In 1861, the federal government’s foremost scientific agency was the U.S. Coast Survey, managed by Alexander Bache, the grandson of Benjamin Franklin. Charting the coasts, recording the tides, measuring the heights of mountains and the depths of harbors, Coast Survey had the information that was desperately needed by military and naval forces during the Civil War.
“That no coast can be effectively attacked, defended, or blockaded without accurate maps and charts, has been fully proved by the events of the last two years, if, indeed, such a proposition required practical proof,” observed U.S. Coast Survey Superintendent Alexander Bache in 1862.
The firing on Fort Sumter, 150 years ago, thrust the U.S. Coast Survey into a new role.
Cartographers produced visionary maps, including a pivotal “slave density” map, that used census information to graphically link slavery with succession. On land and on the sea, accompanying generals and admirals, the men of Coast Survey conducted reconnaissance – often under fire – and provided the maps, charts, and expertise that was crucial during the nation’s darkest hours.
NOAA, the agency that is the successor to the U.S. Coast Survey, has pulled the historical maps and charts together. Those documents are available today, free to the media and to the public, at one location on the web: http://www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/history/CivilWar.