Civil War Profiles — Mapping during the Civil War

Date Published: 
Sept. 8, 2017

In this age of GPS (global positioning system) sophistication regarding the pinpointing of locations worldwide, it is difficult to contemplate the rudimentary nature of topographical engineering in the mid-19th century. To the detriment of Civil War-era armies, the mapmaking discipline was still in its infancy at that time.


Complaints by military officers about the inaccuracy or absence of maps to guide them while conducting field operations were frequent. A lack of familiarity with the terrain slowed progress while scouts reconnoitered and drew sketches of natural obstacles, such as rivers, creeks, swamps and hilly areas, and made note of important features along the route, including bridges, stone walls and potential grazing land for the army’s thousands of horses and mules, etc.

As a result, having a talented mapmaker on staff was worth his weight in gold. One of the best known topographical engineers during the Civil War was a man with the classic name Jedediah Hotchkiss.

Jed Hotchkiss is remembered for preparation of the most acclaimed map during the four-year conflict. On Feb. 23, 1863, Jed noted in his diary that “I got secret orders from the General to prepare a map of the Valley of [Virginia] extended to Harrisburg, Pa., and then on to Philadelphia.”

The general was Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, who, at the time, was commanding Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley. The preparation was “to be kept a profound secret,” because this map would guide Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia during the expedition into the North in June and July 1863 that led to a battle at a small community in southeastern Pennsylvania called Gettysburg.

Ironically, Hotchkiss was born in New York, became a school teacher in Pennsylvania and travelled extensively in that state, before relocating to the Shenandoah Valley. He joined Jackson’s unit when war erupted in 1861, and eventually put his extensive familiarity with the North to use in preparing the “secret” map. (See “‘Make Me a Map of the Valley’: The Civil War Journal of Stonewall Jackson’s Topographer,” edited by Archie P. McDonald).

Given that remote areas of the South, where most Civil War battles were fought, had never been adequately mapped, both Union and Confederate commanders relied on “topo” staffs to generate terrain sketches — often on the fly. This was dangerous work, operating either between the lines or in territory under enemy control.

Maps were drawn to accompany after-action reports delineating the geographic parameters of the battles. In post-war years, many of these maps were collected into “The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War.”

Published over a four-year period, 1891 to 1895, under the guidance of a board of directors, the compiling of the atlas is credited to Capt. Calvin D. Cowles, 23rd U.S. Infantry. This multipurpose document includes 821 maps, 106 engravings primarily of fortifications, and 209 drawings of weapons, logistical equipment, uniforms and federal corps flags.

To aid in conducting research, the atlas has three sets of cross-references for finding particular maps. In addition, it lists 406 cartographers, commanders and agencies for map accreditation.

The detail in certain maps is remarkable, including rivers, creeks, lakes, bays, islands, bridges, fords, ferries, landings, roads, crossroads, railroads, mountains, bluffs, gaps, towns, settlements, churches, mills, ranches, fortifications, forts and even, in some cases, individual residences. This reflects progress made throughout the war in mapping terrain over which the armies fought earthshaking and bloodstained battles.

Another index ties the “Military Atlas” into the multiple-volume “Official Records of the Union & Confederate Armies,” and cites the reports to which they refer. In an introduction to the “Atlas,” Richard J. Sommers of the U.S. Army Military History Institute, notes that it is “indispensable to understanding the history of the Civil War.”

In addition to the official publication of Civil War maps, a companion and more affordable study compiled 150 full-color reproductions that are labeled “cartographic masterpieces” for their meticulous lettering, color penciling and watercolor effects. The title is “Maps & Mapmakers of the Civil War” by Earl B. McElfresh, about which Civil War historian Stephen W. Sears wrote, “This finely crafted atlas … [is a] much-needed examination of the crucial role maps played in the waging, and the outcome, of the Civil War.

Early in the war, Union Gen. Jacob D. Cox noted “maps in common use were erroneous and misleading to a degree that was exasperating,” to which Col. Orlando M. Poe added that maps of North Carolina “vie with each other in inaccuracy.” With experience that the war inevitably provided, topographical engineers on both sides eventually produced quality maps for use by their commanders.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books. His latest book, “Eleven Fateful Days in July 1863: Meade Tracks Lee’s Escape after Gettysburg,” is due out in 2018. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.