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Using GIS to Identify Possible Artillery Positions and Manage Artifact Data at Wilson's Creek National Battlefield

Wilson's Creek NB
Carl Drexler
The Battle of Wilson’s Creek, the first major battle of the Civil War west of the Mississippi River, occurred August 10th, 1861 along a quiet brook near Springfield, Missouri. Made a National Battlefield Park in 1960, the battlefield, along with Pea Ridge National Military Park, has been a subject of archeological inquiry by archeologists of the Midwest Archeological Center (MWAC) and park staff for the past three years.
MWAC archeologists have used GIS in several capacities, including recording of artifact provenience, reconstruction of battlefield events, and the identification of possible placements of artillery batteries during the battle that are not well recorded in the historical literature.
The exact locations of two batteries, one Southern and one Northern have yet to be conclusively identified through the use of historical documents. MWAC personnel identified two groups of cannonball fragments that were likely fired by each of these batteries.
The first set, fired by Bledsoe’s Missouri Battery, a Southern unit, comes from the north end of Sharp’s Field, where General Franz Sigel’s brigade of Union soldiers was surprised and routed by attacking Confederates. By calculating viewsheds for each shell fragment likely to stem from this event then comparing them for overlap, we were able to create a layer that shows only those areas with a direct line of site to each shell fragment. These areas roughly equate to the possible positions that Bledsoe’s Battery could have occupied when firing at Sigel’s Brigade.
MWAC archeologists conducted the same analysis for a set of shell fragments from the southern end of Sharp’s Field, where Confederate cavalrymen were surprised by fire from Backof’s Missouri Artillery (US) at dawn on the day of the battle. Various historians have suggested different positions for the battery and this analysis will help park staff more accurately locate the true position of Backof’s guns during the early stages of the battle.
Most of the fighting at Wilson’s Creek took place on Bloody Hill, where an intense firefight raged for hours between Northern and Southern troops. The number of artifacts recovered on Bloody Hill is testimony to the severity of the fight, and the location of bullets, shell fragments, and other, more personal items can show where lines stood and fought, and where men died. This sort of analysis has become increasingly popular in the past decade because of its ability to dispel confusion in the historical record.
All of these analyses are geared toward aiding in the interpretation of the park. Having as accurate and sophisticated an understanding of how the battle took place is perhaps the most important basis for presenting the battle to the public.
April 08, 2004