Exploring Civil War Era Maps



Washington DC 1861-Donald Rumsey Map Collection


I have loved maps since I can remember. In our attic, I recall us having a topographical map of the Appalachian Mountains stretching from Alabama up into the Northeast. I can remember tracing my finger up and down the small, but jagged surfaces of the map, learning the cities and the geography. Of course, even since then (Roughly 15 years ago…geez time flies!), maps have evolved and transformed. They have now mostly been converted to digital formats, like Google Earth,  which display everything from views of one of your old neighbor’s yards, to terrain burned from a forest fire in California. There is also new content emerging, like Hypercities, which allows users to travel back in time to view and explore different cities through layers.

I decided to explore David Rumsey’s map collection, an exhaustive amalgamation of maps, and truly a great waste of time for someone as map-obsessed as myself. I explored a map of Washington DC in 1861 that displayed individual buildings, vegetation and even the names of some homeowners. My first observation was that the cities population was mostly concentrated in present day Southwest DC, and many of the homes found on the map were either in Georgetown or the Capitol Hill area. Much expansion around the city had not yet occurred, and Alexandria it seems, which definitely had a large residential and commercial population at this time, was not accounted for.

I also delved into the relationship between the construction of railroads and the growth of slavery through looking at maps from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The maps analyze the strong relationship between the two, and in fact, as the article highlights, slaves were even used in the construction of railroads that actually contributed for the need for more slaves. As one President of the Mississippi Central Railroad articulated in 1855 to his stockholders:

“I am led to the irresistible conclusion, that in ease of management, in economy of maintenance, in certainty of execution of work & in amount of labor performed & in absence of disturbance of riotous outbreaks, the slave is preferable to free labor, and far better adapted to the construction of railways in the south.” (UNL)


A map from UNL showing the amount of slave owners in the Southeast by county.


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