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Places in Civil War History: Tensions in Northern Virginia and Defending Washington

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.

As the nation moved towards an increasingly inevitable “war between the states,” both Union and Confederate forces continued to mobilize. Northern Virginia, today a bustling suburban region was part of a state that had seceded from the Union, and Washington, D.C. was the capital of the United States. Fairfax County, Virginia was home to Confederate forces and sympathizers while Washington was turning into a heavily defended town. It was only a matter of time before skirmishes and large scale battles broke out.

In early June 1861, several minor skirmishes between Union and Confederate forces occurred near Fairfax Court House and Arlington Mills in eastern Fairfax County, Virginia. An anonymous manuscript map of Fairfax County found among the Papers of Jubal Anderson Early, a Colonel in the Army of the Confederate States of America, which shows the major settlements, streams, and roads in the county. It is likely that Early acquired or used the map in connection with the movement of forces prior to the July 21st engagement at Battle of First Manassas/Bull Run.

Fairfax Sketch

“Sketch of eastern portion of Fairfax County, Va., June 1861.” [Anonymous] 1861. Transferred from the Jubal Anderson Early Papers in the Manuscript Division. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Military forces operating in unfamiliar territory relied on local inhabitants for information and supplies. As seen on F.F. Mead’s manuscript Map of part of Fairfax County, Virginia…, the names of landowners in Fairfax County are followed by either an “S” or “U”. While the map does not include information on the abbreviations it is likely that they refer to either the “Secessionist” or “Unionist” sympathies of the landowner.

With regional tensions on the rise, it became necessary for the U.S. Government to begin preparing the defenses of Washington, D.C. In 1857, Albert Boschke, a German born civil engineer, had published his Map of Washington City, District of Columbia, seat of the federal government: respectfully dedicated to the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of North America which showed, for the first time, the location of every structure in the city as of the publication date.

Following the publication of the 1857 map, Boschke and his surveyors continued surveying the entire District of Columbia, sometimes referred to as the “ten mile square,” which resulted in his landmark Topographical map of the District of Columbia. Published in 1861, near the outbreak of the war, this very detailed map showing the locations of all the structures in the city was a potential threat to the security of the entire city, the seat of the federal government.

Boschke Topographic

“Topographical map of the District of Columbia” Albert Boschke 1861. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

According to an 1894 article by Marcus Baker in the National Geographic Magazine, Boschke sold his interest in the map to the publisher, David McClelland. Shortly after publication, representatives from the War Department seized the original manuscript and copper plates from which the map was published to prevent dissemination of the map.

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