I spent hours at work this week doing something I enjoy very much: mapping out the movements of Civil War soldiers. I am not the biggest of Civil War buffs, but I revel in the intellectual activity of figuring out where, exactly, men marched and fought. It combines two of my passions, geography and source criticism. You sit down with all the narrative accounts, a USGS or similar modern map that shows the topography in detail, and as many nineteenth-century maps as you can find, to show the placement of roads, farms, mills and so on at the time. The narrative sources include the official reports filed by the commanding officers after the battle, letters and diaries of the soldiers, soldiers' memoirs, and newspaper accounts. Part of the appeal is that the sources are rich enough to make the activity fruitful -- unlike, say, trying to reconstruct medieval battles, which is pretty much hopeless -- but scanty enough to be manageable.
The first time I did this in detail was for a little cavalry engagement in October, 1863, known as the Buckland Races or the Battle of Buckland Mills. Part of the fun here is that the battle involved some of the war's most colorful and egotistical characters -- George Armstrong Custer, Judson Kilpatrick, Jeb Stuart, Rufus Barringer -- and after the battle they accused each other of lying about what happened in dueling newspaper interviews. Stuart and Fitzhugh Lee sprang a trap on Kilpatrick's 3rd Cavalry Division, Stuart luring the Federals across Broad Run while Fitzhugh Lee attacked from the flank and seized the bridge behind the outnumbered Union men. The Federals had to flee for their lives, losing 200 men, and it might have been much worse except that Custer sensed the trap and deployed some of his men to guard the roads down which Fitzhugh Lee attacked. The sources include official reports from both sides, the detailed memoirs of one of Custer's regimental commanders and a bragging account of the rout by one of Stuart's, briefer mentions by some of the other participants, and a personal account by a New York trooper named Willard Glazier who was captured in the battle and went to to write a famous potboiler about his escape from a Confederate prison. All told these come to about seventy pages from a dozen different perspectives, an excellent amount of information.
This week I was trying to map out some movements of Union and Confederate Cavalry after the Battle of Gettysburg. In this case the official sources are much more limited, because the actions I was interested in were sandwiched between major battles of great importance, which took up most of the space in the officers' reports for these days. Instead I had a fascinating body of lore collected and put online by local historians in Frederick County, Maryland. Stories about appearances by Confederate cavalry have been collected all over the area, leading some of the local historians to plot out an impossibly complicated route for Stuart's men. But it was Stuart's habit when operating behind enemy lines to feint in several directions at once to throw off pursuit, and his men were also foraging, scouring the countryside for horses, mules, wagons, fodder for their horses and food for themselves. We know that Stuart was at Emmitsburg on the morning on July 5 and crossed South Mountain through the gap by Raven Rock around 5 PM. His own account of his route in between -- written weeks later -- gets the names of several places wrong and confuses others, so it has to be supplemented from the local lore and from careful inspection of maps. I am confident that the route I sketch on the map above is at least approximately right. It matches the accurate details of Stuart's own description and corrects one of his mistakes by substituting "Creagerstown" for the imaginary "Cooperstown." It also accounts for the dense cluster of cavalry stories collected in the area of Creagerstown and nearby Graceham, while being an altogether plausible route for the Confederates to have taken.