Assignment 4

Video Assignment [text version]: How Do Historians Know?: Mapping Civil War Battles

As you had the opportunity to discover in the last “How Do Historians Know” segment, the study of history involves a constant reinvestigation of the past, a search for new sources to help us better interpret key events or developments, and the retesting of ideas or interpretations put forward by previous scholars. Part of that process includes placing historical documents under scrutiny to determine their relative accuracy.

Our second assignment “How Do Historians Know” segment focuses on the military history of the Civil War and how historians explain why the Union or Confederacy won or lost certain critical battles. The military history of the war rates as one of the most popular historical topics in the U.S. Re-enactors, genealogists, military history buffs, weapons enthusiasts, and general readers are attracted to the drama of battles like Gettysburg, Shiloh, Antietam, Chickamauga. Thousands of people visit Civil War battlefields each year to learn about the war. The battles make fascinating studies of leadership, valor, patriotism, belief in a cause, sacrifice, tragedy, or fortune.

If you have ever visited a Civil War battlefield, you no doubt saw carefully placed maps, markers, monuments, or dioramas that sketch the battle in minute detail, hour by hour, or even day by day. It all seems so simple, straightforward, and factual.

The question is, how do historians know this information?

To find out part of the answer, and to continue to develop your skill at critically analyzing both primary and secondary works, this exercise will focus on one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War—the Battle of Shiloh, or Pittsburg Landing, on the Tennessee River April 6-7, 1862. Specifically, we will study how scholars have used battlefield maps to explain how and why the Union won the battle. The battlefield maps are from trusted sources, Battle Cry of Freedom, the online Civil War Trust site, and the Library of Congress. They include both primary and secondary source maps.


  • Go the Library of Congress website to view eight additional maps: .
  • Note which of these maps are “primary” and which are “secondary” sources, as well as which were produced by Federal or Confederate cartographers.
  • Go to the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion online. I recommend using the Cornell University;view=1up;seq=111 On the upper left you will see a space to “jump to” a  page number — enter page 93 and hit go.
  • The Official Records list (pp. 93-98) every Union and Confederate battle report available at the time the volume was published (1884). The reports include summary reports by the two army commanders—Gen. U.S. Grant (US) and Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard (CSA)—and their subordinate commanders.
  • Select any subordinate commander you wish (either US or CSA). Read his battle report. Then, using each of the maps (McPherson, Civil War Trust animated map, Civil War Trust historical map, the Library of Congress maps) try to track that commander’s unit (brigade, regiment, artillery battery) as it moved on the battlefield.
  • Write a 250-350 word report on your ability to track your unit on the battlefield by consulting the commander’s own report and his description of the terrain his unit occupied, crossed, or fought on during the battle. In particular, explain whether you could confirm whether any of the maps you consulted accurately depicted the movement of his unit. Why or why not? Were the primary or secondary maps more useful to you? Explain. What other sources might you consult in order to fill in missing gaps in your knowledge? Be sure to conclude by stating what you believe the biggest challenges historians face when attempting to use primary written accounts to explain the way a battle was won or lost.


This assignment –as with the first one on “How Do Historians Know” segment relating to how we use primary sources to understand slavery — is designed to help you learn firsthand the methods historians necessarily must use to reconstruct past events, explain why those events resulted in particular outcomes, and what problems historians confront based on the quality of existing evidence. Evidence need not be documentary, but may include objects like maps. This exercise alerts you to the fact that your own research project will require you to find and corroborate evidence that is often flawed or incomplete. Historians strive to gather far more evidence than they ultimately cite in order to ensure that they interpret events accurately.

Guideline for Assignment 4

  1. Completed on time (this has two parts, as outlined below; always check schedule for due dates)
  2. Write a report on your findings (minimum 250-350 words); be sure to explain whether you could track your unit using the maps and why or why not; include statement of what you consider the greatest challenges for historians when they reconstruct battles
  3. Posted in D2L
  4. Assignment is graded on a point scale [maximum points=10]

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