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Mapping the Civil War with W&L History Student

When an alumnus first asked him to spend part of his summer immersed in Civil War maps, Washington and Lee University senior Jenks Wilson wasn’t sure what to expect.

A senior with a double major in history and philosophy from Charleston, S.C., Wilson said his historical interests initially lay in the antebellum period. He did take the Spring Term course on Civil War battlefields taught by history professor Holt Merchant, but, he said, “I didn’t really have a Civil War background.”

He does now.

Wilson is interning with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as part of its Preserve America project, “Charting a More Perfect Union,” which is collecting electronic images of Civil War-era maps and charts for free use by the public.

Ben Sherman, a 1975 graduate of Washington and Lee, has been working on the project as a public affairs specialist with NOAA. When Sherman needed research help, he contacted Merchant, who had been one of his W&L professors. Merchant, a 1961 graduate of W&L, put Sherman in touch with Wilson.

“One of the challenges of making this map collection available to the general public has been finding additional details into the significance of the various charts — who were the people that drew them, how were they used and then trying to match what was in the collection with what happened 150 years ago,” said Sherman.  “While somewhat of a history buff myself, I didn’t have the time in my work schedule to do a lot of research in this area, but also recognized that, for NOAA, the Civil War Sesquicentennial  represented a greater opportunity for wider exposure of this collection than we would ever have — hence, my reaching out to Dr. Merchant.”

On the 150th anniversary this month of the First Battle of Manassas, also known as the First Battle of Bull Run, NOAA issued a news release that highlighted Wilson’s work on two maps — a Confederate map sketched by an infantry captain of the First Virginia Regiment, Samuel P. Mitchell, and a Union map developed with the U.S. Coast Survey, the predecessor of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey.

“My work has been all about who, what, when, where and why regarding these maps,” said Wilson, who divides his time between a paid job at the newly reopened Southern Inn, in Lexington, and his voluntary internship with NOAA.

Once NOAA assigned him the two Manassas maps, Wilson began looking for any information he could find in W&L’s Leyburn Library.

“I found a good book in W&L’s Special Collections about the First Virginia Regiment, which was Capt. Mitchell’s regiment,” said Wilson. “Since the Confederate armies had a home-field advantage and knew the terrain, it was rare to have a map from the Confederate side, which makes this a particularly significant map.

“As I looked at the map and read about both the battle and the First Virginia Regiment, it was apparent that this was not a map designed for military intelligence. In the first place, it would be unlikely for an infantryman to produce such a map; that would have been left to the engineers. The regiment played an extremely important role in the battle, so it became clear to me that this was a map that had been created after the event and was designed to commemorate the occasion.”

Mitchell’s map includes notations about how the battle was waged, where casualties were taken, and where the Union forces were deployed.

The Union map, titled “Manassas Junction and Vicinity,” was also created after the battle but, said Wilson, had clear strategic implications. It was commissioned because the Union Army was unprepared for the terrain.

“In the first battle, Gen. McDowell did not have a map. He ordered reconnaissance, but it wasn’t very effective,” said Wilson. “The Union wanted their reconnaissance to be in secret, but the Confederates were patrolling the area heavily, so they did not have a very good idea of where they were or where they were going.”

Although the Union map that Wilson examined was designed to correct the disadvantage for a second battle, the soldiers did not use it effectively, in Wilson’s view.

“I found little evidence that Gen. John Pope used this map. Instead, you see many instances of Pope’s having opportunities to turn his forces on smaller Confederate brigades in the area but failing to do that,” said Wilson. “Pope’s chief objective was to get Gen. Jackson. I came across an excellent description of what was called Pope’s ‘strategic tunnel vision’.”

With the Manassas maps behind him, Wilson is moving on to examine maps of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and the Battle of Ball’s Bluff.

NOAA based its “Charting a More Perfect Union” project on a collection that includes U.S. Coast Survey products as well as related maps discovered during NOAA archival searches. More than 35,000 electronic images are available from the Office of Coast Survey’s Historical Map & Chart Collection, and 440 maps are in the Civil War chart collection.

“Geography was a huge part of the war, obviously,” said Wilson. “And we don’t have a lot of information on the maps and charts. A lot of the information that they had was from reconnaissance, but looking at these maps gives us another insight into the battles that we didn’t have before.”

“Jenks has been real delight to work with,” Sherman said. “He is very much a self-starter, a thorough researcher and an excellent writer. I think it has benefited both NOAA and him. He has explored in depth some unique records of the war while also learning a bit about NOAA and the process of clearing news releases in the federal government. This has possibly opened the doors to new interests.  I know there is strong interest in our Office of Coast Survey, where there was some initial hesitancy on my idea, it has been received very well across the agency and by the Civil War Sesquicentennial  and cartographic press.”

Wilson hopes to continue his work on the maps during his upcoming senior year, and perhaps beyond.

“Between this project and the Civil War battlefields course, I have a greater understanding of and appreciation for this era,” said Wilson. “It’s been a valuable project.”