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New Report Tells of U.S. Coast Survey Scientific Role in the Civil War

The U.S. Civil War was a time of fierce political argument and unspeakable human tragedy. For the American scientific community, it was also a time of innovative advancements.

In a new NOAA Office of Coast Survey report, The U.S. Coast Survey in the Civil War, Dr. John Cloud explores the challenges as the agency’s hydrographic and topographic survey parties prepared for war. Using exquisite images of historical sketches, Cloud goes on to explain how the Survey’s scientific processes and creative applications led to landmark improvements in the nation’s mapping capabilities.

The U.S. Coast Survey was the major scientific agency in the U.S. government during the war, developing the information and tools needed by the Union to successfully prosecute the conflict. This report draws on the contemporary sources of the time to explain the processes, and the personalities, that contributed to the developments.

For instance, Cloud explains, the U.S. Coast Survey resorted to some “creative” strategies to prevent information from falling into rebel hands during the first year of war. One such effort surrounded the production of the Notes on the Coast, a series of booklets that gave the Union Navy information on the strategic significance of coastal features.

“To ensure secrecy, the Government Printing Office was bypassed,” Cloud writes. “Instead, the Notes were written in clear cursive writing, not typeset, and then lithographed on the new lithographic presses that Survey headquarters bought expressly for the war effort.”

Cloud discusses Coast Survey’s little known involvement in the drawing of the incredible “slavery maps,” that graphically explained to northern audiences the extent of Southern reliance on slavery. He explains how the Survey created new processes to “meet the increased calls for charts arising out of exigencies of the war,” as stated by the leading lithographer of the era. He touches on the introduction of chromo-color technique, raising intriguing considerations of whether Coast Survey maps used color codings to influence social relations in the North.

With the country’s four-year observation of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, historical investigations of the role of the U.S. Coast Survey hold much promise for presenting historical cartography, hydrology, and topography in stories that can be appreciated by public audiences. Cloud’s report is a fascinating start.

The U.S. Coast Survey is NOAA’s predecessor organization, formed by President Thomas Jefferson in 1807. Today, NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey continues to conduct hydrographic operations and produce nautical maps and the U.S. Coast Pilot for the nation.

John Cloud, a historian at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, earned his Ph.D. in cartographic history at the University of California – Santa Barbara.

This report, and the Office of Coast Survey project, Charting a More Perfect Union, are supported by the NOAA Preserve America Initiative, part of Preserve America, a federal initiative aimed at preserving, protecting and promoting our nation’s rich heritage.

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