10 Things To Know About Civil War Maps

I’ve always been the type of researcher that wants a good map. Give me the battle details and a good map and I can follow along, but without a map – if I don’t already know the terrain and maneuver facts – I’ll be lost. Learning how to read the terrain of a battlefield is vastly different that just reading a map, but there are similarities.

Last year I had several interesting experiences: studying the creation of rather famous battle map through archived documents, learning how to read a battlefield accurately, and getting to work with a modern mapmaker to create essential maps for my new book. All of this got me thinking about mapping during the 1860’s.

To start off Gazette665’s January theme for Friday blog posts, here are ten important overview facts to know about Civil War maps and mapmaking.

  1. Maps were essential

Imagine (or remember) a day when there were no GPS systems. No maps on our phones. No maps ready for instant pick-up at the travel agency. That’s the 1860’s in America.

Yet, military generals had to move thousands of men across miles of country roads, through forests, to railroad junctions, along rail lines. How did they do it? They managed with the few maps that were available and quickly got their cartographers making more detailed guides.

2. Oftentimes, the needed maps didn’t exist

In the east, some states had created specialized maps of their land, roads, and cities prior to the war and these maps because the foundations for military planning. However, detailed maps often didn’t exist and troops ran into problems when they hit creeks, gullies, inlets, hills, and other details that their officers hadn’t seen on the maps and the scouts had failed to report.

In the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, high ranking officers on both sides complained about the lack of good mapping which kept their soldiers wandering through dense terrain and muddy roads – slowly reaching objectives.

A reproduction of the Finley map of Virginia from c. 1829

3. Region maps were a helpful start, but not enough

Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia had regional maps of their states, but some of the drawings dated back several decades and roads and towns can change over that period of time. Still, these basic maps were better than nothing, especially in the early days of the war.

4. Both armies needed mapmakers

As it became clear that the war would last longer than 90 days and the campaigns would be more strategized, both sides realized they needed better maps. Often initiated individually by generals, cartographers were added to the list of staff officers and tasked with creating accurate maps for the advances or campaigns ahead.

Men who had done surveying, who had worked in engineering, or other professions that gave them needed skills for mapmaking found themselves pulled from the ranks and assigned to special new projects.

An 1866 map of the South ( published in the U.S. before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.)

5. The Union had advantages…

In most cases, the Union had advantages over the Confederacy and in some ways, mapmaking was no exception. With the Army Corps of Engineers, Army Topographical Engineers, Coastal Survey, and Naval Hydrographic Office, skilled cartographers were already waiting in the wings for their orders and quickly got to work making maps of the areas where the Union armies or navies were in control.

Additionally, the North had printing capacity. Companies that published maps could be contracted to turn the engineers’ drawings into painstakingly accurate reproductions for distribution to the military commanders.

6. The Confederates started “photocopying” maps…

Now, the Confederates may not have had a corps of mapmakers to start, but they did manage two partial advantages of their own. At the beginning of the war, they held the battleground and campaign areas in their territory, giving them the chance to create more accurate maps of that land or coast. Second, Confederate necessity invented a unique way of reproducing the original maps. Lacking manpower, time, and supplies to devote to their essential maps, they invented a way to photocopy the cartographer’s creations. Albert Campbell, head of the CS Topographical Department, explained:

“So great was the demand for maps occasioned by frequent changes in the situation of the armies, that it became impossible by the usual method of tracings to supply them. I conceived the plan of doing this work by photography, though expert photographers pronounced it impracticable, in fact impossible . . . . Traced copies were prepared on common tracing-paper in very black India ink, and from these sharp negatives by sun-printing were obtained, and from these negatives copies were multiplied by exposure to the sun in frames made for the purpose. The several sections, properly toned, were pasted together in their order, and formed the general map, or such portions of it as were desired; it being the policy, as a matter of prudence against capture to furnish no one but the commanding general and corps commanders with the entire map of a given region.” (Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/collections/civil-war-maps/articles-and-essays/history-of-mapping-the-civil-war/confederate-mapping/)

7. Maps helped create battle names

Particularly at the beginning of the conflict, the Union armies relied on rivers and streams listed on their maps for locations. Consequently, many of the battles got named after these bodies of water in the Union battle names. Bull Run, Pittsburgh Landing, Antietam. The Confederates – more familiar with town names – tended to name the battles after the communities: Manassas Junction, Shiloh, and Sharpsburg. Multiple names for the battles became less common as the war continued.

8. Sometimes local maps where stolen from local civilians

No map. No mapmaker. Lost. But there’s a civilian house over there.

Maps were rather popular wall art during the early 19th Century in America. Some families got copies of their state map and displayed those. Others had their own illustrated versions of the area. Sometimes these maps were contributed to the officers or stolen during the war.

Sherman recognized the need for good maps

9. Some generals placed higher importance on maps than others

There are some people who just have to know where they are going and what’s ahead on the turnpike. Others are just fine looking at the large scale map. Some Civil War officers made efforts on their own to get detailed maps for their campaign planning. Union General William T. Sherman believed in good maps and Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson’s directive “map me a map” serves as the title for this series and the backdrop for his 1862 Valley Campaign.

10. Many Civil War era maps are preserved today!

Happily, some of the original maps and reproductions used by officers during the Civil War have survived and are preserved in archives. These cartography efforts help researchers understand some of the information that was available or lacking to the commanders as they made important decisions for campaigns and battles.

If you’re interesting in seeing some of the maps in an online archive, head over to Library of Congress and get ready to do some wonderful “rabbit trail” research!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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3 Responses to 10 Things To Know About Civil War Maps

  1. Pingback: See It, Measure It, Draw It – Creating Civil War Maps | Gazette665

  2. The Civil war was at a time when picture photography was in its infancy. Also hot air balloons were also available. Have you found civil war maps that were air photos? Or did the cameras at the time have to take a long “still” image, so it would be impractical to photograph from the air?

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