Historic Civil War Coastal Survey Documents Online

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in 2011, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has assembled a 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, available free from NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey website.

Coast Survey’s collection includes 394 Civil War-era maps, including nautical charts used for naval campaigns, and maps of troop movements and battlefields. Rarely seen publications include Notes on the Coast, prepared by Coast Survey to help Union forces plan naval blockades against the Confederacy, and the annual report summaries by Superintendent Bache as he detailed the trials and tribulations of producing the maps and charts needed to meet growing military demands.

In the nation’s early years, the United States lost more ships to accidents than to war. In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson established the Survey of the Coast to produce the nautical charts necessary for maritime safety, defense and the establishment of national boundaries. By 1861, Coast Survey was the government’s leading scientific agency, charting coastlines and determining land elevations for the nation. Today, the Office of Coast Survey still meets its maritime responsibilities as a part of NOAA, surveying America’s coasts and producing the nation’s nautical charts.

In his annual report on Dec. 15, 1861, Coast Survey Superintendent Alexander Bache wrote, “it has been judged expedient during the past year to suspend usual foreign distribution” of reports on the progress of maps and charts. Distribution of maps, charts, and sketches almost tripled in the 1861 “due to the demands of the War and Navy Departments.” However, because the Coast Survey could not easily ascertain the loyalties of private citizens, private distribution of maps was severely restricted among “applicants who were not well known having been referred to the representative of the congressional district from which the application had been mailed.”

The Civil War special collection is accessible through a searchable online database.

Illustration: Map of the Battlefield of Chickamauga. U.S. Coast Survey cartographers traveled with Union forces to produce battlefield maps during the Civil War. Courtesy NOAA.

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