Anatomy is to physiology as geography is to history; it describes the theatre of events.

-Jean Fernel

I never imagined I’d quote a French physician to kick off a historical blog post, but I don’t think I could capture the essence of what’s to follow in a more eloquent manner—Fernel’s observation hits the nail on the head when it comes to describing the inherent interrelatedness of history and geography. Geography has shaped the story of man far greater than man himself has shaped history; the progression of man from neanderthal to high-tech cosmopolitan has followed fertile soil, fresh water, mineral wealth, and climatic comfort since day one. When analyzing history’s key moments, we’re often drawn to accounts of leaders, commanders, soldiers, and explorers, obsessing over a chain of events and causal relationships contained inside a sociopolitical spatial vacuum, ignorant to the substantial role played by weather, topography, and nature. Without an appreciation for history’s dimension of dimensions, however, no account is complete—without coming to grips with the role played by space in the trenches of World War I, in the oceans of World War II, in the Appalachians of the Civil War, or in the rivers, forests, and fields of the American Revolution, our comprehension of the past is fragmented, far from whole.

Chart from William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West depicting the impact railroad proliferation had on travel times from New York to regions west between 1830 and 1857 (see White)

Richard White’s “What is Spatial History?” defines this study of the link between time and space in a historical context as “spatial history,” articulating the impact of geography on events of the past at length in a fascinating argument. In particular, White’s point that

…visualization and spatial history are not about producing illustrations or maps to communicate things that you have discovered by other means. [Spatial history] is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.

inspired me to use this week’s deep dive to explore an application of spatial history and take note of what it adds to the more typical narrative history around an event. What advantages might a spatially-focused analysis have over one in prose? What drawbacks might come with such an analysis? How might a spatially-focused analysis sharpen or blur insights into a given event? When, where, and why might we prefer a spatial analysis over a textual one? When, where, and why might we prefer a textual investigation over a spatial one, and when, where, and why might we prefer the two in conjunction?

To answer these questions in preparation of staging my own spatial history investigation over the course of the coming week, I spent the course of the past week learning from Anne Knowles’ “A Cutting-Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg” and discussing its architecture with fellow HST 251 classmates. Before critiquing Knowles’ work, however, I’d like to introduce a few terms from White’s article (by way of French philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space) which will be of importance.

  • Spatial Practice: “the segregation of certain kinds of constructed spaces and their linkages through human movement … on one scale, our movement within our homes … on another scale, it is our movement from home to work along an infrastructure of sidewalks, roads and trains … [or] our long distance movements through airports and along air routes”
  • Spatial Representation: “the documents of architects, city planners, politicians, some artists, surveyors and bureaucrats …. an attempt to conceive in order to shape what is lived and perceived”
  • Representational Space: “space as lived and experienced through a set of symbolic associations … it is what marks a church or mosque or synagogue; it is what religious people feel in a sacred space; it is a room in a library or a university building; it is an art gallery”
  • Absolute Space: “space measured by distance: inches, feet, meters, miles, etc. … mark[ing] the fixedness of things: streets, buildings, parks and the rest”

If you’re like me and haven’t studied the Battle of Gettysburg as of late, I’d recommend you brush up your recollection by reading a quick summary before jumping straight into Knowles’ visualization, as it assumes an intermediate level of background knowledge and fails to provide extensive narrative exposition or annotation—by design, it is meant to investigate space, and as such limits textual descriptions to approximately 100 words in each exhibit frame. Moreover, be sure to orient yourself by zooming in and out to various levels of granularity, and take note of the visualization’s legend, which changes with granularity. Try toggling between the map’s historical and satellite layers, and reflect on how the information conveyed differs with each perspective.

Screenshot of Anne Knowles’ “A Cutting-Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg


I’ll begin by discussing what Knowles’ map does well, which much overshadows what it does poorly—despite my limited background knowledge of military strategy and the Battle of Gettysburg, I found the exhibit’s interface intuitive, design clean, information simple yet deep, and insights multifaceted, particularly with respect to the various definitions of space as introduced above.

First, while the exhibit naturally treads on dangerous ground by projecting spatial practice and representational space onto the absolute space of a birds-eye view map, it minimizes the distortion in such projection by

  1. backing the map with a historically-rectified, topographical layer appropriate to the time and context,
  2. maintaining dynamics of motion and change over time by providing chronological snapshots as opposed to a single static map,
  3. maintaining deep levels of granularity and detail down to individual troop and cannon placement, street alignment, landmark references, and topographical features,
  4. including “viewsheds” and computer-rendered first-person panoramas to supplement birds-eye views with perspectives more similar to those of representational (“lived”) space, and
  5. warning the reader of critical details and differences in representation and reality that might otherwise lead to incorrect conclusions if left unmentioned (as when Lee launches his attack without being able to see Union troops, while such troops are visible from a birds-eye view).

As such, Knowles’ creation sheds new light on battle strategy and the role of human error in the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg by showing how geography, topography, and—more generally—space, influenced each engagement of the battle, without conveying such insights in a deterministic tone. Decisions are contextualized with respect to the geography they were so dependent upon, while realities in military intel or lack thereof are explained starkly by pixels in place of words. Her pairing of viewsheds with computer-rendered first-person panoramas at multiple frames throughout the exhibit quite literally puts us in the shoes of the soldiers to communicate a sense of representational (“lived”) space which might otherwise be absent from a pure textual account or static map of the battle relying more heavily on spatial representation (“blueprinted space”), while her short-and-sweet annotations point out any and all points at which the story told by spatial representation (“blueprinted space”) differs from the reality of representational (“lived”) space through unintentional projectional warping. Moreover, Knowles’ map raises new questions to guide further research from the answers it does provide, conveying the reality that “the more you know, the less you know”—music to any historian’s ear.

Viewshed illustrating sightline of Lee upon his decision to launch major Gettysburg attack in Anne Knowles’ “A Cutting-Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg
Computer-rendered first-person panorama illustrating sightline of Lee upon decision to launch major Gettysburg attack in Anne Knowles’ “A Cutting-Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg”

Thus, by White’s definition of spatial history, Knowles’ creation is a wild success, precisely fitting the mold:

[Spatial history] is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.

Quite frankly, given the goal of Knowles’ exhibit, it’s difficult to argue that the work falls short in any particular manner. Why might I bother include a “negatives” section then?

Left alone, Knowles’ exhibit falls short not in what it shows, but in what it does not show—in other words, it’s a wild success when considered in the proper scope, but isn’t an end-all-be-all exhibit covering the entire sphere of Battle of Gettysburg scholarship. As with any work, there’s always more detail to be desired, and always more breadth to be browsed. Hence, Knowles’ work is best taken in conjunction with a supplemental array of varied textual and spatial sources if the goal is to holistically understand the Battle of Gettysburg—of course, relying on more than one source is a ground rule in any academic field, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Speaking more particularly, the exhibit fails to show or fails to show clearly the

  1. nonlinear progression of time,
  2. parallel progression of time and threads of narrative,
  3. continuous progression of time,
  4. ordinary moments characteristic of the battle,
  5. density and speed of troop presence and movement, and
  6. true representational (“lived”) space in the eyes of individual soldiers.

That is, Knowles’ exhibit is limited by the fact that it is timeline-based—while such structure adds value in organization, it also falsely linearizes time and leads to misrepresentation by interweaving parallel, continuous, and local narrative threads into one rope of step-wise, discrete, global occurrences. Moreover, Knowles’ exhibit’s discrete-time nature leaves out the more ordinary moments of the Battle of Gettysburg to instead emphasize key progressions, shattering fragments of the holistic picture while salvaging only the largest shards. As detailed as Knowles’ visualization is, granular down to the placement of individual artillery elements and troop units in each frame, we are still limited by the fact that the exhibit filters the continuous, density-fluctuating flow of soldiers down to discrete, constant-density troop movement “steps” undefined in speed or volume. Finally, no matter how many viewsheds, computer-rendered first-person panoramas, augmentations, historical rectifications, and annotations Knowles were to include in her work, we face the unavoidable fact that any spatial representation (“blueprinted space”) is inherently inaccurate in modeling representational (“lived”) space. In fact, White himself notes that

… [the] attempt to conceive in order to shape what is lived and perceived … is a tremendously powerful and ultimately hopeless set of practices.

in reference to this notion.

This all being said, if one considers the limitations constraining Knowles’ exhibit, properly mitigates the risk of misinterpretation by seeking alternative, supplementary sources, and focuses on what the exhibit does show instead of what it doesn’t, Knowles’ work becomes an invaluable resource, providing what Fernel dubbed the “theatre” for the Battle of Gettysburg.

Screenshot of Anne Knowles’ “A Cutting-Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg”

Without plush red seats, extravagantly crafted stage sets, fine-tuned acoustics, and refreshments served in a souvenir cup, the experience of a night on Broadway would feel like a rip-off. Just as the theater makes the play, and anatomy makes physiology, geography and space make history.

Given the tools of our era, it’s about time we study it more seriously.