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Military maps have always played a crucial role in planning strategy, designing battle plans, and finding the best points for supply routes or even a retreat. This was no more evident than in the American Civil War where large armies traversed a widespread landscape unfamiliar to most commanders. Knowing the roads to and from the sites of military engagements, as well as the topography of the locality, were indispensable in conducting war maneuvers. Thus, both sides went to great lengths to ensure that they had as much of a tactical advantage as possible.


Map of Richmond to Petersburg, Virginia


Today, Civil War military maps are used by historians and other researchers in analyzing the campaigns of the war in order to ascertain troop positions, defensive structures, roads, campsites, local buildings, and topography. A number of battle maps provide information about a locality that is not available elsewhere such as the configuration of small towns, the location of plantations, and the names of landowners in the area. Those interested in cartography find Civil War maps to be an endless source of fascination because of the varieties in methodology, design, and composition. Civil War maps offer a unique glimpse of the nation’s most portentous conflict.


The onset of the war revealed a surprising lack of cartographical resources. The best available maps before 1861 were those sponsored by various state legislatures, some of which were originally completed and published in the 1820s. Most detailed maps of the 1850s were of selected counties and showed roads, railroads, towns, villages, rivers and streams, mills, forges, taverns, and dwellings. Because of those features, these maps became highly prized by both the Federal and Confederate armies. Maps hanging on the walls of public buildings, taverns, or private homes were sometimes confiscated in desperation.


Union forces clearly had the advantage when it came to maps, as there were already mapping units in existence. These included the Army’s Corps of Topographical Engineers, the Corps of Engineers, the Treasury Department’s Coast Survey, and the Navy’s Hydrographic Office. Mapping began in earnest when Federal troops occupied key positions. These units provided the necessary equipment and a trained work force. Army personnel worked in a concerted effort with topographical engineers to update old maps, utilizing the latest printing techniques and using new devices for gathering information, including the establishment of a balloon corps that made sketches and maps from an aerial point of view.


By 1864 the number of military maps and charts printed that year reached more than 20,000 volumes. This tremendous output was the end product of two lithographic presses in the Coast Survey office placed there in 1861. The two presses supplanted the time-consuming process of printing maps from engraved copper plates. Yet, these presses could not keep up with the demand from the field and the federal government hired commercial firms to manufacture the desperately needed maps.


Ashport to Memphis Confederate Map


By comparison, Confederate mapping was woefully inadequate throughout the war. Besides a dearth of trained cartographers, there was a lack of government mapping agencies, inadequate printing facilities, and an almost total absence of surveying and drafting equipment. Survey parties were often sent out into the field where maps were hurriedly drawn in ink on linen to be traced later. Tracing copies took an inordinate amount of time but Confederate cartographers could not afford the expense of producing lithographs. The Confederate Topographical Department, in response to this dilemma, began making photo-reproductions.


Commercial mapping enterprises found a lucrative market in a public eager to know where the engagements of the war were fought. Battlefield maps and panoramic maps were produced for public consumption, with some maps incorporating portraits of military leaders. Often maps printed from woodcuts could be found in newspapers and journals.


Some topographical engineers became noted for their superior map making; their work is reflected in some of the examples provided on this site. William E. Merrill belonged to the Union Corps of Engineers but, ironically, was not a topographical engineer. He served in the Army of the Potomac, then under General William S. Rosencrans, and, finally, in the Army of the Cumberland led by General George H. Thomas. Merrill was meticulous in his drafting and supplied the best maps of either army in the Civil War. Nathaniel Michler was a captain of topographical engineers in the Army of the Potomac from 1863-1865. Michler surveyed and mapped numerous operations and fields of battle. Like Merrill, he was a graduate of West Point. Another Federal topographical engineer of note was Lieutenant Harry C. Wharton, who served in the Army of the Cumberland. Confederate cartographers represented in this exhibit are Wilbur F. Foster and C. Meister, an apprentice engineer and draftsman in General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. The featured maps include the pivotal battles at Fort Donelson, Stones River, Franklin, and Nashville.


Bibliography/Suggested Reading


Bosse, David C. Civil War Newspaper Maps: A Historical Atlas. Baltimore: JohnsHopkinsUniversity Press, 1993.


Civil War Maps in the National Archives. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Service, 1964.


Cowles, Calvin D., comp. The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War. New York: Fairfax Press, 1983.


McElfresh, Earl B. Maps and Mapmakers of the Civil War. New York: Harry N. Abrahms, Inc., 1999.


McPherson, James M. The Atlas of the Civil War. New York: Macmillan, 1994.


The Official Atlas of the Civil War. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1958.


Stephenson, Richard, comp. Civil War Maps: An Annotated List of Maps and Atlases in the Library of Congress, 2nd ed., Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1989.


Symonds, Craig L. A Battlefield Atlas of the Civil War, 2nd ed., Baltimore: Nautical & Aviation Publishing Co., 1985.


Woodworth, Steven E. and Kenneth J. Winkle. Atlas of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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