Stonewall’s Prussian Mapmaker: The Journals of Captain Oscar Hinrichs
Edited by Richard Brady Williams, University of North Carolina Press
IN THE SPRING OF 2000, Richard Williams had the kind of Eureka! moment that most historians and archivists only dream of when he was tipped off to a trove of unpublished journals written by Confederate Captain Oscar Hinrichs, an officer and engineer cartographer on the staff of Stonewall Jackson and his successors. Years of relentless research, verification and annotation by Williams and a host of dedicated helpers has produced what Robert Krick rightly calls “an enormously important primary source.” Hinrichs’ account of the activities of the Army of Northern Virginia and its famed Second Corps provide unique insights into men and events as seen through the keen and discerning eyes of a trained observer.
Williams had a variety of materials to work from, including a wartime transcript made by Hinrichs covering April 1861–September 1863. For the period from then until the war’s end, Williams worked from Hinrichs’ verbatim English journal and translation of his German journal. Williams also provides an excellent introduction and epilogue that fill in details of Hinrichs’ life before and after the war.
Born in Prussia, the infant Hinrichs emigrated to New York City with his parents in 1836. His mother died when he was 4, and his stepmother, Amalia Ehringhaus, from a large and successful North Carolina family, quickly immersed the boy in the culture and values of the South. Following a classical education in Europe, young Hinrichs returned to America in 1853 “a confident, ambitious, and idealistic man.” He quickly secured a position with the U.S. Coast Survey, mapping the shoreline from Virginia to Georgia.
News of First Manassas reached Hinrichs while he was mapping the coast of Maine. Determined to serve the Confederacy, he embarked on a clandestine and hair-raising threemonth journey that finally deposited him in Virginia on New Year’s Day 1862. He requested to serve with Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, and in May 1862 joined the general at Winchester. Hinrichs’ journal is full of candid opinions about the Confederate officers he encountered. Of Jackson he said: “In person, quiet, modest, diffident and unassuming…. Religious without fanaticism, without can’t [sic] and hypocrisy, he commands himself to the good will of man.”
The verbatim section of the journal contains shorter, more succinct entries that often provide details of daily life in the army. Hinrichs first voices his despair of the war in a May 22, 1864, entry written amid the battles around Spotsylvania Court House. “I am beginning to feel much depressed in spirits and energy,” he wrote. “I wish the war ended so I can take my leave….Our prospects for the future seem dark and blank.” His disaffection included the leadership of Robert E. Lee. “Lee does not seem disposed to crowd Grant away from his position,” Hinrichs wrote on June 11. “I am much afraid Lee is not the man for the times now, and has fritt[er]ed the opportunity away.”
Nevertheless, Hinrich remained at his post. When the Second Corps, now commanded by Lt. Gen. Jubal Early, marched north to the gates of Washington, D.C., Hinrichs went with it. Despite a victory at Monocacy, however, Hinrichs knew the invasion would fail. “Reached the front of Washington this noon,” he wrote on July 11. “Men very much exhausted by heat….Am afraid we shall miss our opportunity of getting in.” When the end finally came on April 9, 1865, Hinrichs declared, “May heaven give that I never have to go through another experience of this kind.”
After the war, Oscar Hinrichs continued his career as a mapmaker, first in New York and then in Washington, D.C. But the dark shadows of the conflict never left him. His postwar life foundered, and on September 19, 1892, he committed suicide. Richard Williams has brought him back to life through his vivid writings.
Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.