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Finding the Lost Maps

By Earl B. McElfresh
8/29/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

Civil War topographical engineer turned Gothic novelist Ambrose Bierce grew up in Elkhart, Ind., and thus it isn’t surprising that the Elkhart County Historical Museum would showcase Bierce artifacts, including a wartime photograph. What is surprising is the scene that unfolded when a local artist painted an oil color version of the photograph and delivered a short talk about Bierce. When one member of the audience inquired whether any of Bierce’s maps still existed, another gentleman in the gathering then raised his hand and said, “I have a collection of them in the trunk of my car out in the parking lot.” Fortunately, Bierce’s maps, sketchbook and drawing instruments are now on loan to the museum. They are among the most accomplished and attractive extant Civil War military maps.

The presence of a set of notable Civil War maps in a car trunk is obviously not typical. The great majority of these maps are to be found in formal settings: the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. (including most of Jedediah Hotchkiss’ maps and William T. Sherman’s collection), or at the Cartographic and Architectural Branch of the National Archives in College Park, Md. The National Archives has many of the original manuscript maps that were lithographed and published in the Atlas to Accompany the Official Records.

Other notable Civil War map collections are to be found at the Iowa State Historical Society in Des Moines, the Harvard Map Collection in Cambridge, Mass., the U.S. Military Academy Archives in West Point, N.Y., the New York State Library in Albany, N.Y., and the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland.

Richmond, Va., has three invaluable Civil War map repositories: the Library of Virginia, the Museum of the Confederacy and the Virginia Historical Society. Some of the “Lost War Maps of the Confederacy” can be examined in the Southern Historical Society Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (others are at West Point and the Virginia Historical Society).

The eclectic holdings of the Gilder Lehrman Collection at the New York Historical Society in Manhattan include a good number of maps. The attic of the Cayuga Museum in Auburn, N.Y., housed a box of maps by engineer John S. Clark, including a beautiful bound set of maps of the 1864 Red River campaign. Many of the “lost” maps in these collections were long believed to have been stolen, scattered or burned, and the circumstances under which they were recovered remain obscure.

These maps are invaluable primary sources for historians. They can reveal a great deal about what a commander knew as he fought a battle. Some maps relied on what turned out to be completely inaccurate information, helping explain the outcome of certain fights. They are also immensely detailed and fill in gaps about what was where on a battlefield. Sherman’s route maps from the March to the Sea exploded many myths about the destruction the Union general had wreaked. Ruins located from a study of his maps made it clear that many of the structures Sherman supposedly destroyed were in fact victims of rot and termites. Preservationists can use these maps to establish the importance of battlefield sectors because they provide irrevocable proof of troop movements, headquarters sites and other relevant contemporaneous data.

 

Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.  

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