Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Mapping Wars...Or Other Events

Military service and wars, police actions, and other armed conflicts, were a big part of many of our ancestors lives. In the U.S. we ran into conflict with Native Americans several times as citizens pushed west. We rose up in revolution against Great Britain and fought them again in 1812. Fifty years later, we fought a bloody civil war. The 20th century brought the Great War, later known as World War I, World War II, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam, and the first Gulf War. Other countries have different wars but similar stories.

I spend a lot of time telling my ancestors' stories about war and military service. In my last post I shared how I researched my Scottish soldiers and wrote about their experiences. As I was researching my Jennings line from Virginia, I realized that five young Jennings men, brothers and first cousins, served with the same regiment during the Civil War. Virginia seceded from the United States two days after Union forces fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina and President Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers to join the Union Army. Four Jennings men enlisted in the Confederate States of America's army the same day. My great grandfather, at age 19, joined them a year later on 1 March 1862. They all joined the 19th Virginia Infantry regiment.

With five ancestors in one unit, it made sense to tell the story of the regiment, highlighting along the way when something specific happened to an ancestor. I quickly discovered I needed a timeline to keep all the marches, battles, camps, disease, wounds, and so forth straight. And I needed a map so I knew where they were in order to describe terrain and weather conditions. There are some seriously well-done battle maps on Wikipedia, but none of them show how a regiment moved from place to place between battles. And those are the times a soldier got seriously foot sore!

Today, I'd like to share how I map the movements of a military unit. I'm not technical so I had to find a way that was easy yet produced nice maps and was informative. I think I have found such a method using Google Maps and any slideshow software.

At first I thought I could illustrate the entire experiences of the 19th Virginia Regiment on one map. But that quickly turned out not to be the case. Military units make many movements -- small and large -- and different scaled maps are appropriate for different situations. Here's an example of how small and large movements look together on one map:

Movements of the 19th Virginia Infantry after the Seven Days Battles to
Northern Virginia where they fought in the Second Battle of Bull Run or
Second Manassas; map created by Google Maps and PowerPoint

The above map illustrates a train ride from Richmond, Virginia, to Gordonsville and a 15-day march north to northern Virginia. Short marches and a battle are depicted by the pines labeled 1 through 3. The distance between Richmond and Pin 3 on modern roads is 95 miles. Only with a map can you quickly see the 19th Virginia Infantry traveled much further. Simply, listing the towns they marched through in text would not have conveyed the same information so quickly.

The following map illustrates a larger scale describing two battles which took place over a short period of time in the same general vicinity:

Movements of the 19th Virginia Infantry during the Seven Days Battles
illustrating two battles, the aftermath and where and when Daniel Rose and
Leroy Powhatan Jennings were wounded

To make these maps, I first research each battle thoroughly using online reference sources and offline sources such as muster rolls, unit diaries, and letters home. I wrote down each time a place and date are mentioned and, if included, the method of travel -- train, boat, or marching.

Then I go to Google Maps and click the menu icon:

Google Maps Menu Icon

Select the My Maps option from the dropdown.  A list of customized maps you have previously created will display or you can create a new map:

Creating a new map using Google Maps

Your customized maps are stored in Google Drive so you likely need a Google account.

Give your new map a title.

Titling your customized Google map

You can import text and images into your map, using the import link but I don't like that as I don't have total control of how it looks.

Now that I have my base map, I go back to the list of dates and places I created from my research. Type a place name in the text box at the top of the map and click the magnifying glass icon to the right of the text box.

Google Maps zooms you to the location. But you are plotting historical movements on a modern map, so you might need to look around to find exactly where you want to place your pin. For example, I know that the 19th Virginia Infantry was stationed in a swamp between the Warwick River and Yorktown, Virginia, on 26 April 1862. I zoom around until I find the Warwick River and look around for a suitable swamp between the river and Yorktown -- that's where I place my pin.

To add a pin, click the Pin icon and click the location on the map where you want to place your pin:

Adding a pin to identify location using Google Maps

You can edit the name of the Pin once you have placed it. I also usually delete the default location information provided by Google and add the date the regiment was at that location.

Once I have completed mapping movements during a specific period of time, I am ready to add further customization and descriptors to it in a way in which I can control the appearance. So I take a screenshot of my Google Map. How you do that depends on the type of computer you use.

Then I open Powerpoint (or another slide/presentation application) and open a new file. I reset the defaults to a blank slide and import the screenshot onto the slide. Again how to do that varies by application. All you need to know is where your computer stored your screenshot.

Once the screenshot is on the slide, you can use the features of the presentation application to add text, lines, etc. All this an be done using Google Maps but there are limits on the appearance of that information.

Once you have finished adding embellishments to your customized Google map. Click on Slideshow to get a full-screen presentation of that map. Take another screenshot. Save it. And voila! You have a map you can use to illustrate blog posts, upload to your family tree, or add to your website.

I use these maps not only for posts about military service, but also family migrations. It's totally up to you!

My latest maps are now appearing in a month-long series about the 19th Virginia Regiment on my blog, Tangled Roots and Trees.


  1. Maps tend to be underused by genealogists but are great for showing others in a more visual form.
    I intend to use them much more now that my genealogy program of choice Family Historian has mapping capabilities. They also help you to decide if a record fits in with what you know. I have not used them for military service yet but I will certainly put this on my to do list. There are more records becoming available online about the movements of the regiments and this can certainly help to place where someone served.

  2. I can't wait to try this! Thank you, Schalene for making this sound so easy!

  3. Thanks for the great tutorial! I hadn't looked at this feature in a long time, and I'm glad you reminded me of it. I had fun making a little map of the patriarch of our family's movements throughout his life, a somewhat smaller scale than a military unit's movements :-) - life of Daniel Graves, 1794-?

  4. I've had migration maps on my To Do list for a long time. Thanks for your tips!

  5. What a good idea! Something else you could do with the PowerPoint view is animate their movement across the map. Even something as simple as having your annotations appear one by one showing progression across the map rather than all displaying at once.

    1. Very true, and something I used last week to great effect during a talk I gave about the 19th Virginia Infantry at my local history society.

  6. Story Maps from ESRI, the world leader in mapping technology would be ideal for Schalene's narratives. A bit more technical, but with a lot more interactivity.

  7. Hi Schalene,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!

  8. Thanks Scahlene, it's good to be reminded how effective our own maps can be, and how they can be done quite simply.


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