Woman Put Geographic History on U.S. Map

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 26, 2007 | Go to article overview

Woman Put Geographic History on U.S. Map


Byline: Francis P. Sempa SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In 1903, the American geographer Ellen Chur-chill Semple wrote a brilliant but since-forgotten book about the impact of geography on U.S. history, "American History and Its Geographic Conditions."

Her sweeping narrative encompassed the European settlement of, and conflict over, North America; the triumph of Great Britain over France in the struggle for political control of the continent; the successful rebellion of Colonial America against the British Empire; the relentless westward expansion of the United States; and the emergence of the United States as a Pacific Ocean power in the early 20th century.

Semple's book included a lengthy chapter on "The Geography of the Civil War," which helped explain that momentous conflict by placing it in its strategic geographical setting.

Ellen Semple was born in Louisville, Ky., during the Civil War, on Jan. 8, 1863. She subsequently studied history at Vassar College, graduating first in her class in 1882. She continued her studies abroad at the University of Leipzig in Germany, where she was a student of one of the founders of modern political geography and geopolitics, Friedrich Ratzel.

After returning to the United States, Semple taught at the University of Chicago and later at Clark University in Massachusetts. She also lectured at Oxford, Wellesley, the University of Colorado and the University of California at Los Angeles. From 1904 to 1910, she helped edit the Journal of Geography, and in 1921, she was elected president of the Association of American Geographers. She died in 1932.

In her 1911 book analyzing Ratzel's geographic concepts and theories, Semple wrote, "[T]he geographic element in the long history of human development has been operating strongly and operating persistently. Herein lies its importance. It is a stable force. It never sleeps. This natural environment, this physical basis of history, is for all intents and purposes immutable in comparison with the other factor in the problem - shifting, plastic, progressive, retrogressive man."

Semple brought to her study of American history, including the history of the American Civil War, that Ratzelian emphasis on the immutable conditioning factor of geography.

Semple began her chapter on the Civil War in "American History and Its Geographic Conditions" with a discussion of the economic and political differences between the states of the North and South as well as the political-geographical conditions of northwestern Virginia and the important border states of Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland.

Kentucky, she explained, was particularly important because it was "wedged in between the Confederacy and the Union." "Kentucky," she wrote, "stretched its great length east and west from the Appalachians to the Mississippi across the very threshold of the South." The Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers traversed its territory, and the Ohio River hugged its northern border. These geographic factors made Kentucky a "strategic area ... of paramount importance to the South," which caused both sides to attempt to control the state early in the war

Maryland's strategic importance, Semple explained, derived from its geographic proximity to the Chesapeake Bay. "The possession of Maryland," she wrote, "meant the possession of Chesapeake Bay, a protected sea route to the gaping estuaries of the Virginia rivers." With the Union capital at Washington and the Confederate capital at Richmond, Federal troops' control of Maryland and the territory that became West Virginia meant that "the country between the Potomac and the James [rivers] ... became one continuous battle-field in the defensive and aggressive operations of both armies

throughout the war"

Semple pointed to three key geographic features that conditioned the fighting in the Eastern theater of the war: the length and north-south direction of the Chesapeake Bay; the southeast course of the Potomac, Rappahannock, Pamunkey, Chickahominy and James rivers; and the Shenandoah Valley. …

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