Discussion Interpreting battle maps in history books

m14msgt

Private
Joined
Sep 15, 2015
Quick question...how does one interpret the various ACW battle maps in history books, You Tube, etc?

I am mainly talking about interpreting the rectangular blocks, which I assume denote groups of infantry/cavalry. My question is:

Does each rectangular block denote a regiment, brigade or a company?
 

DixieRifles

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Regtl. Staff Shiloh 2020
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Location
Collierville, TN
Many authors use their own rules for their maps. So it can get confusing.
Most maps will at least have a name next to the symbol. You have to know, or it has to be stated, what type/size of the unit is based on the commander. The book or article should identify the units and organization of the army.

The Army has developed a standard for map symbols. Most units are designated by a rectangle or box. The box will contain a symbol that designates the Type of unit— for Civil War it was either Infantry[X] or Cavalry[/].
Modern Army maps have dozens of unit Types: Engineers, Artillery, Armor, Etc.
The size of the unit is indicated by a symbol above the unit box. These symbols are one or more “X”, “I” or “.” . Most maps of Civil War do not use these descriptive symbols—only X or solid color for infantry and / or half color for cavalry.

Here are symbols for size of a unit that is currently used.
79F64F3D-FED7-4301-851D-712BC2DD8A45.jpeg
 

m14msgt

Private
Joined
Sep 15, 2015
It depends on the map scale and that of the engagement depicted. Traditionally, "blocks" represent regiments, but again, context is key. Is there a particular map you're having trouble interpreting?
No not really...I am introducing a lesson tonight in my ACW course I teach at a local college and want to "school" them on how to interpret a battle map.
 

m14msgt

Private
Joined
Sep 15, 2015
Many authors use their own rules for their maps. So it can get confusing.
Most maps will at least have a name next to the symbol. You have to know, or it has to be stated, what type/size of the unit is based on the commander. The book or article should identify the units and organization of the army.

The Army has developed a standard for map symbols. Most units are designated by a rectangle or box. The box will contain a symbol that designates the Type of unit— for Civil War it was either Infantry[X] or Cavalry[/].
Modern Army maps have dozens of unit Types: Engineers, Artillery, Armor, Etc.
The size of the unit is indicated by a symbol above the unit box. These symbols are one or more “X”, “I” or “.” . Most maps of Civil War do not use these descriptive symbols—only X or solid color for infantry and / or half color for cavalry.

Here are symbols for size of a unit that is currently used.
View attachment 391134
 

John Winn

Major
Joined
Mar 13, 2014
Location
State of Jefferson
Interpreting any map can present a number of challenges. As we map makers are often fond of saying: the map is not the territory. That is, a map is a somewhat simple representation and cannot reveal the reality of the actual place. Generally, maps are made to depict only certain elements and may leave out others. Maps can often be time sensitive.

In the case of battle maps in books, I'd say they are mostly schematics to show generally where the troops were located at some given time. They usually don't really convey what they terrain looks like (or features like large rocks or trees vs corn fields). One of the things I found most instructive when visiting battlefields was to be able to stand on the actual ground and see pretty much what they saw and had to cross. Positions of artillery batteries were especially clarified when actually being on the ground.

So I'd just use them for as a general reference to give you the basics of troop placement and movement (and perhaps some perspective as to distances between units or geographic features). To really understand a battle you have to visit the actual place (and also try and visualize the conditions of that time vs what the place looks like now; e.g. where were the roads, trees, and the open ground then).
 

David Knight

First Sergeant
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Feb 26, 2012
Location
Pontefract, Yorkshire.
I have been
Interpreting any map can present a number of challenges. As we map makers are often fond of saying: the map is not the territory. That is, a map is a somewhat simple representation and cannot reveal the reality of the actual place. Generally, maps are made to depict only certain elements and may leave out others. Maps can often be time sensitive.

In the case of battle maps in books, I'd say they are mostly schematics to show generally where the troops were located at some given time. They usually don't really convey what they terrain looks like (or features like large rocks or trees vs corn fields). One of the things I found most instructive when visiting battlefields was to be able to stand on the actual ground and see pretty much what they saw and had to cross. Positions of artillery batteries were especially clarified when actually being on the ground.

So I'd just use them for as a general reference to give you the basics of troop placement and movement (and perhaps some perspective as to distances between units or geographic features). To really understand a battle you have to visit the actual place (and also try and visualize the conditions of that time vs what the place looks like now; e.g. where were the roads, trees, and the open ground then).
I totally agree that being on the ground is the best way to understand a battle, if the intervening years have not transformed the area with development. I am using Google streetview to get pictures of trench locations in the first world war mostly still farmland so far.
 

Coonewah Creek

First Sergeant
Joined
Jun 1, 2018
Location
Northern Alabama
One thing I always try to consciously keep in mind when looking at battle maps, especially at the tactical scale, is remembering those neat little blocks displayed on the map can be very misleading visually. While they might represent and look like an organized group of men constituting a combat unit, during the actual combat, usually that unit was anything BUT nice and neatly organized as visually indicated by that little box on the map...
 

DixieRifles

Captain
Member of the Year
Regtl. Staff Shiloh 2020
Joined
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Location
Collierville, TN
.I am introducing a lesson tonight in my ACW course I teach at a local college and want to "school" them on how to interpret a battle map.
Oh, that sounds cool.

I gave a presentation about WW2 maps to a local club using my collection of Army issue maps. I included wall maps of a country, topographical maps of various scales and intelligence maps over-layed with enemy defenses.

Map reading and interpreting topographical maps is entirely different course.
 

treebie2000

Corporal
Joined
Jul 19, 2018
Location
Lima, OH
Quick question...how does one interpret the various ACW battle maps in history books, You Tube, etc?

I am mainly talking about interpreting the rectangular blocks, which I assume denote groups of infantry/cavalry. My question is:

Does each rectangular block denote a regiment, brigade or a company?
I am NOT an expert on this, but I will take a stab at it within the context of your specific questions...

In most of the battle maps that I have looked at, the majority of the "blocks" are labeled (usually very near them) with the Commander of that unit. To know what the blocks mean, you must know what that guy commanded...a Corp, a Division, a Brigade, a Regiment???

If I were to introduce this whole concept to a group that knew little to nothing about it to begin with, I think I would start by selecting a portion of a battle; say Day 1 Gettysburg.

Then break it down to the initial engagement; say Heth vs Buford.

Next I would look at the organization of Heth's Division: What is a Division made up of, and what is it's strength? Here it is on our map.
Who are the Brigade Commanders. What is a Brigade made up of, and what are their strengths? Here they are on our map.
Possibly go into the Regiments (if the map you intend to use shows individual regimental positions). Here they are on our map.

After your students have an understanding that a Division was comprised of Brigades which were comprised of Regiments, you can begin to trace their movements on the battle maps and hopefully your young charges will "see" the fight unfold.
 

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