First Battle of Manassas map in NOAA’s Civil War chart collection shows Confederate strategic advantage at Bull Run

July 20, 2011

Mitchell’s Confederate Commemorative map

Mitchell’s Confederate Commemorative map.

High Resolution (Credit: NOAA)

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s First Battle of Manassas, also known as the First Battle of Bull Run, offers an interesting peek into a significant advantage the Confederacy held over the Union Armies – better battlefield knowledge.

Maps and battlefield charts, highlighted this week as part of NOAA’s historic Charting a More Perfect Union map collection, played a significant role throughout the war. NOAA’s collection features two maps – one Confederate, one Union – of Manassas Junction, Va. and the surrounding area.

It was expected to be an easy Union victory – so easy that hundreds of people came to Prince William County, Va., now the site of suburban homes near Washington, D.C., to witness  what they expected to be a Union rout of the rebel forces in the first major land battle of the Civil War, July 21, 1861. Instead, it was a significant Confederate win that presaged a long and arduous struggle and where Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson earned his famous nickname when Confederate troops yelled, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall.”

The Confederate map, “Sketches of the Country occupied by the Federal & Confederate Armies on the 18th & 21st July 1861,” is significant not only because it shows the vital points of combat, but, as Jenkins Wilson, a history major at Washington & Lee University studying the collection as a summer project for NOAA, said, “It is a map that gives us a unique insight into a field relatively understudied – Confederate cartography.”

“Because the majority of the war was fought on Southern soil, Confederates enjoyed a significant advantage in knowledge of terrain and reconnaissance capabilities,” said Wilson, who also noted that Union Gen. Irvin McDowell fought the battle without a map and with very little knowledge of the terrain, except whatever could be gathered by covert reconnaissance. However, the thoroughness of this surveillance was often affected by Confederate patrolling in the area.

Sketched by CSA Infantry Capt. Samuel P. Mitchell of the First Virginia Regiment, the Confederate map was not used for intelligence, but rather was completed later and appears to be largely a commemorative piece focusing on the bravery of the 1st Virginia under Gen. James Longstreet. “The heavy part of this fight was made by the old First Regiment, so that it can well claim to have done more towards the success of First Manassas than any one regiment,” Gen. Longstreet wrote.

The map is the only one known to have been done by Capt. Mitchell.  

U.S. Coast Survey’s map.

U.S. Coast Survey’s map.

High Resolution (Credit: NOAA)

The second map in the collection also came after First Manassas battle but was for a very different purpose.  Entitled “Manassas Junction and Vicinity,” its creation began with Assistant Superintendent H. L. Whiting with the U.S. Coast Survey — the predecessor of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey — who wanted to correct further Union deficiencies in knowledge of terrain.  He directed Union Col. J. N. Macomb to make a survey of Manassas Junction in case of future military operations in the area. Working from March 27 to May 8, 1862, Macomb was assisted by “details of men for the work from the 88th PN and 101st regiment of NY volunteers,” according to notes Alexander Bache, U.S. Coast Survey’s second superintendent and the great grandson of Benjamin Franklin, made in the U.S. Coast Survey’s 1861 annual report to Congress.

The Union Army fought the First Battle of Manassas without a map and with very little knowledge of the terrain, a deficiency Whiting and the U.S. Coast Survey worked hard at correcting for the remainder of the war. “This map was ordered so that if another battle were ever fought around the strategically important Manassas Junction — which did happen in August 1862 — the Union would be better prepared,” said Wilson, the Washington & Lee University scholar. “Unfortunately, there is very little evidence that Gen. John Pope used this map, or Gen. McDowell’s experience from First Manassas, to his advantage. Historians have said he was gripped by ‘strategic tunnel vision.’ He desperately wanted to meet Gen. Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson on the field of battle, but he missed many opportunities to turn his larger army on other Confederate brigades.”

"Charting a More Perfect Union" is a NOAA Preserve America project, collecting electronic images of Civil War-era maps and charts for free use by the public. The collection, which includes U.S. Coast Survey products, as well as related maps discovered during NOAA archival searches, is a featured compilation among more than 35,000 electronic images available from the Office of Coast Survey's Historical Map & Chart Collection.

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