Dear Historians, We Need Maps

I am currently reading David McCullough’s 2005 publication 1776 in preparation for a class I’ll be taking during the fall semester (which starts on the 19th of this month, during summer, ironically enough). MCullough is one of the most popular historians in America thanks to his lucid, engaging narratives that have captured the imaginations of people who want to learn more about the past. Indeed, in an age in which bookstores large and small are closing their doors and stories continue to come out about no one reading books anymore, McCullough’s books continue to fill the bookshelves and sell well. For example, McCullough’s 2001 publication John Adams has sold more than one million copies since its release (much to the dismay of some academic historians who are jealous of a non-academic’s popularity).

1776 is no exception. I went into this book assuming it would mostly focus on the exploits of George Washington, but I have been pleasantly surprised by McCullough’s ability to weave the perspectives of King George III, the English Parliament, and Loyalists in America into the narrative, complicating the notion that George III was a complete fool or that every colonist supported the Patriot cause at outbreak of hostilities in 1775. Furthermore, McCullough’s central argument is that Washignton’s subordinates are actually the ones who deserve more credit for their efforts during the Revolutionary War, including Generals Henry Knox, Nathanael Greene, and Charles Lee, among others. As Tony Horowitz explained in a review of the book, “Washington didn’t have a clue about strategy or tactics, and had to be rescued from his reckless plans by subordinates. McCullough bluntly terms him ‘indecisive and inept’ as a battle commander, but praises his perseverance and clear eyed recognition of his own and his army’s faults. Washington also showed a talent for night actions (often in retreat) and a capacity to learn from his mistakes.”

Although there is much to praise about 1776, there is one serious problem with this book, and it’s a problem that has plagued other books about military history.

There are no maps!

Yes, there are three maps in the picture gallery between pages 116-117, but they are awkwardly placed, they date back to 1776, and they don’t really explain anything about Washington’s movements or any of the battles that took place in 1775-1776. When McCullough describes a troop movement or battle, we are forced to rely solely on textual narrative to help describe how these events played out, and I have found myself frustrated by my inability to follow these movements without the help of a map. Consider this brief narrative from pages 133-134. It is the summer of 1776 and Washington’s men are in New York City, waiting for the British to come from Canada to engage in battle:

Washington shifted his headquarters to City Hall. [Henry] Knox and his wife moved into No. 1 Broadway, while Martha Washington remained at the Mortier house beyond the city… That same night [June 28] Washington learned for the first time that the British had sailed from Halifax bound for New York on June 9, General [William] Howe having departed somewhat earlier on the frigate Greyhound. The information came by express rider from the captain of an American schooner that had been captured by the Greyhound off Cape Ann, then retaken by an armed American sloop. The next morning, Saturday, June 29, officers with telescopes on the roof Washington’s headquarters and other vantage points in the city and on Long Island, saw signals flying from the hills of Staten Island. The first of the British Fleet had appeared.

There are several questions that immediately popped up as I read this:

  • Where is City Hall, and what would Washington’s officers have seen of the Atlantic Ocean from the roof of this building? Is it close to the ocean or far away?
  • Where is No. 1 Broadway?
  • Where is the Mortier House, and what does the term “beyond the city” mean? 20 miles? 10 miles? 200 feet?
  • Where is Staten Island in relation to City Hall?
  • I know that Halifax is in Canada, but I don’t know where it is in relation to New York City off the top of my head. Since I’m not from this area, I’m having a hard time imagining where everything is in my head. How did the British navigate this voyage from one place to the other?
  • Relating to the first question, what could the officers see with these telescopes? Without knowing where City Hall is located, we are left to use our imaginations.

It is clear to me that no matter how good a textual narrative may be, it can be woefully incomplete if you don’t employ other methods of knowledge dissemination to help advance that narrative.

Ideally, I’d like to have maps within the print book that can help me follow the textual narrative and place events into their proper context. Thankfully, however, a decent alternative exists in Geographic Information Systems, commonly referred to as GIS. First created in the 1950s, the internet has allowed for GIS programs to be used by anyone who wants to use computer technology to map out statistical data and cartographic information. In fact, you can go to ESRI’s website and download ArcGIS Explorer for free right now. Google Earth is also a great alternative (So is GeoServer). I’m still learning about GIS, mapping, and what is now being referred to as the “spatial humanities,” but I am quite excited by the possibilities this technology presents.  For instance, GIS allows for readers to not only read about Washington’s occupation of New York City in 1776, but to also visualize what they would have experienced (I would love to see what this would look like). The ability to layer maps on top of each other also allows us the chance to visualize changes in New York City’s landscape over time so that we can compare what the city looked like in 1776 to what it looks like today. While none of the software programs I linked to existed in 2005, it is my hope that historians (especially military historians) will be cognizant of their readers’ needs and work to incorporate more spatial data into their scholarship in the future.



5 responses

  1. Good point Nick. There was a great book on the Army of the Tennessee by Steven Woodward with-count ’em-one map on the first page on a national scale. It was basically useless.
    One recommendation. David Hackett Fisher’s “Washington’s Crossing” is the best book I’ve read on the war in 1776, has plenty of maps and looks at the conflict from the colonist, Hessian and British perspectives. Its great.

    1. Thanks for the comment and the book recommendation, Nathan. I read a very fine biography of William T. Sherman by John Marszalek that had a problem that was similar to Woodward’s in that it had one map on a national scale that did not fully convey the many travels of Sherman in and out of the military.

      I’ve also been really inspired to think about GIS and its relationship with public history. I think there are some neat things that can be done by public historians to convey historical knowledge to the broader public through GIS mapping.

  2. […] few weeks ago I mentioned that I was reading David McCullough’s 2005 work 1776, and I remarked that I struggled to find my sense of place as I worked through the book. There was […]

  3. Thanks for your post!
    I study history myself and worked with GIS (and historical data) during an internship. GIS definitely offer interesting new possibilities. The only problem is that the added value does not always make up for the invested time… But improvements in the usability of the software might tip the balance.

    1. Hi,

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. Yes, GIS can definitely be a time consuming process, and I’ve found that the final mapped product can still be tough to understand as a reader sometimes. Since I wrote this post, a new resource has popped up that I’ve been studying quite a bit lately. It’s called “Geospatial Historian” and I think it does a wonderful job of making GIS useful for scholars.

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