In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in 2011, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) has put together a historical collection of maps and documents prepared by the U.S. Coast Survey during the war.

The almost 400-piece collection, called "Charting a More Perfect Union," will be available free online through NOAA's Office of Coast Survey to researchers and those who may want to visit famous Civil War battlegrounds and areas in national parks.

"People are planning now for their visits to Civil War sites next year, and we want to give them an opportunity to visualize the terrain, ports and coasts as they were from 1861 to 1865," said Meredith Westington, NOAA’s chief geographer. "Most people wouldn’t think of turning to NOAA for historical Civil War documents, but the agency has an amazing legacy."

The Civil War collection has been pieced together since 1995, when the Office of Coast Survey began a project to save all the maps and charts they had by putting them online. The 394 pieces were culled from a collection that currently has more than 35,000 documents and is still growing.

The Coast Survey’s collection holds 394 maps, including nautical charts used for naval campaigns, and maps of troop movements and battlefields. Rarely seen publications include Notes on the Coast, prepared by the Coast Survey to help Union forces plan naval blockades against the Confederacy, and the annual report summaries by Coast Survey Superintendent Alexander Bache as he detailed the trials and tribulations of producing the maps and charts needed to meet growing military demands.

"We decided to highlight the collection because of the sesquicentennial. A lot of people don't know that the Office of the Coast has been around for 200 years," Westington said. "Before the USGS was formed, our agency was responsible for creating the geodetic system used to map the interior of the country as well as the coastline."

City of Washington map

A map of the city of Washington from 1858, this map appears to be a moonlighting effort by Petersen and Enthoffer, two long time Coast Survey employees. (Photo: Office of Coast Survey)

The database is there for those studying the Civil War, or even just the lay of the land during the 1860s.

"The collection is used by a variety of people for different purposes. Based on user feedback, we've heard stories that the historical images are useful for coastline or land change analysis, transportation route analysis, anthropological research (particularly during pre-Civil War and Civil War eras), ecological studies, geologic studies of ocean bottom features, and legal cases involving public and private land ownership rights," Westington said. "Beyond legal and scientific purposes, folks are also using the collection's maps and charts to support writing of fiction and non-fiction novels, book illustrations, home remodeling/decorating, and movie set design."

NOAA hopes that the collection will also enable people to be more informed when they go to these sites by not only making the maps available to the public, but also by making them easier to use.

"We've partnered with the National Park Service so that our maps are available to park-goers who are interested in re-enactments or other projects in the upcoming years,” said Dawn Forsythe, from the Office of Coast Survey. “So that while they are there, or before they go, they can envision what it was like during the Civil War. We have even used GPS data to match our maps to their various park locations."

The maps are available at: http://www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/history/CivilWar.

This article was reprinted with permission from OurAmazingPlanet.

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