You’re looking at the Civil War as you’ve probably never seen it before—not as an 11-hour Ken Burns documentary—but as a regional, battle-by-battle blow of North vs. South told in an instant.
That said, it took me a solid 15 minutes to figure out what was going on here. On one hand, that’s not the most flattering point to make about a data visualization. On the other, it’s a testament to the data complexity with which information designers worked in 1897, when the the Comparative Synoptical Chart Company published this history of the Civil War along with other data-dense works.
Once you understand the underlying gimmicks, it’s an impressive piece to be sure. The United States is broken down into a series of columns in a grand vertical timeline. In the loosest possible terms, the Union was working its way left, to Richmond, while the Confederacy worked its way right, to Washington. Yet at the same time, there were several battlefronts operating in unison, depicted in multiple side-by-side columns. And it’s these fronts the chart captures so well. The skirmish lines appear as red, while green (Confederacy) and yellow (Union) armies zigzag back and forth in a fight for territory. Presented en masse, it gives you an appreciation for both the grand choreography and futility of war—along the unparalleled patience of 19th-century data designers, who would have counted and rendered this all meticulously and macro-lessly, by hand.
[Hat tip: Slate]