Thursday 3 September 2015

Book Review: Battle Maps of the Civil War - Richard O'Shea & David Greenspan

In this book the fabulously haunting and evocative ACW battlefield maps of David Greenspan, previously published in Bruce Catton's Picture History of the Civil War, are - and very deservedly so - given pride of place.

As a child I saw, somewhere - I thought it was in issues of National Geographic, but my researches suggest I'm mistaken about this - and ultimately became haunted by, the incredible ACW battlefield maps of David Greenspan.

Spotsylvania (what great names these ACW battles have!).

Greenspan's maps describe 17 or 18 of the major battles (or in some instances series of battles) of the ACW, shown in a kind of 3/4 aerial view (almost isometric, only they are in perspective), depicting beautifully painted landscapes populated with tiny armies of grey Confederates and blue Unionists. All the component elements are simplified and stylised, and on close inspection one learns that each artwork synthesises and compresses a whole battle or series of engagements into one image.

This, by Robert & Mary Nicholson, is one of the NG images that had me barking up the wrong tree, in my search for the Greenspan maps.

It's supremely well done, and has spawned much imitation (from people like Robert & Mary Nicholson in National Geographic's centennial articles on the ACW, to more recent works by Schlecht and Kammerer, even influencing the graphics of military computer games), as well as promoting much interest in the subject it so evocatively portrays.

I tried to learn more about David Greenspan, with little success. This book and Catton's Picture History are the best testimony to what I feel is a near sublime talent. I can't easily put into words the terrific impact his battlefield maps have had on me. Certainly they've been a big influence, as have dioramas and re-enactments, on my desire to collect and paint figures, build models, and wargame, etc.

Chickamauga, Greenspan style.

As already alluded to at the start of this post, these same 'battle maps' can be found in Catton's American Heritage Picture History. But this standalone extraction is perhaps marginally the better place to appreciate them, as the prints are fairly large, and they also are the main attraction here. Rather sadly one or two images suffer from a little misalignment of the colour plates, which lessens the clarity (at least in my copy). But they do at least occupy centre stage, supported by their original captions, and also the additional texts of Richard O'Shea.

As well as Greenspan's artwork, there are also paintings by Don Troaini, aerial photos of the battlefields, more conventional symbol-based maps, and numerous photos, etc. O'Shea's texts give broader historical narrative context, and add detail on the featured battles and campaigns.

This is a wonderful book, chock-full of some pretty sublime artwork, by a great and elusive artist and draftsman, who proves himself to also be both an effective educator and inspirer. I really can't praise his work enough!


  1. that book enchanged from my earliest years, and now i've sent it in to dollarscan which is a scanning service. you send the book,, they chop it up, and turn it into pdf. wonderful - although the book is no longer physical format for me, i have the ease of reading on a computer and the preserved the pages and images - namely david greenspan's mezmerizing pictures

    1. Aha! Interesting, you kind of turned it into your own ebook, with some help. I have a friend, living on a boat, who's downsizing (as opposed, he hopes, to capsizing) his fairly large library, getting it all onto Kindle, or whatever. I'm very old-fashioned that way. I do have some ebooks. But I do love the old paper and ink variety... rather too much, perhaps? Cheers, Seb

  2. An excellent post that takes me back. I fell in love with this book, and with history, at the age of six, largely on the strength of these illustrations. I've never looked back.

    1. Hi Jennifer, thanks for commenting, and glad you you enjoyed the post. I think you're the first lady to leave a comment on my mini-military themed blog! Welcome ;-) Regards, Seb