An interview with Hal Jespersen

Note: This is a guest posting from Clare O’Connor, production dramaturg and assistant director for our fall MainStage production of The Killer Angels.

Hal Jespersen is a freelance cartographer specializing in maps of the American Civil War. His work has been featured in books, journals, and magazines, as well as Wikipedia, for which Jespersen has written hundreds of Civil War articles, complete with 200+ maps. You can check out Mr. Jespersen’s beautiful cartography work in the lobby display of The Killer Angels, September 6-October 27, 2013. Mr. Jespersen was also kind enough to answer some questions about his profession, as well as the Battle of Gettysburg:

Q: When and how did you first become interested in the American Civil War?

A: This answer is going to seem completely contrived, but it is absolutely true. In 2003, a friend recommended The Killer Angels (the novel) and I enjoyed it enough to pursue additional books about the battle of Gettysburg. I followed this with trips to the battlefield–15 flights from California so far–and then began expanding my study and travel itineraries to most of the other major battles. I honed my interest by creating articles for Wikipedia about most of these battles, and in doing so, had to develop the skills to create maps for the articles, which led to a modest retirement hobby/business. I first saw The Killer Angels (the play) at Lifeline Theatre in 2004 and wrote up a little (and quite positive) review on my Civil War travelogue site,

Q: What’s a day in the life of a professional Civil War cartographer?

A: It is a balancing act between a large pile of books and a number of computer programs, including Global Mapper, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe Photoshop. I created over 200 maps for Wikipedia, which are available for free download from my site,, but my styles have become more sophisticated since those early days and I now emphasize the accurate depiction of terrain–either shaded relief or contour lines (hypsometry). But I still consider the essence of historical cartography to be the art of rendering the complexities of the battle with only enough detail necessary to do the job. I have produced over 300 maps for commercial publication so far, working with dozens of authors. What might surprise you is that maps are often an afterthought for these scholars, imposed upon them by their publishers (at the author’s expense), and they often give me an enormous amount of discretion to show the battle action without actually reading the text of the book it will accompany!

Q: In doing my own research for our production, one issue I faced was conflicting information—sometimes one reputable author would disagree with another. How have you dealt with this in your own writing and cartography work? Are there particular authors or works that you consistently defer to?

A: Almost all of my Civil War writing has been in the context of creating Wikipedia articles, and there are specific guidelines about what to do in this case, giving equal weight to the opinions from reliable, secondary sources. If you look at my article about the Battle of Gettysburg, for instance, you will see a number of footnotes and quotations that show how professional historians differ on many issues. When I work for authors as a cartographer, however, I defer to their decisions on how to evaluate primary and secondary sources.

Q: Do you consider the Battle of Gettysburg to have been the turning point of the Civil War?

A: It was a turning point, particularly in conjunction with the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. This is actually something we have argued about on Wikipedia quite a bit, usually in the context of whether it was a decisive battle. (George Meade won the battle decisively, but whether the battle decided the outcome of the war is another story.) The war changed course (turned) in the sense that it was the last significant offensive campaign of Robert E. Lee, but the Army of Northern Virginia was still a potent force and there were a number of opportunities for the Confederates to win the war as late as November 1864. I agree with historian James M. McPherson that the most important turning point was the Battle of Antietam, which allowed Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and, in doing so, forestalled any option of European intervention on the southern side.

Q: Are there any common misconceptions about the Battle of Gettysburg?

A: Sure, although I am sorry to say that a number of them crop up in The Killer Angels. Two in particular come to mind. The first is that the battle started because Confederate general Henry Heth wanted to find shoes. This is an illustration of a story that emerged from postwar memoirs and has been repeated by historian after historian, regardless of other evidence (and common sense). The other is that Little Round Top was the most critical position on the battlefield, the loss of which would have doomed the Union Army and lost the war. This opinion was promoted by the master self promoter, Joshua Chamberlain, and was almost forgotten by history until the publication of The Killer Angels and the movie Gettysburg. Although the defensive actions of the 20th Maine were certainly heroic, the Confederates were in no position to hold Little Round Top if they had taken it. They were exhausted and out of ammunition and there were as many as 10,000 fresh Union troops within a mile of the position. And the terrain of the hill made it an unsuitable as a position to threaten the rest of the Union line anyway. It is interesting that Michael Shaara emphasized this action on the “extreme left of the Union line” because on the extreme right, Culp’s Hill, the 137th New York defended gallantly under even more extreme circumstances, and the loss of that hill would have been truly catastrophic. Unfortunately, their commander, Col. David Ireland, did not survive to tell his story.

Q: Who do you consider to be the heroes of the Battle of Gettysburg?

A:There were hundreds of heroes, but of the most famous, the ones I would cite on the Union side would be: Brig. Gen. John Buford, who essentially selected the battlefield; Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, the commander who played a decisive role on all three days of the battle; Brig. Gen. George S. Greene, the brigade commander who fortified and defended Culp’s Hill; Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, the artillery commander; Col. Strong Vincent, Joshua Chamberlain’s brigade commander, who was killed on Little Round Top; Col. William Colvill, commander of the 1st Minnesota; Lieut. Alonzo Cushing, a battery commander killed during Pickett’s Charge; Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth, who was ordered to conduct a suicidal cavalry raid on July 3. It is more difficult to designate heroes on the losing side, but of the Confederates: Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead; Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood; Col. Henry K. Burgwyn of the 26th North Carolina; Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden (who was actually heroic during the retreat from Gettysburg, leading a 17-mile train of wagons with wounded men through difficult terrain and against enemy cavalry.

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