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Atlas of the Civil War: A Comprehensive Guide to the Tactics and Terrain of Battle

by Neil Hagan and Stephen Hyslop, National Geographic, 2009, $40

Recalling confederate military operations around Richmond during the Peninsula and Seven Days’ campaigns, Rebel General Richard Taylor lamented in his memoir how little he and other Southern leaders knew about the distinctive topography of the battlegrounds upon which they fought. “[W]e were profoundly ignorant of the country,” Taylor confessed, “[and] were without maps, sketches, or proper guides.” The result, he asserted, “was nothing but a series of blunders, one after another, and all huge.”

In fact, both sides suffered from similar deficiencies, particularly early in the conflict. When the war began, “few maps existed of the…land – scape where most of the fighting was likely to take place.” By 1865, however, one historian noted, “where the armies had campaigned, there was hardly an acre left unmapped.”

Atlas of the Civil War: A Comprehensive Guide to the Tactics and Terrain of Battle reveals the story of that transformation. This beautifully illustrated volume embodies the outstanding cartography and high quality presentation that we have come to expect from National Geographic publications.

Numbers tell the tale. The large format of the atlas makes it easy to read and view a wide-ranging assortment of “88 rare archival maps” and “34 brand-new National Geographic maps.” It is further enhanced with 320 photographs, paintings, and battle sketches.

Contemporary bird’s-eye maps “inspired by the view from hot air balloons” are another unique feature of this book. In addition, the editors include 18 “compelling stories of soldiers and civilians” in sidebars throughout the text, along with illustrated timelines that chart the conflict month by month. Eleven orders of battle for significant engagements supplement the neighboring maps. This atlas is a visual treat that will inform and entertain both avid and apprentice students of the war.

Scores of colorful maps by prominent wartime cartographers such as the Confederacy’s Jedediah Hotchkiss and the Union’s Robert Knox Sneden are featured alongside fine works by lesser-known military and commercial mapmakers. “[G]ifted mapmakers contributed substantially to the war as it was being waged,” the editors write, “and their surviving maps provide an extraordinary cartographic record that contributes greatly to our understanding of the American Civil War today.”

Arranged in five chronological sections, the atlas covers significant battles and campaigns of the war. Most maps include number-keys that correspond with a concise running narrative. While this atlas is a must-have for anyone interested in the war, it is not without blemishes. For instance, number-keys are missing from maps depicting the “route of the Burnside Expedition” along the coast of North Carolina (P. 63) and the “Map of Cedar Mountain and Vicinity” (P. 93). These minor flaws do not detract from the volume’s overall quality and usefulness.

From the laboriously handcrafted charts of 19th-century draftsmen to the latest computer-generated maps prepared by National Geographic cartographers, Atlas of the Civil War is a welcome addition to the expanding library of books that document the maps and mapmakers of the nation’s defining conflict.


Originally published in the March 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here