Famed 1861 map of the distribution of slavery in Virginia

Drawn by E[dwin] Hergesheimer / C. B. Graham lithr., MAP OF VIRGINIA Showing the distribution of its SLAVE POPULATION from the CENSUS OF 1860. Washington, DC: Henry S. Graham, June 13, 1861.
Lithograph, 19”h x 26 ¾”w at neat line plus margins, uncolored. Ink presentation inscription at lower right, with an explanatory note in same hand at center right. Washed to reduce discoloration along right edge, now with only very faint traces of soiling. Irregular tear at center-left edge mended and upper-left corner reinstated with facsimile to neat line. The restoration work expertly done and invisible only on close inspection.

A landmark use of thematic mapping to present U.S. census data. Intended to demonstrate the wildly uneven distribution of slaveholding in Virginia and thereby influence the secession debates of 1861.

The map depicts Virginia and its counties in outline, with a figure in each county indicating the number of slaves as a percentage of the overall population, from 0% in far northern Hancock to 74% in Nottoway. Each county is also correspondingly shaded, with each shade indicating a particular decile (So, for example, the darkest shade is reserved for the two counties with slave populations between 70 and 80%, and white for those below 5%.) The data is taken from the United States Census of 1860 and represents the first attempt in this country to use census data as the basis of a thematic map (Schulten, pp. 6-7). The novelty of the technique is reflected in a rudimentary error, pointed out by at least one observer, in which “the percentages of slaves in many of the counties are incorrect [i.e., too high] because the tabulation omitted free blacks from the county totals.”

The map’s shading makes exquisitely clear that slaveholding was heavily concentrated in Virginia’s eastern and southern counties, whose geography was far better suited to a plantation economy than that of the mountainous western part of the state. During the crisis of 1860-61 the intensity of slaveholding in the eastern and southern counties correlated rather strongly with secessionist sentiment, whereas the western counties tended pro-Union. Susan Schulten has suggested—and I concur—that the map was designed to capitalize on this fact and influence the secession debate in Virginia:

“The map sends two mutually reinforcing messages about the crisis in Virginia. First, it made undeniable just how much slavery divided the interests of Virginians along geographical lines. Second, the shading of the state largely matched the divisions regarding secession, with lighter areas as comparative strongholds of unionism and darker areas sympathetic to secession.” (Schulten, p. 21)

Supporting this view is the date printed on the first edition of the map: June 13, 1861, just weeks after Virginia’s voters had ratified secession and while the fate of its low-slavery, more pro-Union western counties hung in the balance.

At the August 1861 Second Wheeling Convention, many of these counties voted in turn to secede from Virginia and rejoin the Union. The edition of the map offered here reflects this event, with a dashed border added to separate the western counties, which are now collectively labeled “Kanawha”. After a long political process, this new state was admitted to the Union as West Virginia in 1863.

The actual influence of the map is impossible to assess. It does however seem to have had rather wide distribution among influential Unionists, as evidenced by this example, which bears a presentation inscription from William Robert Palmer of the Topographical Engineers to Hamilton Fish, previously Governor of New York (1849-50) and a Senator from 1851 to 1857. Palmer also presented copies to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Chief Engineer of the Army Joseph Gilbert Totten, and French charge d’affaires M. de Geoffrey (Apparently, Palmer in one case identified himself as the author of the map!) (Schulten, “The Coast Survey maps of slavery: new discoveries!” at mappingthenation.com.)

Publication history
Though the map was copyrighted by commercial lithographer Henry Graham, it has the stark, functional appearance of a government publication, with the lettering of the title in particular reminiscent of the work of the U.S. Coast Survey. Indeed, it almost certainly was a Coast Survey production: At lower right it is signed in print “Drawn by Edwin Hergesheimer,” one of several German emigres working for the Coast Survey in the Civil War era. Further, Coast Survey Superintendent Alexander Bache was a staunch abolitionist and Unionist who later became a leader of the United States Sanitary Commission. That organization’s mission—“for the benefit of the sick and wounded soldiers” mirrors the map’s assertion that it was “Sold for the benefit of the sick and wounded of the U.S. Army.”

Stephenson and McKee suggest the map was “printed in several editions in 1861.” I know of at least three, with the map offered here an example of the second. The first edition makes no mention of Kanawha. The second, offered here, adds a printed border delineating the western counties and labels them “Kanawha,” implicitly endorsing their secession from Virginia. The third edition, though still dated June 13, 1861, bears a certification by the Census Superintendent Kennedy dated September 9, 1861.

Presumably building on the success of the Virginia map, also in 1861 Hergesheimer produced a Map Showing the Distribution of the Slave Population of the Southern States, which like its predecessor was sold to help fund the care of sick and wounded soldiers.

A most significant example of thematic cartography, produced with an eye toward shaping events at a critical juncture early in the Civil War.

Grim and Block, Torn in Two, pp. 25-28. Phillips, Maps of America, p. 989 (June 13, 1861). Stephenson and McKee, Virginia in Maps, pp. 192, 211. Wooldridge, Mapping Virginia, #140 (p. 149). Not in Phillips, Virginia Cartography or Stephenson, Civil War Maps. Excellent background from Susan Schulten, “The Cartography of Slavery and the Authority of Statistics,” Civil War History, vol. X no. 1 (March 2010), pp. 5-32.