Cartographers and surveyors performed in the heat of battle
As the nation prepares to observe the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in 2011, NOAA has assembled a special historical collection of maps, charts, and documents prepared by the U.S. Coast Survey during the war years. The collection, “Charting a More Perfect Union,” contains over 400 documents, available free to the public.
In the nation's early years, the U.S. lost more ships to accidents than to war. In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson established the Survey of the Coast to produce the nautical charts necessary for maritime safety, defense, and the establishment of national boundaries. By 1860, the United States Coast Survey was the government’s leading scientific agency. Teams of men were surveying coastlines, determining land elevations, and producing maps and nautical charts for an expanding nation experiencing growing trade relationships between states and with other countries.
U.S. Coast Survey goes on a war footing
Under Coast Survey Superintendent Alexander Bache, the agency was quick to apply its resources to the war effort. In addition to setting up additional lithographic presses to produce the thousands of charts required by the Navy and other vessels in government service, Bache made a critical decision to send Coast Survey parties to work with blockading squadrons and Armies in the field. Bache detailed these activities in his annual reports to Congress.
Bache was also one of four members of the Union’s blockade board, planning strategy to essentially strangle the South, economically and militarily. On April 16, 1861, President Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring the blockade of ports from South Carolina to Texas. Bache’s Notes on the Coast provided valuable information for Union naval forces.
In the centuries before Google Earth, maps in wartime had special military significance. As Superintendent Alexander Bache pointed out in his annual report, on Nov 7, 1862:
“It is certain that accurate maps must form the basis of well-conducted military operations, and that the best time to procure them is not when an attack is impending, or when the army waits, but when there is no hindrance to, or pressure upon, the surveyors. 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.”
Today’s Coast Survey honors its forebears
Today, the Office of Coast Survey still meets its maritime responsibilities as a part of NOAA, surveying America’s coast and producing the nation’s nautical charts. To honor its legacy and to inform the public, Coast Survey maintains a digital Historical Map & Chart Collection, with over 21,000 maps and charts from 1747 to 2001. The collection also maintains historical Coast Pilots.
Coast Survey’s collection includes 394 Civil War-era maps, including nautical charts used for naval campaigns, and maps of troop movements and battlefields. Rarely seen publications include “Notes on the Coast,” prepared by Coast Survey to help Union forces plan naval blockades against the Confederacy, and the annual report summaries by Superintendent Bache as he detailed the trials and tribulations of producing the maps and charts needed to meet growing military demands.
The Civil War special collection is accessible through a searchable database at http://www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/history/CivilWar.
This project was supported by the NOAA Preserve America Initiative, part of Preserve America, a federal initiative to preserve, protect and promote our nation's rich heritage.