Civil War Maps

History of Mapping the Civil War

Prewar Mapping

On the eve of the Civil War, few detailed maps existed of areas in which fighting was likely to occur. Uniform, large-scale topographic maps, such as those produced today by the U.S. Geological Survey, did not exist and would not become a reality for another generation. In most cases, the best medium-scale, published maps available in 1861 were those sponsored by various state legislatures.

In the Eastern theater (i.e., southern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia) both Union and Confederate military authorities initially relied on several maps: that of Pennsylvania (scale 5 miles to 1 inch) published in 1860 by Rufus L. Barnes of Philadelphia; Fielding Lucas, Jr.'s map of Maryland (scale 5 ½ miles to 1 inch) published in Baltimore in 1852; and the nine-sheet map of Virginia by Herman Böÿe (scale 5 miles to 1 inch), revised by Ludwig von Buchholtz and published in Richmond in 1859. Each was actually a revision of a map published long before the Civil War: the Pennsylvania map was originally compiled and published by John Melish in 1822; the map of Maryland was first issued by Lucas in 1841; and the map of Virginia was first copyrighted by the state in 1826 and offered for sale in 1827.

The most detailed maps available in the 1850s were of selected counties. Published at about the scale of one inch to a mile, these commercially produced wall maps showed roads, railroads, towns and villages, rivers and streams, mills, forges, taverns, dwellings, and the names of residents.1 The few maps of selected counties in Virginia, Maryland, and southern Pennsylvania that were available were eagerly sought by military commanders on both sides. In his communication to the American Philosophical Society in March 1864, map publisher Robert Pearsall Smith told how, on the eve of the invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863, Confederate soldiers in advance of the main army confiscated all the maps of Franklin, Cumberland, and Adams counties that they could find:

For a day or two, not a map of the seat of war was to be obtained at Harrisburg for the use of the Governor and his staff. General Couch had but a single copy at his headquarters. An order on Philadelphia could only be filled by sending out a special agent, who succeeded, at great personal risk, in procuring one or two of each county. Judge Watts, of Carlisle, informed me that the maps were torn hastily from the walls of the farmers' houses, and sent with the horses and other valuables for safety, over the North Mountain, into the Juniata Valley. The rebel visitation was very complete; he thought it likely that not a single house had been overlooked...

A rebel general is understood to have made a reconnaissance of these counties previous to the invasion under the guise of a map-peddler, and while selling some of a more general character, no doubt bought up county maps to be used in the invasion.2

Interest in county maps was substantiated by Confederate cavalry officer Lt. Col. William W. Blackford who wrote:

At Mercersburg I found that a citizen of the place had a county map and of course called at the house for it, as these maps had every road laid down and would be of the greatest service to us. Only the females of the family appeared, who flatly refused to let me have the map, or to acknowledge that they had one; so I was obliged to dismount and push by the infuriated ladies, rather rough specimens, however, into the sitting room where I found the map hanging on the wall. Angry women do not show to advantage, and the language and looks of these were fearful, as I coolly cut the map out of its rollers and put it in my haversack.3

Richard W. Stephenson, Civil War Maps



  1. For a list of county maps in the Library of Congress, see Richard W. Stephenson, Land Ownership Maps (Washington: Library of Congress, 1967), 86 pp.
    Back to Text
  2. Robert Pearsall Smith, "Communication . . . Respecting the Published County Maps of the United States," American Philosophical Society, Proceedings 9 (March 1864): 350.
    Back to Text
  3. William W. Blackford, War Years with Jeb Stuart (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1945), p. 165.
    Back to Text