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.