New Digital Maps Let Historians See Through the Eyes of General Lee

Some of America's biggest historical events, like Gettysburg or the Dust Bowl, are also some of the most complex—and rife with contradicting accounts. A new digital mapping system aims to apply Google Earth-like functionality to American History's mysteries.

Developed at Vermont's Middlebury College by geographer Anne Kelly Knowles and her team, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), is essentially software that displays and analyzes information about a location with each set of information applied and peeled off in layers. "Mapping spatial information reveals part of human history that otherwise we couldn't possibly know," said Knowles, "It enables you to see patterns and information that are literally invisible."

Take Gettysburg, for example. What did General Robert E. Lee actually see when the made the fateful decision to send thousands of his troops across open farmland in the attempt to take Little Round Top? Modern researchers can stand where Lee stood but cannot match his view—mostly due to the quarry and reservoir installed since the battle as well as the addition of trees, tall shrubbery and changes in elevation due to erosion. But with a GIS system, researchers can combine multiple data sources—soldiers' diaries, historical maps, documented descriptions of troop positions, records of of local vegetation, even the added height that Lee gained from his riding boots—into a single, comprehensive, manipulable overview.

"Lee probably could not have possibly seen the massive federal forces building up on the eastern side of the battlefield on Day 2 during the famous attack on Little Round Top," Ms. Knowles said. "He had to make decisions with really inadequate information." [New York Times]