Academic journal article Civil War History

The Cartography of Slavery and the Authority of Statistics

Academic journal article Civil War History

The Cartography of Slavery and the Authority of Statistics

Article excerpt

Over the west staircase of the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol hangs an iconic image of American history, entitled First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln (see figure 1). Painted by Francis Bicknell Carpenter in 1864, it portrays Lincoln's announcement of emancipation to his cabinet in July 1862. The painting immortalized a particular version of events and a narrative of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator which only grew over the next century. To create the painting, Carpenter spent six months in the White House, and he recorded his experience in a memoir published just after the president's assassination. In 2005, the painting's cultural currency was renewed when it appeared in lithographic form on the cover of Doris Kearns Goodwin's bestselling Team of Rivals. Goodwin uses the painting to imagine that moment when Lincoln, surrounded by battlefield maps on racks, in folios, and leaning against the walls, transformed the war into a moral contest. In Goodwin's telling, as in Carpenter's painting and American civic memory, Lincoln's decision is treated as a defining moment of moral courage. (1)


Within this painting lies a detail that has gone largely unnoticed but provides a window onto the production and representation of knowledge in the nineteenth century. In the lower right corner of the painting rests a map of the southern states, which Carpenter deliberately and painstakingly rendered for its contemporary importance. The map was first published in September 1861, measured approximately twenty-seven by thirty-three inches, and was drawn on a scale of 1:3,000,000, or forty-seven miles to the inch (see figure 2). This map of the southern states used figures of the 1860 census to illustrate the population density of slavery in graphic terms and was the first American effort to do so. By using a new technique of statistical cartography, the map not only conveyed the extent of slavery but translated the vast data of the census into a compelling and comprehensible picture. This type of map represents a turning point in the graphic presentation of information and initiated a trend of statistical cartography that exploded after the Civil War. (2)


In his memoir, Carpenter acknowledged the power and appeal of this map, but he had an even more fundamental reason for including it in his portrait. During his extended stay at the White House, Carpenter found the president--on more than one occasion--poring over the map. Lincoln admired it not just for its symbolic power and visual appeal but because it literally allowed him to trace the military's maneuvers, and to connect those actions to his policy of emancipation. In other words, the map was both a landmark cartographic achievement and an eminently practical instrument of military policy. Lincoln's own description and use of this map indicates that it reinforced his conception of emancipation as a wartime measure and allowed him to follow the military's ability to destroy one of the Confederacy's greatest assets.

The map of slavery was created in summer 1861 by the U.S. Coast Survey. From 1858 to the early months of 1861, the survey had frantically produced reconnaissance maps of the southern coasts and ports, in anticipation of a military conflict over secession. That this same agency took the time to create a map of the density of slavery at a moment of supreme military and political crisis indicates the significance of this new cartographic technique. That the map was reproduced and copied widely during the war indicates that Lincoln was not alone in appreciating its importance. In fact it is an exceedingly rich resource for understanding the politics of slavery as well as the organization of information in the nineteenth century. On one level, it is a visual and cultural artifact, a window onto the intellectual and political world of 1861. At the same time, it introduced a new way to envision information during the most consequential conflict in American history. …

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