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Places in Civil War History: Surveys of the Gulf Coast

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This is part of a series of posts documenting the cartographic history of maps related to the American Civil War, 1861-1865. The posts will appear on a regular basis.

From the early years of the Civil War, field and harbor surveys, topographic and hydrographic surveys, reconnaissances, and road traverses conducted by Federal cartographers led to the publication of countless thousands of manuscript maps. In his annual report for 1862, the Superintendent of the Coast Survey noted:

upwards of forty-four thousand copies of maps, charts, and sketches have been sent from the office since the date of my last report–a number more than double the distribution in the year 1861, and upwards of five times the average annual distribution of former years. This large and increasing issue of charts within the past two years has been due to the constant demands of the Navy and War Departments, every effort to supply which still continues to be made.

By 1864, the number of maps and charts printed during the year reached 65,897, of which more than 22,000 were military maps and sketches. Large numbers of maps also were compiled and printed by the Army’s Corps of Engineers. In 1864, the Chief Engineer reported that 20,938 map sheets were furnished to the armies in the field, and in the final year of the war this figure grew to 24,591.

“Sketch showing the positions of the beacons on the Florida reefs.” United States Coast Survey 1861. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The great demand for maps and charts could not have been met were it not for the introduction of two lithographic presses in the Coast Survey office in 1861. Previously, the Survey, like most other Federal mapping agencies, was dependent upon the laborious and time-consuming process of printing maps from engraved copper plates. Because of the ease in transferring manuscript data to stone, the versatility of the process, and the speed of the lithographic presses, reliance on lithography grew rapidly during the war. By 1863, the Superintendent reported that “two lithographic presses have been kept in constant operation throughout the year, and such has occasionally been the pressure on the division that it has been found necessary to employ other lithographic establishments in the execution of special jobs.” To help satisfy the Federal government’s printing demands, commercial firms such as Julius Bien and Company in New York, and Bowen and Company in Philadelphia were hired to print the needed maps.

Two examples of the important work of the United States Coast Survey are shown here. The first chart, issued in 1861, is an “unfinished proof” edition entitled Preliminary chart of the northwestern part of the Gulf of Mexico. Notes on the chart indicate that “portions of this chart where no soundings have yet been made by the Coast Survey, they have been taken from the Admiralty chart of Gauld’s survey made in 1764 to 1771.” In other words, some of the soundings on the chart had not been updated in nearly 100 years.

Preliminary Chart, NW Gulf of Mexico
“Preliminary chart of the northwestern part of the Gulf of Mexico. Unfinished proof.” United States Coast Survey, 1861. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

With the outbreak of the war it became crucial that charts, wherever possible, be updated. In 1863, only two years later, the United States Coast Survey issued a smaller scale chart entitled Gulf coast of the United States; Key West to Rio Grande which covered the same geographic area as the 1861 chart. Many of the soundings, as well as extensive information on navigable bottoms, had been updated in the intervening two years. Additionally, the plate from which the 1863 chart was printed was an “electrotype,” which represents an advancement over the traditional preparation of copper plates used in printing nautical charts.

Gulf Coast Key West to Rio Grande
“Gulf coast of the United States; Key West to Rio Grande.” United States Coast Survey, 1863. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.
Florida Keys Lighthouses
Detail of lighthouses and soundings along the Florida Keys from “Gulf coast of the United States; Key West to Rio Grande.” United States Coast Survey, 1863. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

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