Susan Schulten, writing at the New York Times, has a short piece on two maps of slavery issued in 1861 by the United States Coast Survey, an organization that Schulten describes as “arguably the most important scientific agency in the nation at the time.” Her piece shows how the production of these maps may have shaped both the popular perception of the South and some of Abraham Lincoln’s policy decisions.
It is also, I might add, an incredible teaching tool, especially in its digital form as presented by the Times. I plan to use it in my U.S. Survey course and in my Civil War America course.
Here is a taste of Schulten’s essay:
The map reaffirmed the belief of many in the Union that secession was driven not by a notion of “state rights,” but by the defense of a labor system. A table at the lower edge of the map measured each state’s slave population, and contemporaries would have immediately noticed that this corresponded closely to the order of secession. South Carolina, which led the rebellion, was one of two states which enslaved a majority of its population, a fact starkly represented on the map.
Conversely, the map illustrated the degree to which entire regions—like eastern Tennessee and western Virginia—were virtually devoid of slavery, and thus potential sources of resistance to secession. Such a map might have reinforced President Abraham Lincoln’s belief that secession was animated by a minority and could be reversed if Southern Unionists were given sufficient time and support.
The map quickly caught the public’s attention, and was reproduced throughout the war. Its banner headline, “for the benefit of the sick and wounded soldiers,” also became the slogan of the Union’s most important homefront organization, the United States Sanitary Commission. The map gave a clear picture of what the Union was up against, and allowed Northerners to follow the progress of the war and the liberation of slave populations.
We don’t know when Lincoln first encountered the Coast Survey’s map of slavery. But he became so taken with it that Francis Bicknell Carpenter included it in the lower right corner of his painting, “President Lincoln Reading the Emancipation Proclamation to His Cabinet.” Carpenter spent the first six months of 1864 in the White House preparing the portrait, and on more than one occasion found Lincoln poring over the map. Though the president had abundant maps at his disposal, only this one allowed him to focus on the Confederacy’s greatest asset: its labor system. After January 1, 1863—when the Emancipation Proclamation became law—the president could use the map to follow Union troops as they liberated slaves and destabilized the rebellion. Lincoln was enthusiastic about Carpenter’s finished portrait, and singled out the map as one of its most notable details.
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