“Who was where when?”
I’m sitting at the dining room table in my buddy Ken’s townhouse in Hyde Park, Chicago, Illinois. It’s August, 2009, between my sister’s wedding and GenCon. We’ve just finished setting up For The People, GMT’s card-driven game of the American Civil War. I’m the Union player. And as I’m looking down at the board, that’s what I’m asking myself.
I don’t claim to be an expert on the Civil War. Staring at that map, though, I realize that I have no idea how to even begin to emulate the historical strategy. I’ve got some names — Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Atlanta — and I can see where they are in space, but I have no idea when they are in time. The lines of advance, the critical operations: I have no idea how to get to Appomattox Courthouse. I know that Grant started in the west before he came east, that Sherman marched through Georgia at some point, and that’s about it.
It should come as no surprise that I did not fare very well in the game.1 That was the second event in a few months that reinforced how big the gaps in my knowledge about the geography of the Civil War was. The first was a Final Jeopardy answer on an episode of Teen Jeopardy that I happened to catch. It was something along the lines of “These two states contain the northernmost and southernmost Civil War battlefields maintained by the National Parks Service.” I’d been playing along and rocking the answers, but on this I was utterly lost. Even when the answer was revealed — “What are Pennsylvania and Mississippi?” — I had no idea what the battles were.2
The sudden, embarrassing awareness of those gaps pushed me to finally read the copy of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative that had been sitting on my shelf for years. As it turns out, that question — “Who was where when?” — was the one I most wanted the answer to. As I read, I discovered I needed to put things in space in order to orient them in time. Foote’s maps were good, but I wanted more. On Ken’s recommendation, I picked up a copy of The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War, a monstrous tome3 filled with period maps.4 I even ordered copies of Columbia Games’ Sam Grant and Bobby Lee just so I could place the brigades and divisions on the map and move them around as I read.
Fast forward to the end of February, 2010. I’m at my own dining room table, in Santa Barbara, California. Across from me is my friend David. Between us stretches that same game board. Only this time I look down at the tangle of river crossings and realize why Forts Henry and Donelson are so important. Further down the Mississippi is Island Ten. At the far end are Forts Philip and Jackson, guarding New Orleans from Union ships. Swinging east, there’s Missionary Ridge; I can’t get anywhere close to it now, but I know that unless I can march overland through Alabama instead, it will be a roadblock on my way into the heart of the Confederacy. And in Virginia there’s Harper’s Ferry, Manassas, the Shenandoah Valley — all those spaces where I will never be able to make substantial gains but will have to pour men into in order to keep from losing. Richmond seems almost within reach. Grant is over in Kentucky. If only I could bring him east…
As part of our Fourth Friday Challenge series, Becky asks: “Can you talk about an aspect of the Civil War that you have not covered previously in your blog? Anything you want — the emotional, historical, narrative, geographical, etc.” You can read her thoughts about General Grant over on her blog.
1 That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it was after midnight when we finished anyway.
3 Open, it’s two feet wide and a foot and half tall, and it weighs ten pounds. So when I say it’s monstrous, I’m not just whistling Dixie.
4 His undergraduate major was cartography, so I trust him in the matters even more than normal.