Saturday, May 16, 2009

Maps to Follow Your Civil War Ancestors' Travels and Travails

I said in my introductory post last night that I plan to be "all over the map -- sometimes literally" in this blog. Today I am all over the map -- or the maps!

This afternoon my husband and I made the trip out to the Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island, east of the city of Jacksonville (though it's all Jacksonville, really) to hear Dr. Aaron Sheehan-Dean, associate professor of history at the University of North Florida, speak about his new book, Concise Historical Atlas of the U.S. Civil War.

First, a disclaimer. I am a History and Spanish major at the University of North Florida, and I have taken two courses from Dr. Sheehan-Dean. One was Craft of the Historian, an excellent course required of all history majors, in which we learn how history is done and why we do it that way, according to current standards of methodology. The other was Civil War and Reconstruction, in which Dr. Sheehan-Dean used many of the maps he developed for the book.

Enough prelim. What about the book, and what value does it have for family historians?

When we think about books of Civil War maps, we think of depictions of this or that campaign or battle, of where the troops were moving, of who was advancing and who retreating. Dr. Sheehan-Dean has a goodly assortment of those in this book, of course. However, he also has -- along with one-page explications which offer insight into what it is the map shows us -- maps of the territorial expansion of the U.S. from the original 13 colonies to 1853, agricultural production, distribution of industrial capability, movements of refugees, and patterns of dissent both north and south, and a great deal more.

The battle maps are clear and well-drawn. Dr. Sheehan-Dean did these maps himself, basing them on some of the original cartography done for the war and now available in the compilation of official records generally termed The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies put together by the U.S. War Department after the war and published in a huge multi-volume set. He used a geographical imaging software which allowed him to strip away "layers" of the maps (topography, roads and railroads, rivers, etc.) and thereby clarify what these often-cluttered old maps had to offer. He then used Adobe Illustrator to produce the final products. Many of the social-data maps, such as the agricultural production map or the map showing the distribution of industry, are so fine that individual counties within states can be easily discerned.

The descriptive material that accompanies each map is, in keeping with the book's title, concise, packing a lot of information into one page. But don't stop with what Dr. Sheehan-Dean says about the maps. He himself would ask that you think of ways to interpret their data and meaning which provide the best use to you. He calls these maps "open texts," that can be interpreted in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes.

We family historians can use the maps and interpret them in light of our own family experience. For instance, Dr. Sheehan-Dean's map number 30 shows dissent in both the north and the south. He discusses, among other factors, such events as northern draft riots and southern resistance to conscription, which many thought had a class bias as they saw wealthy planters either avoiding it altogether or being allowed to pay for substitutes.

To illustrate the value of this map to a family historian, application to my own family is relevant. Dr. Sheehan-Dean mentions strong Unionist feeling in eastern Tennessee in relation to this map. My mother's people, the Nave family, were mainly Union sympathizers in that part of Tennessee. Like most families in the area and many families across the land, they were divided on the subject. As I think of the family and look at this map, I wonder what lines of inquiry would bear fruit for me in finding out more about the Nave family and putting them in their proper context of time and space. Newspaper accounts, local histories, and other published accounts such as diaries might provide information. The Official Records Dr. Sheehan-Dean mentioned, and other government documents, might also have some background about Union sentiment in the area.

Did any of my Nave forbears serve in the Union forces? For them, I might want to research to see if there is a pension file or service record at the National Archives. Did any of them serve in the Confederate forces? For them, I might check with Tennessee's state archive, and possibly in other southern states nearby, as well.

All of this brainstorming represents what can be spurred by just looking at the map and reading the brief narrative, and thinking of other ways in which the map might be informative. Especially useful in limning our ancestors' lives is the fact that we can pinpoint in many of these maps the very county where the ancestor's family lived. That allows us to get an idea of the impact a particular factor may have had in our ancestor's life and that of his (or her) family.

Visualizing where our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers may have been, and what social, economic, and political forces would have been acting on them, can be of great value to our family history. I recommend that family historians take a look at where Dr. Sheehan-Dean's maps might take them.

Sheehan-Dean, Aaron. Concise Historical Atlas of the U.S. Civil War. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). $21.95

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