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Mapping Slavery

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Edwin Hergesheimer. “Map Showing the Distribution of the Slave Population of the Southern States of the United States Compiled from the Census of 1860.” Washington: Henry S. Graham 1861. Geography and Map Division.

According to the 1860 census, the population of the United States that year was 31,429,891. Of that number, 3,952, 838 were reported as enslaved. The 1860 census was the last time the federal government took a count of the Southern slave population. In 1861, the United States Coast Survey issued two maps of slavery based on the census data: the first mapped Virginia and the second mapped Southern states as a whole.

The landmark map of the Southern states provided a graphic breakdown of those census returns, specifically focusing on slave population per county as a percentage of the total population in the southern portion of the nation. Using statistical cartography, low percentages were shown in light grey while higher percentages were illustrated using more intense shading. This provided a dramatic representation of slavery across the region. The counties along the Mississippi River and in coastal South Carolina show the highest percentage of slaves, while Kentucky and the Appalachians show the lowest.

According to Susan Schulten, history department chair at the University of Denver, the map reaffirmed the belief of many in the Union that secession was driven not by a notion of “states’ rights,” but by the defense of a labor system. A table at the lower edge of the map measured each state’s slave population, and contemporaries would have immediately noticed that this corresponded closely to the order of secession. However, the map also illustrated the degree to which entire regions – like eastern Tennessee and western Virginia – were largely absent of slavery and thus potential sources of resistance to secession.

(Schulten spoke about the map at a Library of Congress symposium last year. You can view the webcast here.)

The Southern stages slavery map is a featured item in the “The Civil War in America” exhibition, opening next month, and has never before been displayed by the Library to the public.

This map was, by some accounts, consulted by Abraham Lincoln throughout the course of the Civil War. It even appears in the famous 1864 painting of the president and his cabinet, titled “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln,” by artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter — a print of which is in the Library’s collections.

Next Wednesday’s post will be the final spotlight on items from the exhibition. You can read about others in these previous blog posts:

Dear Diary

A Presidential Fundraiser

A Letter Home

A Grief Like No Other

The Bull Run of the West

Comments (7)

  1. Did the census report 3,952,838 as enslaved or as Negroes? How many Negroes did the census report as freed? Documentation exists that states between 1.5 million and 2 million of the 3.9 million Negroes had been freed by 1860. Please clarify these numbers.

    • Thanks so much for your interest. I’ve consulted a few of our exhibition curators in an effort to answer your question.

      The table summarizing 1860 census population figures, located in the lower right hand portion of the map, provides a total of “free population” of “8,289,953” and a “slave population” of 3,950,343. There are no statistics provided other than “free” or “slave.” A better image of the map can be linked to here or here

      There were two separate censuses in 1860; one representing the free population and another representing the slave population (listed by owner, not under their own names). Slaves were counted as 3/5ths of a person for the purposes of allotting congressional representation by population, thus making a separate slave schedule necessary. Free slaves would have been counted as part of the free population on the “regular” federal census. With two censuses, it would have been an easy matter for the creators of the map to differentiate the free population from the slave population.

      Also the map we’re discussing only cited 3.9 million slaves according to the 1860 census. The 1860 census is only one data set. You cite the numbers of slaves freed BY 1860, which would be an aggregate number of slaves freed anytime before 1860, which could potentially include a couple of centuries worth of slave emancipations, not just those counted in 1860. Slaves freed anytime by 1860 would be a second data set.

      And finally, according to “Appendix A: Negro and White Population of the United States in 1860” [compiled from the Census Returns of 1860] in James McPherson’s book, “Negro’s Civil War,” there were 3,953,760 slaves in the United States in 1860 and 488,070 free African Americans. So, though the numbers are slightly different, the 3.9 million figure on the map should refer to enslaved people — at least according to this source.

  2. I would love to see a larger version of this map. When I click on it, it opens in another window but stays the same size.

  3. You can find a scalable map of the 1860 distribution of the slave population from the 1860 census that you can zoom-in/zoom-out and move around at:

  4. If you take a map of the lands occupied by the various Native Americans like the Cherokee and Choctaw, you will note a very interesting geopolitical resemblance. In fact an overlay on this map will make it unquestionable. It will then explain why Jackson’s expansionism policies included driving the Native Americans out of the areas and across the Mississippi to the wastelands of the Oklahoma territory (the Trail of Tears). It was all about good cotton land, Ideal for such crops as cotton compared to the rocky territories of the northeast.
    They didn’t have to be too smart as entrepreneurs if they knew the history of Egypt and the Nile and Cotton, Which evidently they did.
    Their Christian based courts, of course, rationalized the taking of the land from the heathens and pagans.

  5. I’ve been reading a lot of posts mentioning the civil war. There’s been a lot of misunderstanding about the cause of the 1861-1865 civil war in America. First and foremost the issue was slavery.

    In the 1800’s America was expanding westward, Illinois was admitted to the union in 1818, Missouri in 1821, Kansas in 1861 and Nebraska in 1867. On the world stage slavery was ending in other countries, for instance in the UK (Britain) in 1833 with “The Slavery Abolition Act”. America made slave trading a felony crime in 1808 with the “Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves”. Wasn’t illegal to own slaves but you couldn’t import them. Anyone who could think could see the days of slavery were numbered.

    In the north the abolitionists held sway while in the south the agenda was to expand slavery in the new territories as they were admitted to the union. The Missouri compromise of 1820 by Henry Clay was designed to limit the expansion of slavery by defining physical boundaries limiting the spread of slavery north of latitude 36°30″ (36-30 or fight).

    As each western state was admitted to the union there was a fight between northern abolitionists and southern slavers in congress. The industrialized north versus the slave holding south. The 1% slave holders and the 99% non slave holding peoples.

    The Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854 overturned Clays Missouri compromise. The Kansas-Nebraska act practically guaranteed a war, pitting the industrial north against the agrarian south.

    Lincoln was elected president in 1860 as a compromise candidate. He wasn’t publicly anti-slavery or pro-slavery. He tried to walk a line between the two. His personal feelings were anti-slavery but he didn’t know how to express it without dividing the US. He had a vague idea black people should be relocated to either Africa or Panama. Neither plan was economically feasible. He submitted a plan to gradually free slaves by reimbursing slave owners with public funds in 1862 but that plan proved unworkable too. His personal mandate was to keep the union United at any cost.

    As the war dragged on he gradually saw the north was fighting to end slavery, not fighting for a compromise that would allow the country to be half slave and half free. Northern men were not signing up to fight and die to allow slavery to continue in the south. It became, unbidden by Lincoln, an all or nothing fight. The northern sentiment against slavery pushed Lincoln into the position of taking an anti-slavery stand in public with the emancipation proclamation of late 1862, issued in 1863.

    Lincoln tried mightily not to go against slavery where it existed already but he was backed into a corner where he had little choice but to take a stand. The stand he took though was within his personal feelings that slavery was wrong. He felt the time to talk comprise was over.

    In an economic sense it was about fairness. How does a person working on a farm or in a factory for x number of dollars an hour, week, month or year compete with a slave? Slave holders amounted to about 1% of the population. That 1% convinced the other 99% to fight for their cause. How? Because that 1% was economically powerful and most of the southern representatives and senators held slaves.

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