Some New Civil War Classics

When the Civil War Sesquicentennial came around, it reminded me of the sets that were published to coincide with the Centennial of the Civil War. I decided to dust off Bruce Catton’s three volume Centennial History. I had the impression that modern scholarship had made this set obsolete but I was quickly jolted out of this notion within pages of picking up this book. If the scholarship was not up to today’s standards (mostly because Catton’s researcher E. B. Long probably had to manually copy any notes or quotes he wanted to use–he couldn’t simply Xerox pages and pages from the O.R. or from archives or library materials) the writing more than makes up for that. If any war or period was ever dramatic it’s the Civil War era. And Bruce Catton’s portrayal of the actors and the drama being played out surpasses anything that contemporary historians are publishing. Modern historians may provide more facts but they lose out in terms of providing a vivid feel for the people and the era.
One thing however that’s obvious is that Bruce Catton misjudged his ability to cover the war in three volumes. Vol. 2 ends at Antietam. That leaves Catton with a single volume to cover the rise of Grant and his campaigns and battles, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Sherman’s rise and his campaigns…the third volume is like a “flashcards” history of the war. But the writing is, in a word, magnificent. Also, and because I wasn’t ready to put Catton down, I read the Lloyd Lewis/ Bruce Catton biography of Grant. It ends with the Civil War–perhaps Catton didn’t want to face the bleak interlude between Appomattox and Mount McGregor–but I was ready to start the book again as soon as I’d finished it. Catton (and Shelby Foote) had a magical, stirring feel for the War and it’s dramatis personae.   

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.



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.