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Is there historical evidence to support the trope of medieval generals moving around figures representing troops on a large map?(r/AskHistorians)
My area of research, actually. Wow. Never thought this would come up in a reddit question. No, there is no evidence for these kinds of maps being used in the medieval period. By some accounts Napoleon was the first general to use anything like this. (See Andrew Hersey’s “Not Just Lines on a Map: A History of Military Mapping.”) For instance, in his book Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon, Napoleon’s valet Louis Constant Wairy says: “During the three or four hours preceding an engagement, the Emperor spent most of the time with large maps spread out before him, the places on which he marked with pins with heads of different colored wax” (427).
You are right that accurate maps were closely guarded secrets for much of history. But, in the early 19th century, European general staffs dedicated huge amounts of time to surveying and cartography. The Prussians were the masters of this kind of stuff, having vowed never to suffer the kinds of defeats they did in the early days of the War of the Fourth Coalition.
It was around this time that Baron Georg Leopold von Reiswitz created a tabletop battle simulation (or, in German, Kriegsspiel). This was a huge novelty at the time, and soon everyone in the Prussian court was nerding out on it. The early Kriegsspiel was refined by Reiswitz’s son, and then came to be played on actual terrain maps. (The earlier Kriegsspiel was played on terrain pieces that could move around each game, kinda like Settlers of Catan). The Kriegsspiel system then started to get used a planning and strategy map for actual wars, kinda like in the famous scene from Downfall.
For more info, check out this book. It’s kinda overloaded with philosophical jargon, but still very interesting.