Website for the Classroom: History Animated

Battle of Chickamauga

Image via Wikipedia

I’m still in the process of finding that perfect computer game that can simulate the battle experience best for my students.  In the meantime, I will be using what is fast becoming one of my favorite websites.

History Animated has been in heavy rotation in my lesson plans for the past two years.  Every time I use it, students say two things: (1) Wow!, and (2) Can you burn me a copy, Mr. D?  Few interactive experiences give as much information–and provide such a chance to be an armchair general–as the interactive battle maps from the folks at this site.

Part of what makes History Animated so fun is that its founder has, on the surface, little to do with history.  James Cagney (from what I can tell, no relation to the actor) was a former tech exec who now teaches Computer Science at Central Oregon Community College.  According to Cagney, as he was reading books about various wars and seeing only “complicated maps with dotted lines and dashed lines crisscrossing the pages,” he decided to use computer animation to make the maps real.

So far, Jim and his team have created animated maps for the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the US Civil War, and World War II, both in Europe and the Pacific (he correctly denotes the Pacific Theater as a separate war, as do most historians and political scientists).  In each, the dashes, lines, thrust arrows, etc. of a conventional battle map come alive through detailed computer animations using various resources.  With each animation, there are also loads of information about the generals, organization of the army, weapons, and background on the wars themselves.  They even provide bibliographies for further reading on each particular battle.

To an extent, History Animated takes a real effort to provide accurate animations, often clocked to the hour.  Now, in WWII, this seems more of a possibility.  With earlier conflicts, this could become more like guesswork.  Yet the team at History Animated have really done their homework, using all available sources to provide the best picture possible.

However, if you’re looking for realistic pictures of combat, then look elsewhere.  This is the main reason why I use this so often: it provides a safe, non-graphic method of analyzing an often gruesome subject.  The sounds of marching, gunfire, horses and trains magnify the movements of the rectangular units on the map.  That’s it.  That’s the extent of the violence.  In a way, it gives a student the rare perspective of conducting war from a general’s standpoint.

One way I like to use this is to let my students be the general.  For example, I will show the animation of a particular battle, say, Shiloh in 1862.  I would then stop the animation at a certain point and then pass out papers with screen captures of the point in the battle they are looking at.  In teams–half of them are Union, half Confederate–I ask each group to plan the next move for their side.  What seems very easy will often get complicated when considering escape routes, timing, weather, terrain, location of reinforcements, etc.

All the animations are online: you can get the CDs of them for your hard drive for a small donation.  Even if you’re not a teacher, nor a history buff, History Animated offers an interesting way to view the great conflicts of history.

Visit often, since they update their selections periodically.  Tell them Mr. D sent you.

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