Maps and Mapmakers of the Civil War

By Bosse, David | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Maps and Mapmakers of the Civil War


Bosse, David, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Maps and Mapmakers of the Civil War. By Earl B. McElfresh. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999. Pp. 272. Illustrations, maps, index. Cloth, $55.00)

Once largely neglected as a field of scholarly inquiry, the cartography of the American Civil War has enjoyed a remarkable revival in the past decade. The publication of essential cartobibliographies that describe the maps in the Library of Congress and the National Archives have made those outstanding collections more widely known, thereby facilitating research. Other recent monographs have examined specific topics such as the life and work of Confederate mapmaker Jedediah Hotchkiss, or the publication of maps by Northern daily newspapers. General treatments of the subject of Civil War cartography have, however, been lacking. Christopher Nelson's Mapping the Civil War (Washington, 1992) and David Phillips' Maps of the Civil War: The Roads They Took (New York, 1998) employ period maps to illustrate military campaigns, but neither work seriously addresses the issues of map production and use during the war.

The publication of Maps and Mapmakers of the Civil War goes far toward filling a significant void in the literature of the war. A mapmaker by profession, McElfresh examines his subject through the lens of a historian of cartography, rather than that of a military historian. The result is a wide-ranging study of the process of mapmaking and the types of maps produced during the war. In twelve brief chapters, McElfresh considers many aspects of Civil War cartography, beginning with a familiar review of the difficulties of conducting campaigns with insufficient or inaccurate maps. Drawing extensively on contemporary accounts, McElfresh addresses such topics as methods of field mapping, duties of topographical engineers, the representation of features such as roads, fords, and woods on military maps, the value of local knowledge, and map procurement and reproduction. While McElfresh is concerned with the content of maps, his account of mapmaking in the field goes well beyond that found in other treatments of Civil War cartography. Detailed information on gathering topographical intelligence through reconnaissance, sketching on horseback, or undertaking compass surveys under fire, and compiling map memoirs effectively underscores the dynamic nature of military mapping. All that is lacking is a look beyond the process to systematically examine what influence, if any, such maps had on military decisions made in the field. …

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