Civil War Q&A with High School Students–Questions 3, 4, 5

How long does it typically take you to create a map of a famous battle?

 It typically takes six to eight months to do the research, draft the map, and then ink in the data and watercolor the whole concern.  In the midst of that process, I also work out the information and secure the images for the reverse side of the map.  That six or eight months means seven days a week, morning, noon and night.  The maps are great fun but they’re also a lot of work.

 What interests you most about the Civil War?

The most interesting thing about the Civil War is the participants. The panoply of characters, Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, JEB Stuart, and more obscure characters like Richard Ewell (he married a widow and always introduced his wife as “Mrs. Brown”), Confederate general Joe Johnston who hated president Jeff Davis so much that you wouldn’t know from his memoir that he was fighting the Yankees, he’s always fighting Davis.  Then George B. McClellan, Union general whose reputation collapsed because the stupid, vainglorious letters he wrote to his wife revealed him to be a supercilious jerk.  There was General George Custer (of Little Big Horn fame) who was a brilliant cavalry leader who perfumed his flowing locks and designed a uniform that made him look like a circus performer.  It was a wild bunch of characters.  England had Dickens’ characters.  We had these guys.  Some of the most noble people in history, and some of the most ignoble, made up the cast of our Civil War.

Also, most wars are futile. For example, the First World War led directly to the Second World War and the Second World War wasn’t even over when the Cold War got underway.  In contrast, the Civil War was fought to end slavery and preserve the United States.  When the Civil War was over, slavery was dead and the United States lived.  Success!

Who do you think was the greatest Confederate General?

I think Stonewall Jackson was the South’s great general but he had the advantage in that regard of dying too early in the war to confront the best Union generals.  But I also think there was something vaguely—for want of a better term—autistic, about him.  He seems kind of blank in terms of personality and he was a bewildering figure to his fellow generals.  And his successes came in the first half of the war when the south fought with the immense advantage of a friendly population and in familiar countryside.  His Valley Campaign, upon which his fame primarily rests, would not have been possible once Union forces knew the roads and topography as well as he did.  But circumstances are what they are and he was, in my mind, the best in the 1861-1863 timeframe.

What is the oldest battle that you mapped?

The oldest battle I’ve mapped is the Revolutionary battlefield of Saratoga in NYS.  It was fought in 1777.  The oldest Civil War battlefield I’ve mapped is Manassas or Bull Run, VA.  Two battles were fought there, 1861 and 1862.

Civil War Q&A With High School Students–Questions 1 & 2

Time did not allow me to answer all of the questions of the American History Class at Olean High School, but I did respond to them by e-mail.  The first and second question were:

What information do you use to draw the maps?  Do you use photos along with studying the landscape?  What else do you use?  How do you decide if the information is reliable or legitmate?

I had to give a rather long answer to the question:

  1. I use contemporaneous photographs, taken within days of some of the major battles (Antietam, Gettysburg e.g.).  I got a Cornell agronomist (a crop expert) to study the panoramic photos of these fields to determine the crops in the fields. It was easy to figure out what type of fencing there was, where the orchards were, the extent of the woodlands etc. Essential to the use of these photographs was the 1970’s work of William Frassanito, who painstakingly determined the point-of-view and location of each extant wartime photograph of Gettysburg and Antietam.
  2. Then I used regimental histories – each regiment would occupy a small sector of the battlefield and their accounts and maps  would show their particular sector in great detail. The soldiers’ diaries and letters (this was probably the most literate war in history) also contain many references to their immediate surroundings. Many of them were themselves farmers and they would frequently comment on the crops and fields, fences, barns and orchards. The most poignant research items were “burial” maps. Dead men were often buried right where they had fallen by their fellow soldiers, who were usually their townsmen, friends, even relatives. They would then send the family a very detailed map so they could journey to the battlefield, locate the body and bring it home for burial.
  3. On the major battlefields such as Gettysburg, Antietam, Stones River in Tennessee, the National Park Service has tons of data that they gladly make available to a researcher.
  4. As I mentioned in the class, aerial photographs are very revealing if you know what you’re looking for. If I have a reasonably good Civil War era map and it shows a road or a lane that’s vanished, or a barn or a house, if you look very carefully, you can find a footprint or a trace of it. Also, the skeleton features in the landscape – the rivers, streams, hills, principal roads etc. – are obviously extant features on todays extremely accurate USGS maps. So those features are immediately drawn on my map so I immediately have a framework to go by. And the maps drawn and used by the actual Civil War armies, while not terribly accurate in terms of exact distances etc., are full of the sort of information the armies needed. They needed the name of residents along the roads because there were no route markers and there were not normally formal names for a given road or lane so the surest way to get reliable directions was to get pointed toward the Smith’s house or the Jones farm. Documenting the residents also gave the armies a idea of the local population. The more residents there were, the more resources there were for the armies to live off. (Union General Sherman set off across Georgia on November 16,1864 saying, “Where a million Georgians can live, my army will not starve.) The armies also had to know where they could find corn fields, wheat fields, orchards, hay fields, wells, springs etc. because an army on the march needed to feed 30, 40, 50 thousand men  and thousands of horses and mules. A typical mule would drink 10 gallons of water a day. Multiply that by 10,000! A Civil War army (and it didn’t matter whether they were friends or enemies, Union or Confederate) would devastate any countryside they marched through. They would take all the food for themselves and all the forage for their animals, drink the wells dry, destroy the fields they camped on, empty the barns, clear out the larders, tear down all the fences (to make their camp fires to brew their coffee) and raise havoc generally. But the armies need to live off the land is great for mapmakers because their military “route” maps detailed this sort of food and forage information so the armies knew where they could march and fend for themselves.
  5. A great aid in mapping Gettysburg was the work of John Bachelder, who arrived in Gettysburg immediately after the battle. Bachelder marched up and down the field, mapping it, and he had as a resource the thousands of wounded soldiers, Union and Confederate, remaining behind, who he interviewed. His map, a birds-eye view of the field, was very reliable and valuable.
  6. There were also quite accurate published county maps available of some areas, including Gettysburg, published prior to the Civil War that I could make use of. (They were also made use of by the armies and the generals.) Also, soon after the war, the U.S. War Department prepared surveys of many of the major battlefields. These maps were much more detailed and accurate than the maps made under wartime conditions. (The U.S. hired former Confederate mapmakers to work on these surveys. One Rebel named Blackford, who’d sworn he would die rather than live again under the stars and stripes, found himself, within a month of Appomattox, working for the U.S. Army mapping the battlefields.)
  7. Finally, most every Civil War battlefield has people who have devoted their lives to studying “their” battle. They know every nook and cranny of the field and like nothing more than to guide someone around the field, point out sites, recommend books and resources, provide access private lands and to other knowledgeable locals, and in some cases they fix parking tickets.
  8. There are other resources but the above provides a pretty good idea of what’s out there. I decide on the reliability of the information based on the resource I used. Photographs, for example, are irrefutable – at least back then they were, before photoshop – and other data would often be corroborated by some other data. And then you have to wonder why anybody would mislead about the existence of a stone wall or the presence in their front of a rye as opposed to a wheat field.

 

 

The Civil War: Some Suggested Reading

I prepared a reading list of Civil War volumes to hand out to an Olean High School junior year American history class as part of a Civil War presentation on Jan. 15, 2013. The list is short and sweet and my basic premise was that, for the most part, none of the students had read much, if anything, about the Civil War. My intention was to suggest some books that would be scholarly but entertaining and informative at the same time.  Also the list had to fit on one page. This is the list I came up with. My feeling is that if any of the students read even one of these volumes they will probably be drawn to read others as well.

  •  Bruce Catton’s trilogy on the Civil War, which includes The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat, is a very dramatic and beautifully written set. It’s accurate history but it reads with the verve of a novel.  A pretty long novel though.
  • Bruce Catton also wrote a terrific little book entitled U. S. Grant and the American Military Tradition. It’s one of my absolute favorite Civil War books. And it’s short!
  • There are two excellent one volume biographies of Abraham Lincoln.  Stephen B. Oates’s With Malice Toward None and/or Benjamin P. Thomas’s Abraham Lincoln.  Another really neat little book is this same Benjamin P. Thomas’s Lincoln’s New Salem.
  • The best single volume account of the overall Civil War—it’s pretty long and quite detailed but extremely worthwhile—is James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom.
  • There are all sorts of truly fascinating first person accounts of being a soldier in the Civil War.  These books are America’s Victorian literature.  We don’t have a Dickens, a Trollope, a Thackery, an Eliott…but we do have these.  And they’re not only thrilling and entertaining but they’re also true.  There are dozens of these but two of the best are: War Years with JEB Stuart by W.W. Blackford and I Rode With Stonewall by Henry Kyd Douglas.
  • The Blue and the Gray, edited by Henry Steele Commager, is a chronologically arranged collection of excerpts from contemporary accounts of the Civil War.  The entries are usually short.  They’re like intellectual snacks.  But the selections were chosen because they gave the illuminating sense of “being there.”
  • If you’re feeling really ambitious, there’s a fabulous set of volumes by Carl Sandburg (he’s the poet)—2 volumes entitled The Prairie Years, and 4 volumes entitled The War Years.  Together they constitute a superlative biography of Lincoln and the American cultural and political environment in which he lived and governed. Make yourself a promise to read these volumes some time in your life.
  • Finally there is an ongoing series The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It, which will consist of four volumes published by Library of America.  McElfresh Map Company prepared the endpaper maps for each volume.

Lincoln–The Movie and the Man–Both Treasures

I went to see the new Spielberg movie Lincoln. I’ve been an avid reader of Lincoln biographies–from where I sit right now I can see more than fifty volumes on Lincoln and I can honestly say that if I haven’t read all of them, there are some that I’ve read multiple times and will read again, including  Sandburg’s six volumes–perhaps the most wonderful biography ever written–and Benj. Thomas’s Lincoln’s New Salem which is the most charming Lincoln book of them all. I also have half again as many Lincoln volumes at home. Suffice it to say, I like Lincoln.  And I’ve written about him for publication in Civil War Times. Mine is no casual affair. Lincoln and I are for keeps.

Well…Wonder of wonders. I loved–I revered–the Lincoln movie. It was the first movie my wife and I have gone to since Primary Colors. We were startled at the cost of theater tickets ($19 !) but we were thrilled by the movie. My mental picture of Lincoln, framed for ever and ever by the staged photographs of him, has been supplemented by Daniel Day Lewis’s movie portrayal of the 16th president.

I have two quibbles with the movie. The opening scene was a little much. Lincoln, for some reason unattended to and sitting in the rain, seemed a bit unrealistic and daft (the President was a gigantic celebrity in 1864 too, and his being somehow overlooked was as unlikely then as it is now). Then the post battle-scene at the end of the movie…this is presumably in the trenches around Petersburg after the Confederate line is cracked. The movie depicts corpses stacked like the concentration camp images at the end of WWII. There are actual contemporaneous photos of the most gruesome slaughters of the war, scenes from Antietam’s sunken road, indeed photos from the Petersburg field in the battle aftermath. There is nothing like what the movie shows. Maybe modern audiences have to see a carpet of bodies before they’re impressed.

But apart from those two improbable scenes, the film makers did an impeccable job. Lincoln’s office, as filmed, was exact in every detail. The more prominent members of his cabinet (Gideon Wells, Edwin Stanton e.g.) bore a striking similarity to the real men. Secretary of State William Seward was portrayed as a more presentable figure: they skipped the magpie-like features of the actual Seward but that’s understandable. Modern audiences would probably find his looks laughable.

To sum up, considering how awful the movie could have been–and considering how tempting it must have been to go the saccharine route–makes how realistic the movie was all the more commendable. It’salso a treat to see Republicans portrayed as the good guys. People forget the Democrats obstructing role as the nation was locked in a death struggle. And they also forget that the modern Civil Rights legislation was vehemently opposed by the solid South–the South was solidly Democrat in 1964 as well as in 1864–and it was the Republican party that enabled Lyndon Johnson to push his Civil Rights agenda through. Look it up!

Thinkin’ of Lincoln

McElfresh Map Company will be watching a new movie coming to town with more than a little interest.

We received a phone call at our office on the afternoon of August 26, 2011 from Terry Alford, a professor at Northern Virginia Community College.  He wondered if we’d be willing to share some information about Civil War map making with some folks making a Lincoln related Civil War movie.  I said certainly.

Very shortly thereafter I got a telephone call from a woman named Leslie McDonald. She was with a company called “Office Seekers.”  She was interested in having someone with a Civil War map background to answer some questions.  She was with a movie company.   I said I’d be quite prepared for that eventuality.

We talked back and forth a bit, I answered some general questions.  She said she would like to e-mail a detailed set of questions if that was all right. I said that would be fine. She also asked if I’d be willing to suggest additional questions that “they hadn’t asked but should.” That impressed me. She wanted to get things right. “So,” I said, “This is a real movie, a TV movie, or what?”

She told me it’s a movie based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals.  The director of the movie was Steven Spielberg. I  said, “Ah, this is a real movie.” She laughed. “Oh yes.”

She had some general questions regarding reference material, Civil War map resources, sample Civil War era maps and the preparation and use of maps before, during and after a battle.

That evening (6.06 PM) a list of 12 questions was e-mailed to me. The questions were mostly map specific:

How would they update troop movements and how would they do this for the President?

How did they track movements on maps?

What type of writing instruments did they use to update maps, i.e. pen, pencils, colored pencils?

How would maps in the White House differ from the field maps?

Some of the initial questions also regarded the treatment and handling of battle casualties and soldiers killed in battle:

Did they write down who died right away or after the war was over?

As per Leslie McDonald’s request, the next day I e-mailed her a brief overall perspective of the who, what, when, where, why and howof Civil War mapping.  How important maps were, especially to Union forces operating on unfamiliar ground in unfriendly territory.  I told her where to find examples of Civil War maps and descriptions of how they were prepared and used and to what effect.

I also emphasized what an immense affair the Civil War really was and how magnificently a ramshackle government inWashingtonmanaged the whole affair.  The various departments were casually organized, the army and navy operated in a very off-the-cuff manner compared to the hidebound rigidity of the modern military.  The President throughout the war never travelled more than 100 miles from Washington, wrote his own speeches, and ran the nation and the war with the assistance of two secretaries.

To provide perspective, I noted that the death rate of soldiers in the Civil War, if adjusted to the present population of theU.S.would be 3,000 soldiers killed and dying every day for four years.

I also described the topographical challenges faced by road bound, foot and horse-powered armies.  How a slight grade or a three foot deep creek could stop 50,000 men dead in their tracks. How the marching armies lived off the land and had to keep moving or starve.

I also assessed the capabilities of the Union and Confederate armies and pointed out that Union forces faced a far greater challenge than the Confederates because they had to march, fight, capture, hold, occupy, supply, and continually advance through the southland.  The Confederates didn’t have to fight pitched battles around Detroit, or Chicago or New York.  The Union had to capture and hold New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Savannah, Vicksburg et al.

Over the next days and weeks I answered questions:

How would maps be carried in the field?

Answer: Sherman, e.g. carried them in his saddlebags. Others in map canisters. Cavalrymen stuck the maps in their pockets.

What sort of maps did the President have in the White House?

Answer: Most likely Lincoln’s office contained U.S. Coast Survey maps (this organization is the predecessor of the modern National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and standard commercially printed maps (Colton’s e.g.) The maps specifically, historically, known to have hung in Lincoln’s office were a U.S. Coast Survey map of KY and TN  and a “statistical” slave map, showing by lighter and darker shading the slave population of the different regions of the country.

What sort of maps were in the War Department’s telegraph office?

Answer: What’s described as “a common U.S. map” on the wall (meaning a commercially printed U.S. map) and then there were map files, filing cabinet-like wide drawers in which maps could be laid flat and stored.

I also described the various instruments the mapmakers would be using: the Schmalcalder compasses, plane tables, field glasses, the watercolor paints that would come in blocks rather than tubes. I further informed the moviemakers that there was no way for Lincoln or Secy of War Stanton to interfere in the actual progress of a battle. I told them Lincoln or Stanton might urge the generals to “put all of your men in” but they’d have no way of knowing what was happening on the actual battlefield.

My last e-mails in early October with the “Office Seekers” crew was to supply names and contact information for locating the appropriate topographical instruments to “decorate” the movie set.

Note the a map displayed in Lincoln’s office in the trailer below.

 

American History Reading List

Our son was being interviewed for college and happened to mention that his father was a cartographer and Civil War map historian. The interviewer was a young guy just entering on a professional career and he had a bit of time on his hands for the first time since graduate school began. He had an interest in American history and asked me if I could make some suggestions about things to read. I told him I’d sit down and come up with a reading list of ten books to start with. This is what I sent him…

This was hard! I restricted myself to American history and being essentially military history oriented, esp. Civil War, the list is a bit top heavy with those topics. These are all books that I loved to read, have read more than once, and plan to live long enough to read again.There is no ranking within the list itself. So here goes:

  • The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan (popular but gripping account of D-Day)
  • Son of the Morning Star by Evan S. Connell (a rambling but fascinating history of George Armstrong Custer)
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Conrad Black (best biography of our most interesting 20th C. president)
  • Company Commander by Charles B. MacDonald (a wonderful, almost moment by moment account of a WW2 rifle company in Europe. It’s like riding with them in a Jeep. It’s not blood and gore and guts. It’s just an absorbing account of what it was like to be there)
  • Co. Aytch by Sam R. Watkins (ditto as above but a Confederate account of the Civil War)
  • Lincoln by David Herbert Donald (there are several but this is the best recent one volume biography of Lincoln)
  • Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (he was dying of throat cancer and his family was destitute when Grant began to write. He finished the book and died three days later. It became the best-selling book of the 19th Century and earned $400,000 in royalties in those days…probably the equivalent of $100,000,000 now. Quite a guy, quite a book. If you’re ever discouraged about things, read this!)
  • Lincoln Finds A General by Kenneth P. Williams (four volumes but my favorite of all my Civil War books – it’s largely about Grant and the western theater of the War. This is a great set to look for in used book stores. It was published between 1949 and 1956)
  • Battle Cry of Freedom by James M.McPherson (the best single volume account of the Civil War. It’s part of a series by various authors in the Oxford U. Press’s Oxford History of the U.S. They’re all pretty good and they’re appearing in no particular chronological order)
  • The Story of the Great March by George Ward Nichols (1865 with a 1972 reprint – what it was like to be on Sherman’s staff on the March to the Sea)
There are two other books that I have to mention though they don’t fit any of the criterion I set up for this list. One is a biography, The Days of Henry Thoreau by Walter Harding. I can’t explain my attraction to it but every time I notice it on the shelf I have to resist the urge to pick it up and read it. And I’m not a particular Thoreau fan.
The other is a trilogy, the overall title being The Sword of Honor, by Evelyn Waugh, the 20th Century English novelist. It’s a fictionalized account of his own service in WW2 and I have the same problem with this book as with the Thoreau.
Give me the word and I’ll pass along some English history recommendations.
As a final recommendation, when you’re done with all of the above, see Maps and Map makers of the Civil War (Abrams 1999) by Earl B. McElfresh.

Fequently Asked Mapping Questions: “How Do You Know That…”

The maps McElfresh Map Company prepares and publishes are in the rather arcane genre known as “historical base maps” or in England as “reconstruction maps.” Our maps are primarily of Civil War and other battlefields but the data on the map relates 99% to the cultural and physical aspects of the field (the lay of the land in other words) with perhaps a brief reference to some military aspect of the field. For example, on an endpaper map we prepared for volume 1 of Library of America’s The Civil War: As Told By Those Who Lived It, the Bull Run map specifically labels the roundabout route the Union flank march followed to Sudley Ford. Otherwise the massive details presented on the map are interesting but insufficient to provide an understanding of the development and progress of the battle.

Questions are often raised about the process, in the 21st Century, of determining the direction of some long vanished lane or the type of fence surrounding a field or the crop growing in it at Gettysburg in July 1863. Or Antietam in 1862. Or the wartime route of Stonewall Jackson enroute to Cedar Mountain. The question is, are these features accurate or speculative or just made up?

As I researched,I found some surprising resources available to accurately map a Civil War battle in amazing detail.

First: the photographs. William A. Frassanito in his extraordinary books on Gettysburg, Antietam, and the Overland Campaign, collected an enormous number contemporaneous photos and then performed the nearly impossible task of properly locating the vantage point of the photographer and identifying their actual location on the battlefield.

It was then possible for me to identify the types of fences: the post and rail fences were nearly impossible to pull down, so that was easy. Ditto for the board fences. Rock walls stayed put and the detritus along other fields would evidence worm/rail/Virginia type fences.

Further, in these vivid photos, crops in the field could be identified. Dale Dewing, a Cornell agronomist, studied the photos and, knowing the early July time frame, was able to distinguish among wheat, rye and oat fields. Scratchy corn fields were obvious. Orchards were orderly sets of trees.

Also clearly evident were barns, sheds, houses, toll houses, small wooden bridges over culverts…these photos, accurately located, were de facto indexes of the cultural and physical details of the featured battlefields. At Gettysburg, an additional invaluable resource was the isometric (or balloon view) map of the field prepared by John Bachelder in 1863. Bachelder arrived on the field shortly after the battle, interviewing the captive (literally) audience of wounded Confederates, the Union wounded, civilians and anyone with knowledge of the battle and the field.  Bachelder then established north/south columns and marched up and down them with a scroll of mapping paper, examining and recording the topographical features of the field as carefully as he did the comments of survivors and witness to the battle. He carefully depicted stone bridges, covered bridges and other encompassing details that no known photographs supplied.

Prior to the McElfresh map of Antietam battlefield, the “definitive” map since the 1880’s had been the Carmen/Cope map. A quick initial glance at this map in comparison with post battle photographs revealed numerous missing details…and that was just in the immediate vicinity of the Middle Bridge.  Missing on the earlier “definitive” map, just in this one tiny section of the field, were two substantial farmhouses, their outbuildings, a fenced in cornfield and a toll booth on the Boonsboro pike.  Again, the Frassanito Antietam study provided invaluable guidance.

The next mapping blogs will provide further incontrovertible resources to inform a 21st Century mapmaker of the lay of the Civil War’s land, including such arcane and/or obvious resources as 20th Century aerial photography, memoirs, burial maps, contemporaneous military maps, outdated USGS maps, regimental histories, bird droppings, orderly rocks and other peculiar but reliable resources.