Exceptional Civil War map of Virginia and West Virginia from the U.S. Coast Survey

Compiled by W[alter] L. Nicholson / Lith. by Cha[rle]s G. Krebs, MAP OF THE STATE OF VIRGINIA Compiled from the best authorities and printed at the Coast Survey Office. Washington: United States Coast Survey, October 1864
Lithograph with overprinting in blue and red, 21 ¾”h x 35 ½”w at neat line. Dissected, laid on linen, and tipped into folder of marbled-paper over boards with affixed printed label. Map with minor soiling and dog-earing and folder a bit scuffed, but about excellent.

An exceptionally detailed map of Virginia and West Virginia, prepared by the Coast Survey for the Union Army in October 1864. The Civil War had turned decisively in favor of the Union, with Grant besieging Lee in Petersburg, Virginia since June and Sherman capturing Atlanta in September. This was the finest available map of the region, and copies would likely have been rushed to officers both at headquarters and in the field.

At the outset of the Civil War, it became apparent to the Union leadership that there were few reliable maps available of the likely theatres of war in the Confederate states. As the Fedeal Government’s most sophisticated mapping agency the Coast Survey was quickly recruited into the war effort, tasked with compiling the best available information, and creating up-to-date maps of the southeastern United States. By the standards of their time, the resulting maps were superbly detailed, providing commanders with essential data about the natural and human geography of the regions in which they were operating.

This map of Virginia and West Virginia is a fine example of the Coast Survey’s work. It is a compilation likely based on commercial and official sources including the Boye-Bucholtz map of Virginia (1859), the charting work conducted by the Coast Survey in the Chesapeake and on its tributary rivers, and field surveys conducted by Union engineers. The map places particular emphasis is placed on the transport networks essential to troop mobility and supply, with rivers and railroads highlighted with blue and red overprinting. Also of interest is West Virginia, admitted to the Union only in June 1863, its borders and name also highlighted in blue and red. Richmond, the ultimate target of Grant’s siege of Petersburg, is surrounded by concentric red circles at 10-mile intervals, fittingly placing it at the center of a massive bullseye.

Offered here is what I believe to be the final state of the map. It was first issued in 1862, though with significantly less interior detail and a somewhat different color scheme. It appeared again in 1863 and earlier in 1864, before this final edition appeared. All prior states of the map feature blue concentric distance circles around Washington, D.C., which have been removed from this edition.

Mapmaker Walter Lamb Nicholson (1825-1895) was a native of Edinburg, Scotland. After studying engineering he worked for a time at the London and Great Midland Railroad, then in 1851 moved to the United States and held railroad positions in Kentucky and Arkansas. No later than 1862 he was recruited to the U.S. Coast Survey, working under Superintendent Alexander Bache. During the Civil War the resources of the Coast Survey were redirected to terrestrial maps to support the Union Army, and Nicholson’s name appears on many of these. He worked in that agency until 1863, when at Bache’s recommendation he was brought into the Post Office Department as its Topographer. He worked there for 22 years and developed processes for the compilation, production and regular revision of postal maps covering (I believe) the entire United States and its continental territories.While well represented in American institutional collections, all editions of the map are extremely rare on the market. I find only an 1863 edition offered for sale by High Ridge Books in 1996 and an 1862 edition offered by Eberstadt in 1954.

In all, a scarce and important Civil War map, issued for use in the field as Grant was tightening the noose around Lee’s Army of Virginia. 

Phillips, Virginia Cartography, p. 74 (1863 ed.) Stephenson, Civil War Maps, #493.7. Not in Rumsey or Wooldridge, Mapping Virginia.