Civil War Maps

War, like necessity, has been called the mother of invention. The same might be said of cartography, for with every war there is a great rush to produce maps to aid in understanding the nature of the land over which armies will move and fight, to plan engagements and the deployment of troops, and to record victories for posterity to study and admire. The American Civil War is a classic example of the effect that war has had on cartography.





On the eve of the Civil War, few detailed maps existed of areas in which fighting was likely to occur. Uniform, large-scale topographic maps, such as those produced today by the U.S. Geological Survey, did not exist and would not become a reality for another generation. In most cases, the best medium-scale, published maps available in 1861 were those sponsored by various state legislatures.

In the Eastern theater (i.e., southern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia) both Union and Confederate military authorities initially relied on several maps: that of Pennsylvania (scale 5 miles to 1 inch) published in 1860 by Rufus L. Barnes of Philadelphia; Fielding Lucas, Jr.'s map of Maryland (scale 5 miles to 1 inch) published in Baltimore in 1852; and the nine-sheet map of Virginia by Herman Be (scale 5 miles to 1 inch), revised by Ludwig von Buchholtz and published in Richmond in 1859. Each was actually a revision of a map published long before the Civil War: the Pennsylvania map was originally compiled and published by John Melish in 1822; the map of Maryland was first issued by Lucas in 1841; and the map of Virginia was first copyrighted by the state in 1826 and offered for sale in 1827.

The most detailed maps available in the 1850s were of selected counties. Published at about the scale of one inch to a mile, these commercially produced wall maps showed roads, railroads, towns and villages, rivers and streams, mills, forges, taverns, dwellings, and the names of residents. The few maps of selected counties in Virginia, Maryland, and southern Pennsylvania that were available were eagerly sought by military commanders on both sides. In his communication to the American Philosophical Society in March 1864, map publisher Robert Pearsall Smith told how, on the eve of the invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863, Confederate soldiers in advance of the main army confiscated all the maps of Franklin, Cumberland, and Adams counties that they could find:

For a day or two, not a map of the seat of war was to be obtained at Harrisburg for the use of the Governor and his staff. General Couch had but a single copy at his headquarters. An order on Philadelphia could only be filled by sending out a special agent, who succeeded, at great personal risk, in procuring one or two of each county. Judge Watts, of Carlisle, informed me that the maps were torn hastily from the walls of the farmers' houses, and sent with the horses and other valuables for safety, over the North Mountain, into the Juniata Valley. The rebel visitation was very complete; he thought it likely that not a single house had been overlooked...

A rebel general is understood to have made a reconnaissance of these counties previous to the invasion under the guise of a map-peddler, and while selling some of a more general character, no doubt bought up county maps to be used in the invasion.

Interest in county maps was substantiated by Confederate cavalry officer Lt. Col. William W. Blackford who wrote:

At Mercersburg I found that a citizen of the place had a county map and of course called at the house for it, as these maps had every road laid down and would be of the greatest service to us. Only the females of the family appeared, who flatly refused to let me have the map, or to acknowledge that they had one; so I was obliged to dismount and push by the infuriated ladies, rather rough specimens, however, into the sitting room where I found the map hanging on the wall. Angry women do not show to advantage, and the language and looks of these were fearful, as I coolly cut the map out of its rollers and put it in my haversack.


At the conclusion of the Civil War, the U.S. War Department published numerous detailed battlefield maps and atlases to document significant military engagements such as those at Antietam, Manassas, Gettysburg, and Atlanta, to name a few. The premier cartographic work of the postwar years, however, is the U.S. War Department's Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (LC Civil War Maps no. 99). Initially issued in 37 parts between 1891 and 1895, it includes 178 plates and constitutes the most detailed atlas yet published on the Civil War. The maps present an especially well-balanced cartographic record of the war because both Union and Confederate sources were used in their compilation. Confederate topographic engineer Jedediah Hotchkiss, for example, supplied the editors with 123 maps for this atlas. Although the original edition of the Atlas to Accompany the Official Records is no longer available for sale from the U.S. Government Printing Office, complete facsimile editions were published in 1958 by Thomas Yoseloff of New York City and in 1978 by Arno Press and Crown Publishers, Inc., New York. The Yoseloff edition was published under the title The Official Atlas of the Civil War and includes an introduction by the noted historian Henry Steele Commager (LC Civil War Maps no. 101). The Arno Press/Crown Publishers edition is entitled The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War, with an introduction by archivist-historian Richard Sommers (LC Civil War Maps no. 101.2).

Clearly, the war created an urgent need for maps that cartographers on both sides worked tirelessly for four years to satisfy. Field survey methods were improved; the gathering of intelligence became more sophisticated; faster, more adaptable printing techniques were developed; and photoreproduction processes became an important means of duplicating maps. The result was that thousands of manuscript, printed, and photoreproduced maps of unprecedented quality were prepared of areas where fighting erupted or was likely to occur. Rarely could an officer have cause to be ignorant of his surroundings, as if he "had been suddenly transferred to the banks of the Lualaba."   After peace came in the spring of 1865, another fourteen years were to pass before Congress established the beginnings of a national topographic mapping program with the creation of the U.S. Geological Survey. It was many years, therefore, before modern topographic maps became available to replace those created by war's necessity. The maps of the Civil War are splendid testimony to the skill and resourcefulness of Union and Confederate mapmakers and commercial publishers in fulfilling their responsibilities.

Richard W. Stephenson, Civil War Maps
Source:  Library of Congress