Mapping the Battlefield

Mapping the Battlefield
At the end of the Civil War, Union survey crews were busy in the field. Initially this effort was headed by Major C. W. Howell whose mission it was to “make surveys of Rebel lines in the Wilderness campaign from the Rapid Ann [Rapidan River] to Coal Harbor [Cold Harbor]”. The survey information was added to that derived from the army’s campaign maps and captured Confederate maps. The surveyors created maps of the battlefields of the Wilderness, Todd’s Tavern, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, and Totopotomoy Creek. These maps were published during 1865 and credited to Major James C. Duane, the Army of the Potomac’s chief engineer.

Nathanial Michler

Nathanial Michler

Major Nathaniel Michler assumed responsibility for completing the military surveys, following the reassignment of Bvt Brig Gen Duane as the Superintending Engineer in charge of the construction of defenses at the eastern entrance to New York Harbor in June 1865. Michler was an experienced topographical engineer intimately familiar with the work in the Army of the Potomac during the 1864-5 campaign. Under his direction, a broader survey was initiated in 1866 to map the major battlefields of the eastern theater. Major John E. Weyss headed the Virginia field work, which concluded in December 1867. This Michler-Weyss work was published in 1869 as the Atlas of Military Maps Illustrating the Operations of the Armies of Potomac & James. Many of the maps were later rescaled for inclusion in the Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. This is the standard reference for Civil War military maps. This work was reprinted by Arno Press in 1983, cited as the Official Military Atlas of the Civil War.
The combined efforts from the Duane-Howell and Michler-Weyss surveys are the best historic maps that exist of Virginia’s battlefields. They form the basis of many postwar memoirs or unit and campaign histories. The survey team had worked together during the closing years of the Civil War. It included civilians F. Thielkuhl, J. Strasser, Gilbert Thompson, H.F. French and L.C. Oswell. The National Archives has on file several field note books containing the background information that was incorporated into the published maps. Major Weyss employed a theodolite to triangulate features in and around the city of Fredericksburg. Elsewhere the surveyors used the theodolite sparingly, relying instead on the prismatic compass, on chaining, and odometer readings. Some distances were measured by pacing on horseback. In general, pacing was used in areas that were already well mapped, along farm lanes that did not require the highest degree of accuracy, or to fill in areas that were at the periphery of a battlefield but needed to “square off” the map.

Gilbert Thompson

Gilbert Thompson

Weyss’s party operated in military fashion, establishing a camp near the center of the area being surveyed and then moving on as work in the area was completed. Weyss recorded seven camps during this survey period. The camp which concerns us most in Fredericksburg was near Dr. Taylor’s property. This site is clearly marked on several of the survey book pages. The camp at Dr. Taylor’s was established on September 21, 1867.
The daily pattern of field survey is best illustrated by describing Weyss’s team work in the Fredericksburg area. The survey party established its camp in a wooded ravine near Dr. Taylor’s house just south of where the Orange Turnpike (modern William Street) descends from Marye’s Heights towards town. Here they pitched their tents beneath the trees and tethered their horses near a stream. Several orderlies and a cook unloaded equipment from the wagons and set up a drafting table to hold the master map for the survey. Weyss selected principal points for his triangulation survey, consisting of landmarks that would be visible from many places on the battlefield. One point was the spire of St. George’s Episcopal Church, which stands today on Princess Anne Street in downtown Fredericksburg. A second point was at the southern end of Marye’s Heights on Willis Hill, near the center of the National Cemetery, where he erected a signal flag for visibility. There were other key triangulation points as well.

This photograph was taken in 1862 at Yorktown, VA.  It shows a typical survey crew of the period. There is a mix of military and civilian members. They also proudly display some of their equipment; the theodolite on the left, the prismatic compass attached to the man’s belt on the right, and a survey table in the center.

This photograph was taken in 1862 at Yorktown, VA. It shows a typical survey crew of the period. There is a mix of military and civilian members. They also proudly display some of their equipment; the theodolite on the left, the prismatic compass attached to the man’s belt on the right, and a survey table in the center.

Weyss laid down a base line along the Sunken Road, from its intersection with William Street south along the foot of Marye’s Heights. It is interesting to note the care with which Weyss and his crew took to tie in the entire battlefield. After all, Fredericksburg is a battlefield that the Union forces left to the Confederates after they retreated across the river. The Union army did not really take a detailed interest in exactly where everything: churches, artillery positions, rifle pits, bridges or even streets were actually located. Yes, the Union occupied Fredericksburg for brief periods during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, the 1863 Chancellorsville Campaign and again as a hospital and logistics center for 1864 Wilderness and Spotsylvania portion of the Overland Campaign, but no real care was invested in laying out the battlefield as it actually existed until the Michler-Weyss period of 1867. By then there were important changes to some roads and other features that impacted the December 1862 battle. For instance, the National Cemetery had progressed to such an extent atop Willis Hill that any and all Confederate emplacements were obliterated within its boundaries. No record exists of anything that may have been there prior to the ground preparation for the cemetery. All traces of the Washington Artillery batteries for Miller (two guns) and Eshelman (four guns), as well as the enhanced rifle pits along the top of the ridge within the cemetery, were obliterated by the time the survey crew reached Fredericksburg. More on the artillery placement and impact upon the battle, as well as the cemetery development will be covered in future posts.
Weyss mapped “Rebel rifle pits” along the heights. Thompson mapped the street grid of the town. On the 27th of September, Weyss mapped between Marye’s Heights and the city and recorded the area east of the Sunken Road in detail.

Sept 27 1867. Survey of front of Marye’s Hill. This was one of a dozen similar field survey note pages made while the survey crew was in Fredericksburg.

Sept 27 1867. Survey of front of Marye’s Hill. This was one of a dozen similar field survey note pages made while the survey crew was in Fredericksburg.

Great care was taken to sketch individual buildings and fence lines, cornfields and meadows, entrenchments and battery positions, and to note what appears to be a “burial camp” near the site of the Joseph Hall habitation, and by extension, the present day National Park Service visitor center. By the 30th of September, Weyss and crew departed Fredericksburg, never to return. It is not always easy to decipher the field books of the different surveyors, to discern where each was working or the base maps they were using, or to read their cryptic notes. The records are incomplete. Many of the details noted in the field books were not transferred to the published maps. In some cases, farms or house sites were not labeled with the resident’s name. Buildings depicted as unnamed symbols sometimes were differentiated in the field books as houses, barn, stable, or tannery. Open ground might be noted as field, cornfield, meadow, or marsh.
Weyss contentiously strove to capture the landscape on paper. The maps he and his fellow surveyors created would become the topographical landscape for all subsequent narrative histories of the battlefields. Human memory is flawed, especially that created under extreme duress, the angst of battle hotly contested. Many participants can be forgiven if their memory was incomplete, especially when written ten, twenty or thirty years following the events being portrayed.
Today, we have the mapping, official reports, and first person accounts to go on. We have skilled historians who pour over the many details to attempt to make sense of the record, however imperfect those records might be. Several early authors provided sketch maps of the battle action as they saw it. Most of these have, at their heart, ground truth as the soldier remembered, most of these reflect the narrowness of vision of the soldiers’ experience. Some distortions occur. Other authors went to official sources to refresh their memory.
Charlotte Street Extension
The Michler maps are an invaluable resource in what they show and don’t show. One of the mysteries that have troubled me over time is what I term “the Charlotte Street extension”. First, some background. The deed that documents the creation of the Fairgrounds or Mercer Square clearly lays out that the developers and city fathers intended that Charlotte Street descend the hill behind the city, cross the canal ditch and possibly provide a second or alternative entry to the fair. The deed for the Fairgrounds read in part;
“…and the parties last named above do hereby and for consideration herein before mentioned, also grant with general warranty unto the Mayor and Commonalty of the Town of Fredericksburg, the ground which will be occupied by three avenues or streets leading to the said ten acre lot, as follows, viz; one [Mercer Street] sixty feet in width leading from the Turnpike afore said to the lot; another fifty [Fair Street] one feet in width connecting with the said lot with the Courthouse Road, the location of both of which avenues or streets shall be fixed and determined by the proper authorities of the said Town; and the third also fifty one feet in width shall be a prolongation or extension of Charlotte Street [emphasis added] to the said lot and the said William Mitchell with hereby, for consideration here-in-before mentioned, grant with general warranty unto the said mayor and Commonality of the Town of Fredericksburg the ground which will be occupied by Charlotte Street extended fifty one feet in width through the land purchased by him of J.W. Whittemore and Peter Goolrick and Hay B. Hoomes, the ground hereby conveyed to be occupied by avenues or streets is to be held by the said Mayor and Commonalty of the Town of Fredericksburg as public highways, in Trust for the free use and enjoyment thereof by the public and for all such uses and purchases and with the same control over, rights as to and powers hereto appertaining and none others, as appertain to the streets of the said Town, which have also been dedicated as public highways….”
According to many historians this Charlotte Street extension and a bridge over the canal-ditch or mill race did not exist at the time of the December battle. The area adjacent to the canal ditch was low ground and subject to flooding in the rainy season. Interestingly, the city strategy during this time appears to be laisse-faire when it came to building streets. Clauses such as “provided however that nothing herein contained shall be construed to prevent the owners of land within the Corporation limits of said town from opening such streets as they may deem proper upon their own lands” can be found in city council minutes of the period. The city would agree on the alignment but not build.
The Michler map published in 1867, by default, shows what existed during the battles of Fredericksburg (December 1862 and May 1863). It is incorrectly interpreted by many authors, to include civil war veterans. This map displays the Charlotte Street extension as the survey team saw it in 1867. The unintended consequence of this topographical misunderstanding is to cause diarists, authors and historians of the battle to possibly draw incorrect conclusion,s as well as sketch their maps with invalid information. I provide four such examples below. The three streets discussed above Mercer-Weedon-Charlotte, make a distinctive zig-zag when looked at on a map. The first two streets form boundaries and a corner between them for the Fairgrounds or Mercer Square. Charlotte joins Weedon Street at an odd acute angle of approximately 70 degrees.

Portion of Michler 1867 Map with field survey pages highlighted

Portion of Michler 1867 Map with field survey pages highlighted

While Mercer Street likely was an unimproved cart track, it is very doubtful that Weedon Street existed at all at that time. Attendees to the fair, in the absence of a bridge over the canal-ditch on the Charlotte extension, would have been required to traverse Hanover Street and then enter the fairgrounds via Fair Street or to cut across country to the intended Charlotte Street on the west side of the canal-ditch. There is some evidence of this informal path existing in this classic 1864 photograph taken from Federal Hill which I have used many times in this blog.


Portion of Michler 1867 map with Charlotte-Weedon-Mercer Streets highlighted

Portion of Michler 1867 map with Charlotte-Weedon-Mercer Streets highlighted

Clearly, both participants in writing their memoirs, relied upon to the 1867 official map of the campaign, were misled, as are current day mappers who also depend upon the Michler map. Here are four such examples; Thompson, Bowen, McCarter and Marvel.


But time and man do not stand still. Despite the war-torn nature of Fredericksburg, in the five years following the battle, half of which were following the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox, someone in the city may well have pushed through the Charlotte Street extension in some form.

City of Fredericksburg April 1867 map drawn by CM Braxton

City of Fredericksburg April 1867 map drawn by CM Braxton

By April 1867, the city completed a mapping of the streets as well as major property lines. On May 28, 1867, CM Braxton, city surveyor, formally submitted his map to the city council. The Braxton map, which reflects the expansion of the city’s western boundary to just short of Marye’s Heights, appears to be aspirational the further west it goes from the older portions of the city. It includes the three streets Mercer-Weedon-Charlotte but also Spotswood Street. You will note the layout of the 1856 Caldwell Tract map [see earlier blog] including the Fairgrounds known as Mercer Square, with the curious zig-zag of made by the Mercer-Weedon-Charlotte Street alignment. To add to the confusion, on the same day that the Braxton map was submitted, in May 1867, a petition was submitted to the town council which requested that “… The bridge on Charlotte Street over the canal, commonly called Marye’s race, should be rebuilt…” This petition, signed by several members of the city council and important land owners who would be directly and favorably impacted by the proposed action. The mayor referred the petition to the Street Committee with instructions to have it built if in their judgment it was expedient.

May 28, 1867 petition to City of Fredericksburg requesting Charlotte Street bridge

May 28, 1867 petition to City of Fredericksburg requesting Charlotte Street bridge

One could speculate as to when a bridge was originally built? The petitioners talk of it being rebuilt. It is very hard to imagine this being done during the war given the depressed nature of the community and for what purpose? It was not done between the time of the deeding in 1855 or platted in 1856 and the start of the war, or at least not until following the December 1862 battle, if the accounts of that time are to be taken at face value. By the time the Michler-Weyss survey crew arrived on the scene in September 1867, something had been done. The field survey notes shown above as well as the completed Michler map, and the city map all agree that Charlotte Street with its bridge over the canal was an accomplished fact. Or was it? Maybe the Charlotte Street bridge was simply a foot bridge? By May 1868, the city sold its ten acre Fairground in an attempt to cut its losses and regain solvency. The Fairground eventually would be broken up and subdivided. The Fair when it reopened would be located south of Hazel Run.
Lowe, David W., From the Rapid Ann to Cold Harbor, Post-War Topographical Survey of Civil War Battlefields, PDF March 18, 2004.
Thompson, S. Millett, Thirteenth Regiment of New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865; A Diary covering Three Years and a Day. Boston, 1888. Pg 62.
Bowen, Charles T., Dear Friends at Home, The Civil War Letters and Diaries of Sergeant Charles T. Bowen, Twelfth United States Infantry, First Battalion, 1861-1864, Ed. Edward K Cassedy, 2001, Butternut and Blue, Baltimore. Pg 202.
McCarter, William, My Life in the Irish Brigade, The Civil War memories of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry,Ed. Kevin E O’Brian, Savas Publishing Co, Campbell, CA, 1996, Pg 170.
Marvel, William., Race of the Soil, The Ninth New Hampshire Regiment in the Civil War, Broadfoot Publishing Co, Wilmington, 1988, p 95.


About Peter Glyer

I am retired with a lifelong interest in history, primarily the Civil War and WWII - Europe. I was an Army engineer, hence my interest in terrain. I graduated with a degree in City and Regional Planning and a Masters in International Relations.
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4 Responses to Mapping the Battlefield

  1. Pingback: George Rowe House | Mercer Square

  2. brananreport says:

    Mr. Glyer, with the recent assistance of Mr. Eric Mink, I am continuing to collect information that you or others may have that is significant to the site/terrain of the old Jennings House. The house is now located just up the street on the corner of Willis and Lafayette St. I found your map indicating (Lot No.22) depicted on the 1858 Fredericksburg tax record as possible being the James Jennings, Jr. property. Eric attached an entry from Noel Harrison’s 1995 book Fredericksburg Civil War Sites: Volume Two. I am looking for images or sketches that possibly identify this house on Commanders Battle plans on either the Confederate or the Union side. Any information would be helpful.
    v/r, Pete B.


  3. Pingback: Washington Artillery (part 1) | Mercer Square

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