As the scientific federal office that has provided the nation’s navigational charts and services for two centuries, we probably shouldn’t offer (strictly personal) reviews of the (absolutely phenomenal and deeply moving) movie, “Lincoln.” However, after seeing the movie this weekend, we would be remiss if we failed to note the (gorgeous) set designs that show the walls of the White House Cabinet Room and war offices covered with U.S. Coast Survey maps.
Especially prominent, over the shoulder of (marvelous) actor Daniel Day-Lewis, playing the (brilliant and compassionate) Lincoln, was the slave density map that influenced public opinion in the North and guided many of Lincoln’s military decisions, and the map of the State of Virginia.
Those maps, and hundreds more, can be explored in the special historical collection of maps, charts, and documents prepared by the U.S. Coast Survey during the war years. The collection, “Charting a More Perfect Union,” contains over 400 documents and is available free to the public.
U.S. Coast Survey was essential to the Union cause
President Thomas Jefferson established the Survey of the Coast in 1807 to produce the nautical charts necessary for maritime safety, defense, and the establishment of national boundaries. By 1860, the United States Coast Survey was the government’s leading scientific agency. Teams of men were surveying coastlines, determining land elevations, and producing maps and nautical charts for an expanding nation experiencing growing trade relationships between states and with other countries.
Under Coast Survey Superintendent Alexander Bache, the agency was quick to apply its resources to the war effort. In addition to setting up additional lithographic presses to produce the thousands of charts required by the Navy and other vessels in government service, Bache made a critical decision to send Coast Survey parties to work with blockading squadrons and Armies in the field. Bache detailed these activities in his annual reports to Congress.
U.S. Coast Survey cartographer Edwin Hergesheimer created the 1861 map showing the density of slave population in the Southern states.
Bache was also one of four members of the Union’s blockade board, planning strategy to essentially strangle the South, economically and militarily. On April 16, 1861, President Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring the blockade of ports from South Carolina to Texas. Bache’s Notes on the Coast provided valuable information for Union naval forces.
In the centuries before Google Earth, maps in wartime had special military significance. As Bache pointed out in his annual report, on Nov 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.”
Today, the Office of Coast Survey still meets its maritime responsibilities as a part of NOAA, surveying America’s coast and producing the nation’s nautical charts. To honor its legacy and to inform the public, Coast Survey maintains a digital Historical Map & Chart Collection, with over 30,000 maps and charts from 1747 to 2009. The collection also maintains historical Coast Pilots.
The “Charting a More Perfect Union” project was supported by the NOAA Preserve America Initiative, part of Preserve America, a federal initiative to preserve, protect and promote our nation’s rich heritage.