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Places in Civil War History: Virginia Geography

This is part of a series of guest posts from Ed Redmond, Cartographic Specialist in the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, documenting the cartographic history of maps related to the American Civil War, 1861-1865. The posts will appear on a regular basis.

As both land and sea clashes between Union and Confederate forces occurred with more frequency, it became clear that, at least in the early stages of the war, Virginia was to be a major battleground. The geography of Virginia, as outlined on the accompanying maps, unwittingly played a role in the Civil War.

Virginia was the northernmost state to formally secede. Its state capital, Richmond, became the capital of the Confederate States of America and was located just 90 miles from Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States of America. In between the two cities lay the Potomac River which flowed into the Chesapeake Bay, the outlet to the Atlantic Ocean. Consequently, either city (Richmond or Washington) was potentially vulnerable to attack.

In 1861, the thirty-nine counties we know today as the state of West Virginia were part of Virginia. Harper’s Ferry, located at the junction of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers was a strategic location as the powerful force of the two rivers converging provided a unique opportunity to power waterwheels and turbines and was instrumental in the creation of the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal.

The Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains stretch southwest past Harper’s Ferry and, eventually, to the Cumberland Gap. Between the two lay the Shenandoah Valley which became an important battleground and highway during the Civil War.

Birds eye view of Maryland and Virginia

“Birds eye view of Maryland and Virginia.” S. N. Gaston and Company, 1861. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Virginia’s geography also played an important role in the American Revolution. The best example occurred in southeastern Virginia where Continental forces led by General George Washington, with assistance from both French infantry and naval forces, trapped the British Army on the Yorktown peninsula, the last military action of the American Revolution.

In 1862, the same peninsula between the James and York Rivers would play a critical role in Peninsula Campaign, the Union attack and Confederate defense of Richmond.

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