Feature War Cartography

Learn more about the importance of wartime maps before satellite technology.

War Cartography

At the start of the Civil War, the nation's maps were often decades old and wildly inaccurate, causing both sides to frantically enlist squads of frontline cartographers. With pen and pencil, and frequently under fire, these courageous cartographers provided a constant stream of maps detailing enemy terrain and position.

By World War I, pen and ink had been augmented by the camera. Aerial photography gave mapmakers a bird's-eye view of the battlefield.

In World War II, the maps were even more detailed, allowing U.S. B-17 bombers to target German industrial plants in the Ruhr Valley.

But it was the Cold War and the Space Race that launched cartography into the final frontier.

The ability of military satellites to create high-resolution pictures of the earth's surface created maps that would have left Civil War cartographers breathless.

And by the time of NATO's Yugoslavian offensive in 1999, American satellites and GPS systems were guiding the missiles as well.

But even the most accurate map and targeting system is still vulnerable to mistakes.

It was during the same NATO offensive in the Balkans that a mislabelled map led U.S. Forces to bomb the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three and injuring many more.