Charting a More Perfect Union

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) now offers many Civil War era maps, charts, and notes on-line as part of an exhibit titled “Charting a More Perfect Union.”  For those studying coastal and ravine operations in the war, these resources are a gold mine.

Established in 1807, US Coastal Survey, one of NOAA’s predecessors, had the responsibility of charting navigation routes and defining boundaries along the nation’s coast.  With the outbreak of the Civil War, the knowledge of the coastal waterways became an important planning factor for military operations – be they blockading or offensive landings.  NOAA’s Civil War site offers many primary documents to illustrate the Coastal Survey’s work during the war years.  Informational pages further interpret the the sources, including a short biography of Alexander Dallas Bache, superintendent of the Coastal Survey during the war years.

With this collection, NOAA offers both an organizational history with the valuable primary resources.  Not are the maps and charts presented for reference, but also the story behind the Survey’s operation and to some extent how the maps and charts were created.  Bache’s annual summary reports detail the Survey’s operations and activities.  This is an important angle to consider.  Often researchers will view a period map and assume the survey team derived the depiction after standing on or viewing the ground.  That is not always the case.  While “authentic” not all period maps are “accurate.” In the case of the Survey’s work, Bache explains where and when teams checked bouys, made soundings, and charted channels.

One fine point of order here, however.  Maps are not charts and charts are not maps.  Sort of look the same, both being depictions of the earth’s surface features.  NOAA has a very good explanation of the two tools.

NOAA’s search system is intuitive for anyone familiar with web-based search tools and well tagged.  Returns appear in easy to read arrays.  But pay attention to the “Year” column, as the returns do not automatically filter to just “Civil War” collections.  You may be looking at a more recent survey map than expected.

NOAA offers the historical maps within a Flash based viewer.   For download artifacts are in SID or JPG format.   I found the maps in the Flash viewer easy to navigate.  But the jump screen is in the way of those looking to use portions of the map as illustrations (like here on the blog).  The SID format offers the highest quality, but requires a browser plug-in (see LizardTech’s site).  The JPG format is easy for most to download and view, but of less quality.

Another consideration, while JPGs may be directly imbedded in most html based editors, SIDs cannot.  But the raw JPGs require additional editing and handling before really useful to illustrate a point (such as indicating where the wartime waterways ran in a particular area).

Savannah River Entrance 1851

Yes, in the “overview” this appears more a set of “dots” on the wall.  If you click on the image, depending on the zoom tools in your browser, the fine details appear.   On the lower left and right are navigation notes.   Lots of rich, fine details that I like to wade through!

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