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Maps at the Library & Archives: Civil War Maps

Civil War Maps

Map of Virginia showing area around Richmond and Petersburg
Virginia showing area around Richmond, Petersburg and Williamsburg, 1861-1865

The Library & Archives holds an extraordinarily rich and diverse collection of original maps created during and about the American Civil War. There are maps of the Virginia campaigns and even the trans-Mississippi territory, but the majority in our collection are of the principal theater of fighting in West Tennessee. Some were drawn by soldiers who were present at a place or engagement and sought to represent it in a map, either at the time or later in a memoir or reminiscence. Others were executed by professional military cartographers (or, as they were often termed, "topographical engineers"), who were providing operational maps for use by commanders on both sides.

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 Civil War where large armies--particularly Federal ones--traversed a vast Southern landscape unfamiliar to most commanders. Knowing the roads to and from the sites of military engagements, as well as the topography of the locality, was indispensable in conducting war maneuvers. Generals on both sides understood the advantage conveyed by having good, accurate maps of the theater of operations.

Today, Civil War military maps are used by historians and researchers to analyze all kinds of data: troop positions, defensive structures, roads, ferries, encampments, local buildings, and topography. A number of battle maps provide information about a locality that is not otherwise available, 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 as the first truly modern maps of America. Civil War maps offer a unique glimpse of the nation's most portentous conflict.

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.

Ashport to Memphis confederate map
Ashport to Memphis Confederate map, 1861

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.

Some Union topographical engineers became noted for their superior map making; their work is reflected in several examples 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. Rosecrans, and, finally, in the Army of the Cumberland led by General George H. Thomas. Merrill and another Union cartographer named Orlando Poe were meticulous in their 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. All produced valuable, detailed wartime maps of Tennessee represented in this collection.

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. A Confederate engineer named Albert Martin produced a beautiful map of the Confederacy's early fortifications on the Mississippi River above Memphis. The featured maps include the pivotal battles at Fort Donelson, Stones River, Franklin, and Nashville. Especially interesting are a number of operational maps of middle Tennessee and north Georgia that belonged to Confederate general and Army of Tennessee corps commander Benjamin F. Cheatham.

After the war, commercial mapping enterprises found a lucrative market in a public eager to know where the engagements of the war had been 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. A number of Civil War battlefield maps in this collection were produced as studies or plans prior to the establishment of national military parks.

 

Maps in the Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

In addition to maps held at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, the digital collection, Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee, is the Library & Archive's digital-only collection that includes a number of significant Civil War maps from private owners across the state of Tennessee. Two were drawn by Confederate and Union soldiers who were at Gettysburg and Spring Hill, respectively, and the 1862 map of West Tennessee is by a Union cartographer, L. D. Radford.

Letter with map of Battle of Spring Hill, Tennessee, 1865
Letter with map of Battle of Spring Hill, Tennessee, 1865
George Franklin Robinson hand-drawn map of Army of Northern Virginia's march to and from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1863
George Franklin Robinson hand-drawn map of Army of Northern Virginia's march to and from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1863
Hand-drawn 1862 map of West Tennessee
Hand-drawn 1862 map of West Tennessee
 
 

Bibliography/Suggested Reading

Bosse, David C. Civil War Newspaper Maps: A Historical Atlas. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University 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.