Q and A with History Shots' Larry Gormley on Civil War Information Graphics

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My August 16, 2009 post, Review of History Shots – History of the Union Army, American Civil War 1861 – 1865, promised a Q & A with History Shots creator Larry Gormley of History Shots. Larry was kind enough to shoot answers to my first barrage of questions this evening.

History of the Confederate Army (History Shots)

History of the Confederate Army (History Shots)

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of creating the two Civil War graphics?

A: The toughest challenge was how to display the multi-variable data sets within an easy to follow and interesting design. The subject matter dealt with both chronological and geographical content which is difficult to map in a two dimensional space. Selecting the scale and scope of the data took a lot of trial and error. The color palette was critical to the design and information flow and, therefore, required significant work.

Presenting accurate and objective information is very important to me as well. And the importance of accuracy and objectivity is directly related to the level of complexity found in each of the graphics. I wanted to provide enough information and context about the subject to allow people to understand the topic and to draw their own opinions and conclusions.

Q: What techniques do you use to research and create the graphics? I’m imaging a room with ceiling to floor white boards and lots of dry erase pens along with sticky pads.

A: The creation process was long and often difficult but it was always interesting and highly educational; I enjoy greatly the journey from raw idea to completed print. It took about a year to create the first print, History of the Confederate Army, and about nine months to complete the History of the Union Army. Half of the time was devoted to research and data collection. For the research, I started with books in my collection and quickly added material from many libraries located throughout the Boston area. In addition, I purchased a number of very specific, limited run editions that focused on Civil War statistics. Also, I spent hundreds of hours going through a CD version of the Official Records. I captured my research in a spiral notebook and many Excel spreadsheets.

After most of the data is collected I started to prototype micro parts of the story (for example, an individual army in 1862) and high-level views. I find working in both micro and macro levels helps me during the design process. I created about 10 rough ideas before settling on an overall design. I started the design process using paper and colored pens then I moved to Adobe Illustrator.

Q: In your mind, why is this form of social study powerful?

A: I think it is powerful because it presents a large and complex issue within a form that allows the viewer to learn and explore at their own pace. It provides detailed and multi-layered context about important stories within a beautiful design. The design draws you in and lets you dive as deep as you want into a lot data.

Q: Do you have any other Civil War graphics planned?

A: I have an idea for a third graphic but at this time I do not have a firm start date. The idea covers a more direct comparison between the Union and Confederate armies. In addition, I have an idea that includes the Civil War era plus other time periods as well. I have a long list of ideas and it keeps getting longer!

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Review of History Shots – History of the Union Army, American Civil War 1861 – 1865

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Zoom of The History of the Union Army

History Shots Union Army

History Shots History of the Union Army

Larry Gormley of History Shots kindly agreed to let me review the series of “information graphics” he has created that focus on military history. This post begins a brief series that I’ll do on all three, two depicting information about the opposing armies in the American Civil War: History of the Union Army and History of the Confederate Army, and a third on U.S. Army Divisions in World War II.

Minard as Inspiration

Gormley credits Charles Joseph Minard’s “statistical graphic” of Napoleon’s March to Moscow (interestingly published for the first time in 1861) as inspiration for his American Civil War graphics. Arguably the most famous effort to depict a military campaign in this unique way, Minard’s iconic work was reintroduced to modern audiences by statistical information guru, Edward Tufte in his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. [1]

Graphical poster of Napoleon's March available for order at http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/posters

What Minard accomplished was the visual depiction of statistical data in a way that allows mere mortals to grasp it quickly.

“The aim of my carte figurative is less to express statistical results, better done by numbers, than to convey promptly to the eye the relation not given quickly by numbers requiring mental calculation.” [Charles Joseph Minard] [1]

John Corbett’s informative article, “Charles Joseph Minard: Mapping Napoleon’s March, 1861,” points out that Minard incorporated six variables into him map.

“First, the line width continuously marked the size of the army. Second and third, the line itself showed the latitude and longitude of the army as it moved. Fourth, the lines themselves showed the direction that the army was traveling, both in advance and retreat. Fifth, the location of the army with respect to certain dates was marked. Finally, the temperature along the path of retreat was displayed. Few, if any, maps before or since have been able to coherently and so compellingly weave so many variables into a captivating whole.” [1]

Most startling in the work above is the comparative sizes of Napoleon’s army as it left France (tan colored stream at left of diagram) and then returned (black colored stream at left of diagram above) after having been decimated by the elements and lack of food. Michael Friendly’s Re-Visions of Minard also has a great deal of information on Minard including excellent graphics. The most powerful in my mind emphasizes the human element to Napoleon’s losses by replacing men with crosses. [2]

Revision of Minard's Map of Napoleon's March to Moscow

History of the Union Army, American Civil War 1861 – 1865

The statistics of the American Civil War, one of many histories that History Shots’ Larry Gormley and co-founder Bill Younker tackle, must have presented some interesting challenges. I think they handled them brilliantly and the results capture the spirit of what Minard attempted to accomplish in his 1861 work on Napoleon.

For this post, I want to take a look at the graphic titled: “History of the Union Army American Civil War, 1861 – 1865” which you can view on the History Shots website here. This will appeal to anyone trying to get their head around the key details of the war. The variables Gormley tackled graphically include:

  • key milestones
  • theaters of operation
  • the 31 Union armies and departments (the date of their birth, sources of recruits, expansion, contraction, merging, etc.)
  • the generals who commanded the armies and for what period of time
  • statistical details of the most important 95 battles
    • dates
    • commanding generals
    • number of casualties
    • the number of men “present for duty”
    • outcomes: win or draw

Each of the three major theaters of operation has its own swim lane and each army a unique color. The time element runs along an x-axis from left to right. The y-axis is largely size of army.  This allows for effective illustration of the relative size of each army, their swelling and contracting in size, where they combined efforts for specific campaigns and/or battles, and when men were transferred between theaters. Vertical lines represent major battles and are color-coded to reflect their outcomes: Union win (blue), Confederate win (red), or draw (blue and red).

Union Army Hot Shots

History Shots - History of the Union Army American Civil War 1861-1865

The History Shots website has an excellent feature that allows you to zoom in on any part of the diagram you want. I’ve taken the liberty of posting their full-on shot above and you can click on it to go to this graphic on their site. I zoomed in for illustrative purposes below on a section that shows the redeployment of soldiers from the Army of Southwest Missouri to Pope’s Army of the Mississippi and relative numbers of men moved.

Zoom of The History of the Union Army

But, in my mind, there is nothing that takes the place of having the map near at hand!

History of the Union Army would be an excellent tool to post in any classroom for students examining the American Civil War. Serious students of the Civil War will find it useful as an at-a-glance reference as well.

If research and production costs would permit, I would like to to see History Shots create versions of these information graphs in smaller hand-held format. I’d envision a collapsible folding version for each theater of operation. In fact, I would benefit from having graphical representations of each major battle. This would be different from traditional battle maps, of course, but a good companion reference to them. Choosing which variables to include and how to lay them out would be an interesting exercise. The following variables come to mind:

  • chronology (the timeline remains key)
  • opposing armies
  • major units and their flow in and out of the field
  • cavalry versus infantry
  • artillery counts
  • key commanders (including those below the general level)
  • deaths/casualties
  • key events during the battle (at Antietam, for example, the Sunken Road, the Lower Bridge, Snavely’s Ford)
  • etc.

I could see all of the above as not only great additions to Civil War History student packets but as invaluable to those touring American Civil War battlefields. I realize there are some excellent guidebooks available but this could be a powerful supplement to those.

I am, needless to say, a fan of History Shots and the work Mr. Gormley and team have created. Highly recommend.

Next up: A Review of History of the Confederate Army and some Q & A with Larry Gormley.

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Note: If statistical graphics grab you, I recommend highly scholar John Corbett’s informative article at the Center for Spatially Oriented Social Science “Charles Joseph Minard: Mapping Napoleon’s March, 1861” for more on Minard and a second work on Hannibal’s Peninsular campaign in the Second Punic War. Michael Friendly’s Re-Visions of Minard also has a great deal of information on Minard including excellent graphics. Fascinating is the work that has come out of a contest where today’s scholars have taken Minard’s Napoleonic study and added to or revised it in meaningful ways. Today’s technology/computing power allows for some manipulation of the data (3D as an example) but Minard’s work stands as iconic.

[1] Corbett, John, “Charles Joseph Minard: Mapping Napoleon’s March, 1861,”  http://www.csiss.org/classics/content/58  accessed online, 8/15/2009.
[2] Friendly, Michael,  “Re-Visions of Minard,” http://www.math.yorku.ca/SCS/Gallery/re-minard.html, accessed online, 8/15/2009.

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