Special Report

Civil War Geology

What underlies the Civil War’s 25 bloodiest battles? Two geologists investigate why certain terrain proved so hazardous

Antietam remains the bloodiest day in American history—23,000 men died or were wounded on that battlefield. (Keith Snyder, NPS)

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Military geologists acknowledge that their work reveals only one of many forces that influence the outcome of war. “Leadership, morale, dense woods…the list goes on and on,” Whisonant says. Plus, he points out that there are plenty of battles where the role of geology was minor. Even so, the lay of the land and its composition have long been recognized as crucial.

For that reason, armies have sought the counsel of geologists (or their contemporary equivalents) since ancient times. But not until the 20th century, Whisonant says, were there organized efforts to harness geologists’ knowledge in waging war. Today, military geologists work on a “whole wide range of things,” he says. How easily can troops march along a certain terrain? What vehicles can pass? How will weaponry affect the landscape? Before she retired from the Army Corps of Engineers in 2005, Judy Ehlen conducted research intended to help Army analysts learn to identify rock types from satellite and aerial imagery. Whisonant says he knows a geologist who is “looking at the geology of the area [Osama] bin Laden is supposedly in, helping the Department of Defense assess what will happen if a missile goes in a cave.”

So long as warfare is waged on Earth, armies will need people who study the planet’s surface. “Throughout history it’s always the same,” Galgano says, “and it will be the same 100 years from now.”

But it’s that war from over 100 years ago that keeps beckoning to Whisonant. He says he has been moved by his visits to battlefields from the American Revolution to World War II, but that the Civil War battlefields—with their level fields, their rolling hills, their rocky outcroppings—move him most. “The gallantry, the willingness to pay the last full measure, as Lincoln said, by both sides has really consecrated that ground,” he says.


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