Civil War: Surveying for Robert E. Lee

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  Article taken from "Backsights" Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society



This fascinating account of Confederate surveyors and mappers was excerpted from a memoir penned by Capt. Albert H. Campbell of the Engineer Corps;

"It is true that there were no maps of any account in existence at the time when General Lee assumed the command, that were of any use to the Army of Northern Virginia, June 1st, 1862.  Incomplete tracings or fragments of the old "nine-sheet" map of Virginia were probably all that our commanders had for guidance...

It is probably that weightier matters filled the minds of the higher authorities at this time, and that too much reliance was placed by commanders in the field on the efficiency of local guides, and the insane and ridiculous notion that was affected that one Southern man could lick three Yankees under any and all circumstances; and besides, our armies as yet had not had sufficient battelings and unnecessary losses of men, to develop the indispensable necessity of a more intimate knowledge of topographical details of regions over which troops must be maneuvered.  The march up the peninsula from Yorktown, the battle of Fair Oaks and Seven Pines, Jackson's collision with Hill's line of march from Mechanicsville to Gaine's Mill, and the whole seven days' campaign brought out this fact in strong colors, bloody colors, at Beaver Dam Creek.

One of the first things that engaged General Lee's attention on taking command of the army was the organization of some plan for procuring accurate maps for his own use and that of his commanders...On the 3rd or 4th of June, 1862, the writer was sought by Major Walter H. Stevens, chief Engineer of the Army at this time, and Major Jasper S. Whiting, his associate, and was informed that they had been sent from headquarters by General Lee to find a suitable person to take charge of a topographical organization...I was asked if I would undertake the duty...and my commission was received on June 6th.

Two or three surveying parties furnished with the necessary instruments were immediately organized and started from Richmond as a center, to radiate thence to the picket-lines of the army, from Meadow Bridge around to James River, each party taking an allotted section of that circumscribed space.  This work had not sufficiently far advanced to be of any use in June, for no part of the region beyond our lines was accessible to survey until June 30th, when orders were given to follow in the wake of our army and extend the surveys as fast and as far as possible.  The field work was mapped as fast as practicable, but as the army soon changed its location, more immediate attention was given to other localities.  Therefore, this map in question was dated 1862-63; it was not available as complete until the spring of 1863.

Other parties, soon after these first ones were started, were sent into Hanover and Spotsylvania Counties, and as fat as possible other parties, amounting in all to about thirteen, were formed and sent into other counties of Northern and North-Eastern portions of Virginia, until the course of time detailed surveys were made and at the close of the contest nearly all the work was mapped...

The general plan of operations was adopted of placing full parties in each county, and maps of each county thus successively surveyed in detail were constructed on a comparatively large scale, giving full credit to heads of field corps in the titles; and also general maps, one north and one south of the James River, were prepared on a smaller scale, preserving all the details.

So great was the demand for maps occasioned by frequent changes in the situation of the armies, that it became impossible by the usual method of tracing, to supply them.  I conceived the plan of doing this work by photography, though expert photographers pronounced it impracticable, in fact, impossible.  To me it was an original idea, though I believe not a new one, but not in practical use.  Traced copies were prepared on common tracing-paper in very black India ink, and from these sharp negative by sun-printing were obtained, and from these negatives copies were multiplied by exposure to the sun in frames made for the purpose.  The several sections, properly toned, were pasted together in their order and formed the general map, or such portions of it as were desired; it being the policy, as a matter of prudence against capture, to furnish no one but the commanding general and corps commanders with the entire map of a given region.

From this statement it will be seen that to General Lee is due the credit of promptly originating methodical means for procuring accurate maps, to supply the want that has been, by implication mainly, so unfavorable commented on.  Many maps that grace various memoirs, and personal recollections, and descriptions of campaigns and battlefields in Virginia have their basis in the maps made as above described, though accredited to others. " 'I could a tale unfold' in regard to some of these stolen maps, but cui bono?  Nil proprium ducas quod mutari potest."  --Albert H. Campbell, 1887


The role of Civil War surveyors and engineers was vital to the movement, encampment, and defense of all troops.  Their activities included reconnaissance, surveying, and mapping, designing forts and field fortifications, and the planning and layout of campsites, roads and bridges.

The 15th Regiment of Engineers was formed in April, 1861 by John McLeod Murphy, a civil engineer and New York State Senator.  Company A was recruited mainly in New York City, with the other Companies coming from Brooklyn, New Jersey and upstate New York.  By July, the Regiment had been mustered into Federal service and was encamped in Washington.

Although some of the officers were educated in military engineering at West Point, much of the activities involved a combination of on-the-job training and plain hard construction work.  Engineer officers carried sidearms for protection, but the enlisted men were armed only with their picks, shovels and axes.  Subsequently, the Civil War surveyor/engineer tended to head in another direction when the enemy was encountered; the Regiment lost only five men (of the original 3,100) in battle.

During its service, the 15th Regiment was attached mainly to the Army of the Potomac.  They participated in such engagements as the siege of Yorktown, the crossing of the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, bridging the James near Petersburg, and the battles of Malvern Hill, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Fort Fisher.

Today, the 15th Regiment is a not-for-profit, educational organization and re-enactment team.  The group was founded in 1985 to promote better public understanding of the Surveyor/Engineer's integral role in the Civil War.  Through the concept of living history interpretation, the group tries to accurately portray military engineering activities.  Topics presented at historical societies and living history events include camp layout, surveying, and bridge construction, all meticulously researched.




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