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Libraries Team Up for Online Civil War Maps

Civil War buffs, students and scholars have a new toy to play with.

The Library of Congress, the Virginia Historical Society and the Library of Virginia have launched a joint online project making their combined Civil War cartographic material available in one place for the first time.

“This is the first one we’ve done like this,” said Colleen Cahill, who coordinated the effort of the LOC Geography and Map Division to incorporate the works from the Historical Society and the LVA into the LOC American Memory Web site. “We’re hoping it will set a trend.”

The complete collection will include more than 2,800 Civil War maps, charts and manuscripts, depicting troop movements, reconnaissance and engagements. The works come from Confederate authorities and Southern publishers as well as Northern forces and firms.

Researchers and enthusiasts should be “delighted to have the kind of detail in these maps available,” LOC spokeswoman Helen Dalrymple said.

The Civil War is “consistently” among the most popular research topics, according to Conley Edwards, state archivist at the LVA. He noted that many of the maps on the site are manuscript maps, more unique and valuable than published maps, which would otherwise be impossible for researchers without immediate access to the library to see. “The project is designed in such a way that additional material can be added or links provided for textual information … how they related to what the next engagement was, how they fit into the war.”

The materials are augmented with a comprehensive essay on the “History and Mapping of the Civil War,” written by Richard Stephenson, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Missouri.

The Civil War is considered a turning point in the development of cartography, having necessitated the refinement of field survey, intelligence gathering and reproduction techniques. “In many cases, this was the first time any of these areas had ever been drawn,” Cahill noted.

Highlights of the collection will include the Robert K. Sneden Collection, the diary and scrapbook of a Union private with the Army of the Potomac. The pages, which contain battle plans and fortification detail Sneden often drew “on the scene,” were recently acquired by the Virginia Historical Society after spending several decades in a bank vault.

The Virginia group’s contributions are not limited to local material, however. Maps provided by the Historical Society extend as far as Gettysburg, Pa.

The manuscripts on the site were scanned and digitized by Systems Integration Group of Lanham, Md. The team was trained on the appropriate handling procedures, and special precautions were taken so that the pieces were not exposed to ultraviolet light.

By Thursday, 90 percent of the maps from the Virginia Historical Society and at least 60 percent of the material from the Library of Virginia is slated to be active on the site. Certain technical obstacles need to be overcome, but all of the material from the three collections is expected to be available online by April.

Edwards said the American Memory project was envisioned as an “ongoing” effort. “Just last week, someone gave us a Civil War-period map of Alexandria that was not in our collection,” he said, adding that acquisitions such as the Alexandria map could build up the catalogue as they were made available.

Cahill said the project could lead to other such collaborations in the future, not just limited to Civil War-era material. “We would be interested in talking to other libraries,” she said.

The material can be accessed on the Library of Congress American Memory Web site at civil_war_maps.

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