For generations of visitors, the electric map at Gettysburg was THE most important interpretive exhibit. The human brain has difficulty assimilating the massive amount of data required to understand the “real-time” flow of a battle. (Perhaps doubly so for participants!) Thus the need for “big picture” interpretive tools such as operational or high-level tactical maps.
When the Gettysburg Visitor Center moved to the modern facility in 2008, the map didn’t go over. Several reasons were offered, but chiefly the map just didn’t fit into a 21st century interpretive program. I agree with Kieth Harris on the map – sure the presentation was a bit dated… need we say campy?…. but it was part of the Gettysburg experience. Recently there’s been some discussion of long term disposition of the map, but concerns about the exhibit’s size and asbestos have any plans for public display on hold.
For those who’ve come about this Civil War thing of late, Save the Electric Map has plenty of photos and background on their website:
Yes, it was more impressive in person… to a 12-year old boy I know well…
But THAT map was not the original Gettysburg electric map, but rather a rebuild from the time of the Centennial. Joseph Rosensteel built the original in the late 1930s. That map operated until 1963 or so. Proving the map’s value as an interpretive exhibit, after viewing the map with President Dwight Eisenhower, British Field Marshall Sir Bernard Law Montgomery remarked, “so, Ike, now do you realize why I was so reluctant to make some monstrous assault on Jerry?” …. No, I’m making that up…. but Ike and Monty did spend some time with the map.
But we can’t say that the electric map was the first such display offered to aid visitors to Gettysburg. That honor goes to this map:
Emmor B. Cope, the Gettysburg Park Commission engineer, created this map for the St. Louis Exposition of 1904. The map provided, in three-dimension, the platform for an overview of the battle. The map also shows Cope’s “footprint” on the field – the park road system that he engineered. Of course Gettysburg Grognards will also link Cope to the 1890s survey of the battlefield and other important milestones from the park’s creation and early development. Cope drew upon his experience in the war to provide later generations several important resources. Those who look beyond things Gettysburg also recall his map work for Antietam and engineering at other battlefields.
Now my question is why stick the Cope Map all the way in the back of the Visitor Center? Then again, located near the exit from the museum portion of the center, maybe tour groups can better utilize the resource.
In the end, I think the days of these large interpretive maps are gone. Today I can walk the field with a hand-held device which provides minutia details of the action, along with the “big picture.” Perhaps a restored electric map would just be an anachronistic throwback, ignored by a crowd of smart-phone-enabled visitors.