Shenandoah Was Nightmare for Union Force: Survey of Wartime Mapmaking

By May, Michael K. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 9, 1996 | Go to article overview

Shenandoah Was Nightmare for Union Force: Survey of Wartime Mapmaking


May, Michael K., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Confederate Gen. Richard Taylor, son of President Zachary Taylor, observed that many areas of the South were so inaccurately mapped that military leaders during the Civil War "knew no more about the topography of the country than they did about central Africa."

Maps were a precious resource to both North and South, and their scarcity or inaccuracy often was of great consequence to the outcome of a battle.

The South so lacked resources at the beginning of the war that the government had to advertise for surveying equipment in the Richmond Inquirer. The Confederacy made no provision for topographic specialists in 1861; maps were the responsibility of the Engineer Bureau.

Fortunately for the Confederacy, it had some notable civil engineers. Two of them, Capts. D.B. Harris and John Grant, were recognized for their maps of the Manassas battlefield and the rebels' victory in the first major battle of the war.

In June 1862, the Confederacy created a map reproduction office, with Capt. Albert H. Campbell in command - just three weeks before the Seven Days battles near Richmond. During this period, a futile search was made for accurate maps of Henrico and Hanover counties, the site of those critical battles.

On June 21, the Engineer Bureau forwarded a highly inaccurate map of the two counties to Gen. Robert E. Lee. This led Gen. John Magruder into a monumental error at Malvern Hill on July 1, the final battle of the Seven Days. The map failed to reveal two roads having the same name, causing Magruder to waste an entire day's march by taking his troops 10 miles down the wrong road.

The result was a three-hour delay in launching the Confederate attack, which provided Union Gen. George McClellan's forces opportunity to reach and entrench a plateau a mile north of the James River and a mile above it - Malvern Hill. The Southern attack was bloodily repulsed.

Jedediah Hotchkiss, a teacher in the Shenandoah Valley, stands out among Confederate mapmakers. He had taken up topography and cartography as hobbies, and his exceptionally detailed maps are credited with contributing to the success of Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign.

The North had two established mapping facilities, the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers and the U.S. Coast Survey. The Corps of Topographical Engineers had been established in 1838, with Col. John James Abert as its first chief. Its complement at any one time was 36 officers. …

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