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W&L Student Maps Out the Past

Washington and Lee senior Jenks Wilson, a double major in history and philosophy from Charleston, S.C., spent the past summer conducting research for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as part of its Preserve America project, “Charting a More Perfect Union.” That project collects electronic images of Civil War-era maps and charts for free use by the public.

Back in July, NOAA issued a news release about Jenks’ work on two maps connected with the First Battle of Manassas, also known as the First Battle of Bull Run.

This week, stories about two more maps in the NOAA collection have been released and include Jenks’ interpretation. These maps of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson were created after Union forces led by Ulysses S. Grant captured the two Confederate forts guarding river passage from Kentucky into Tennessee’s northwestern border.

The backstories are fascinating since, as Jenks concludes, disputes over tactical approaches combined with personal mistrust between Grant and Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck led to their creation.

In the case of the Fort Donelson map, Jenks wrote: “The disagreement over tactics and Halleck’s mistrust in Grant is what prompted Halleck to send engineer, Lieutenant Colonel James B. McPherson, into Grant’s service. With initial instructions to report on Grant’s drinking habits, McPherson would prove indispensable to Grant’s reconnaissance.”

Both the Fort Donelson map and a second map, a sketch showing the relative positions of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, were created after Grant won an unconditional surrender of Fort Donelson in February 1862.

Jenks concluded, “These maps further solidify the fact that the Union was disadvantaged relative to the Confederates in waging war on Southern soil.  It would take resourceful officers like Grant to overcome these disadvantages and push the Federal army on the offensive.”

Jenks got involved in the project after W&L alumnus Ben Sherman, of the Class of 1975, asked for a recommendation of a student to help from Holt Merchant, professor of history at W&L and a 1961 alum himself. Ben is a public affairs specialist with NOAA.

You can read a story about the Fort Donelson and Fort Henry maps on this website, and all of the maps are on NOAA’s Charting a More Perfect Union site.