New Online, a NOAA Civil War Collection

How the U.S. Coast Survey Helped ‘Chart a More Perfect Union’

Gettysburg. Bull Run. Antietam. Famous places that instantly evoke a pivotal epoch in American history—the U.S. Civil War, fought between April 1861, when Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter, South Carolina; and April 1865, when Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Commander Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

So what does NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey, purveyors of nautical charts and other products important to the nation’s navigators, have to do with that bloody battle of ideology some century and a half gone by? More than you might imagine.

Use your mouse to explore the maps.

The Union used Coast Survey charts, such as this 1864 chart of the Mississippi River, to establish naval blockades that helped starve the Confederacy economically.

The Union used Coast Survey charts, such as this 1864 chart of the Mississippi River, to establish naval blockades that helped starve the Confederacy economically. Download (pdf, 3.6MB)

Preliminary chart of the seacoast of the U.S. from Savannah River to St. Mary

Preliminary chart of the seacoast of the U.S. from Savannah River to St. Mary's River, Georgia. Download (pdf, 5MB)

Nautical chart of the area near Alexandria, Louisiana.

Nautical chart of the area near Alexandria, Louisiana. Download (pdf, 3.2MB)

Military mapping by the Coast and Geodetic Survey, 1861-1865.

Military mapping by the Coast and Geodetic Survey, 1861-1865. Download (pdf, 2MB)

Observing a 150-Year Anniversary

As the nation prepares for the Civil War’s 2011 sesquicentennial, NOAA, with the support of the federal Preserve America initiative, has assembled a special collection of maps, charts, and documents prepared by the U.S. Coast Survey (a NOAA predecessor) during the war. The collection, called “Charting a More Perfect Union,” contains more than 400 documents now available online.

“People are planning now for their visits to Civil War sites next year, and we want to give them an opportunity to visualize the terrain, ports, and coasts as they were in those days,” says Meredith Westington, NOAA’s chief geographer. “Most people wouldn’t think of turning to NOAA for historical Civil War documents, but the agency has an amazing legacy.”

Coast Survey Circa 1860s

In the nation's early years, the U.S. lost more ships to accidents than to war. In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson established the Survey of the Coast to produce nautical charts for maritime safety, defense, and the establishment of national boundaries. By 1861, the U.S. Coast Survey was the nation’s leading scientific agency, charting its coastlines and determining land elevations from coast to coast.

Alexander D. Bache

Alexander D. Bache became Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey in 1843, and for more than 20 years steered the agency known as one of the birthplaces of modern American science. A leading scientist, author, and educator, Bache was a great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin.

In days of yore (before commercial mapping services), maps had particular military significance. As Coast Survey Superintendent Alexander Bache noted in his annual report dated November 7, 1862: “It is certain that accurate maps must form the basis of well-conducted military operations, and that the best time to procure them is not when an attack is impending, or when the army waits, but when there is no hindrance to, or pressure upon, the surveyors. That no coast can be effectively attacked, defended, or blockaded without accurate maps and charts has been fully proved by the events of the last two years, if, indeed, such a proposition required practical proof.”

Strategic Products Then and Now

The collection is comprised of 394 Civil War-era maps, including nautical charts used for naval campaigns and maps of troop movements and battlefields. Rarely seen ephemera include Notes on the Coast, which the Coast Survey prepared to help Union forces plan naval blockades that ultimately helped starve the Confederacy economically, and Supt. Bache’s annual summaries, which detail his staff’s considerable efforts to meet the military’s ever-growing demands for strategic Coast Survey products.

Notes on the Coast written in the handwriting of Alexander D. Bache

The past decade has seen the term “homeland security” evolve from one of little used bureau-speak into a meaningful phrase that interests virtually all Americans. Coast Survey’s role in the Civil War, followed by important contributions in the two World Wars, signifies NOAA’s strong heritage in national defense. Today, working with homeland security agencies in our ports, harbors, and coastal areas, NOAA is once again at the helm of strategic science as it strives to keep our nation’s borders strong.



For more information:

Chart a More Perfect Union:  Civil War Special Collection

NOAA and the Preserve America Initiative

History of Coast Survey

NOAA's Office of Coast Survey