hide behind the boulders.

The 20th Division from Maine, led by Joshua Chamberlain, a professor of rhetoric and later president of Bowdoin College, performed a crucial function. After bieng order that he could not on any circumstances give up the left flank—he was essentially ordered "You will die here"—had minimal ammunition and held the ground for two hours. After he realized that they had no ammunition left, he ordered his men to attach their bayonets and charge down the hill at Confederate forces. Incredibly, the Confederate forces gave.

The next day, Lee ordered Edward Porter Alexander to attack the Union forces on Military Hill—essentially to give everything the Confederates had. In smokey conditions aim was poor, and most of the cannonballs went over the hill. This enormous artillery attack, despite its firepower, was not very effective because it is so hard to aim accurately uphill. So Lee ordered a charge across a mile of open ground and up Military Hill. Remember: troops in regiments are organized into pairs—pairs of men because the line in front would fire, then moves back to reload while the line behind filled in, then moved back to reload … etc. Lee's decision was that the enemy was weakest at the center of Cemetary Hill, so he charged uphill with 15,000 troops. Again, recall that he thought he could sue for peace if he was only able to get north.

The ability to have greater control of bullets traveling longer distance via changing arms technology helps explain the enormous casualties and number of amputies. Military technology intersected with geography to shape the concrete effects of the war: an enormous number of casualties.

Unable to break the Union line of forces, Lee ordered a retreat. The Union army was in no position to follow, so Lee was able to get away and the war would continue for another two more years. It was also at this site that Abraham Lincoln, in November of 1863, delivered a speech that he'd written on the train. What he delivered that day is arguably the greatest speech ever given by an American president: The Gettysburg Address.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.