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Save the Electric Map

For decades, no trip to Gettysburg National Military Park could be considered complete without viewing the visitor center’s giant electric map. With a network of lights, the map indicated the battle’s major troop movements on a large, rectangular topographical display. The map was kitschy and old-fashioned, but it was also memorable and informative.

Now that the much-anticipated Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War has opened, however, the electric map has gone dark. The National Park Service plans to dismantle the map and place it in storage as part of ongoing plans to demolish the old visitor center and restore the battlefield to its 1863 appearance. In response, a growing group of history buffs are advocating that the map be preserved. Idaho resident Jon DeKeles has led the charge by launching the Save the Electric Map Web site, which features the map’s history, current efforts to save it, and information for interested people to get involved.

The best aspect of the Web site is its summary of the map’s evolution from the 1930s to the present day. With 627 lights surrounded by 554 seats, the map is a marvel of homespun electrical engineering and an early example of battlefield interpretation. The original electric map was designed and constructed in 1937-38 by Joseph L. Rosensteel, whose accompanying narrative was still used even after his creation was replaced with a newer version in 1962. The Web site provides a link to a great series of YouTube videos of the map in action. Although the video quality is poor, the audio is clear. Sadly, this may be the only way for future generations to experience the map.

Unfortunately, the Web site includes a cartoonish image and quotations from park Superintendent John Latschar, highlighted in a section called “Latscharisms.” For a Web site with such a serious mission, this kind of personal lampooning feels out of place.

Overall, however, the Web site succeeds as an important first step toward saving the electric map. Gettysburg has always been more than just a place where a famous battle occurred; it has also been a proving ground for our evolving ideals about memorialization and interpretation. The electric map was an important part of that story, and this site makes a convincing case for its preservation.


Originally published in the September 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.