Maps, Topography, and Teaching Civil War Battles

Maps, Topography, and Teaching Civil War Battles

How often have we encountered the blank stares of students when talking about a battle during the Civil War, trying to explain why the exhausted troops did not pursue their victory and deliver a finishing blow? I have had many a debate with a student on the subject, with the student embracing a counterfactual argument that if the Confederates had pushed their advantage, they could have caused a serious blow to the enemy. Understanding how a full day of fighting on difficult terrain can bring troops to the level of complete exhaustion is one of the most difficult concepts to communicate in the sterility of a classroom. Few have the ability to take students on a field trip to a battlefield and spend a full day experiencing the topography. We cannot fully replicate the difficulties soldiers would have faced, but there are other ways to illustrate to students the battlefield experience of Civil War era soldiers.

There are many stories of soldiers and entire armies too exhausted after a full day of fighting to continue. After the First Battle of Bull Run, the Confederate army was unable to pursue the fleeing Union army because they suffered from exhaustion, due to difficult terrain. A similar situation prevented Pierre G. T. Beauregard’s army from making a final push on the first day of Shiloh, which would have pushed Ulysses S. Grant’s army into the Tennessee River. After the Battle of Chickamauga, Confederate forces did not press their Union opponent by making a forceful assault on Snodgrass Hill and the associated ridge, nor did they push the fleeing blue clad soldiers into Chattanooga, avoiding the eventually disastrous siege. These are just a few examples of how topography and a long day of fighting influencing the outcome of a battle.

Thayer’s Approach at Vicksburg. The approach was mowed in this image, with the concrete drain visible. Photo courtesy of the author.

Obviously, there is nothing better than being on the battlefield itself. As an example, during a travel program, I took students to Vicksburg and determined to walk part of the battlefield with them. At Vicksburg, the National Park Service has done much to restore parts of the park to its 1863 appearance, which included clear cutting the area between the Union and Confederate lines. The clearing of the terrain shows the rough landscape usually hidden under dense tree cover. The most impressive point is Thayer’s Approach. Brigade General John M. Thayer’s men had charged up the incline on May 19 and May 22, 1863 without success. After their failures, the soldiers settled down to dig a trench up the steep side of the ridge. They eventually reached to within yards of the Confederate line.[1]

I insisted that we walk up Thayer’s Approach so students could get a feeling for what Union soldiers faced in the course of the siege operations and assault. The vegetation was at least six feet tall, but there was a concrete drainage system that offered an alley. After an exhausting climb, we reached the top and some students, exhausted and sweating, sat down in front of the marker indicating the closest Union troops came to the Confederate lines. The hike was an eye-opening experience for them. Many commented that the incline had not looked as difficult, long, and steep from below. I reminded the students that we were wearing summer clothing and were not carrying any equipment—imagining the climb in wool uniforms, carrying a musket or rifle, with constant fire from above, is a completely different story. However, this important learning experience dramatically alters students’ perceptions about the soldiers’ suffering. How then, can we translate such an eye-opening experience into a classroom, when visiting a battlefield is not feasible?

Pictures in conjunction with maps are one means to illustrate the topographical difficulties. Battlefield maps often lack one crucial piece: topographical features. For example, the maps in Battle Cry of Freedom only include small dashes to indicate terrain, This Terrible War has similar maps, and the Civil War Trust’s maps include topographical lines to indicate elevation and steepness of elevation, but without reference points, none provides a good illustration of the difficulties faced.[2] Obviously the authors of these great works are not at fault here; there are limitations in how a three dimensional environment can be represented in one dimension.

Topographical Map of Vicksburg area, from These maps are now freely available as PDFs.

One of the easiest and cheapest ways to overcome these difficulties is to use the many internet tools available. For example, Google offers a topographical map feature, which illustrates the elevation of terrain. However, based on GIS (geographic information system) data and topographic lines, the terrain can be slightly misleading. Google Earth offers some better views, but they can have the feeling of looking at a horrible gaming graphic. The image below is a screen shot of Thayer’s approach from the valley looking toward the Confederate line. Google Earth does not place the viewer fully at the bottom of the valley and does not adequately present the river crossing before heading up toward the line. Still, moving up gives a good impression of the difficult terrain soldiers had to overcome as they made their way under fire toward Confederate troops.

Screenshot of Google Earth’s view of Thayer’s Approach in Vicksburg. Courtesy of the author.

Even more, maybe here is a great opportunity to reach out on our campuses to the departments dealing with computer technology, graphic design, and 3D printmaking. For example, Sightline Maps has made an effort to make topographical maps available for educational purposes and help produce 3D prints of those images. My university does not have access to a 3D printer, but it would be interesting to see if the maps and prints would provide a good illustration of the terrain of Civil War battlefields, just as good as their promotion images of the Grand Canyon and Mount St. Helens.[3]

Screenshot of a Sightline 3D image of Thayer’s Approach. Courtesy of the author.

While the process of generating an .STL file with all the data of a topographic region and then printing it sounds intimidating, the results look rather promising even if they remain small in scale.[4] As map data improves and the size of items one can print grows, this might be a great means to illustrate to students the topographical challenges present on battlefields. It might be cumbersome to carry around 3D maps, just like some of our colleagues still carry the old maps, but the advantages should outweigh those issues. Even more, once generated, there is always the possibility to use the digital and not the printed map. With advancing new technology, there should be an ever-increasing array of possibilities and improvements to showcase battlefield terrain to our students when field trips to the battlefields themselves remain impractical.


[1] Michael B. Ballard, Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 331.

[2] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Michael Fellman, Lesley J. Gordon, and Daniel E. Sutherland, This Terrible War: The Civil War and Its Aftermath (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2015); The Civil War Trust, accessed March 30, 2017,

[3] Sightline Maps, accessed March 30, 2017,; “Sightline Maps: See the World in a New Way!” Kickstarter, accessed March 30, 2017,

[4] “Terrain2STL Lets Users 3D Print Topographic Maps from Google Maps Data,” 3DPrint, accessed March 30, 2017,; “#D Perspective Views with 3DEM,” Free Geography Tools, accessed March 30, 2017,

Niels Eichhorn

holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas and has taught history courses at Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019) and Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently working with Duncan Campbell on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. You can find more information on his personal website, and he can be contacted at

2 Replies to “Maps, Topography, and Teaching Civil War Battles”

  1. I was interested in your discussion of Thayer’s Approach in Vicksburg. My husband teaches geopolitics in a Thai university and is very interested in the way battles were affected by the kinds of weapons used, the tactics chosen by leaders, and the terrain where the battle took place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.