The NY Times, Maps, McClellan, and Yorktown

In today’s New York Times there’s a  terrific piece about Ball’s Bluff and maps – specifically, would accurate maps have prevented the fiasco.  We take detailed maps completely for granted today, if we think of maps at all with GPS and Google maps to do all the work now.  But maps – accurate maps – in the Civil War were precious commodities indeed.  What follows is fiction, of course, but based, as always, on fact – Union engineers did indeed use British maps – I suspect French too – at the, completely unnecessary, siege of Yorktown, 1862 version.

I recognized Albert Denton a quarter-mile away, so familiar was the casual stance of the officer standing atop a large pile of recently excavated slag, a map clutched in both hands, intently toward the rebel redoubts in the hazy distance.  I tethered Clio to a surveyor’s wagon and lurched up loose soil and looser rocks. 

Albert never moved despite the racket I made slip-sliding my way to him. “You get the sextant?” He asked whoever he thought I was.

“No, major,” I snorted to cover the fact I was winded, “I’ve come to make your full day a little fuller.”

“Christ, it’s you,” he continued to stare ahead.
“No, just me, William.”

“As witty as ever,” he sneered, turned to shake hands, stopped in horror, “Oh, you’ve got to be . . . . I don’t . . . . who . . . . you’re regular army? Same fucking rank?”

“Yup,” I answered jauntily, grabbed the limp hand for a completely unfulfilling shake, “but since we’re the only ones up here you don’t have to salute – – – huh, I always seem to be saying that to you, don’t I?”

“Well, you – – – “
“Unless you want to salute.”
“Oh, God, did McClellan do this to me?”

“Absolutely, he had me into his office, asked how best he could vex you, I suggested a brigadier-ship, we settled on a regular commission.”

He shook his head, accepted the fortunes of war, smiled a wicked grin, “Come up to see what the working men are doing?”

“Think we don’t work at headquarters?”
“Don’t think, know.”
“So,” time to change the subject, “Major of engineers, are congratulations in order?”
“They are, thank you.”
“What happened to the quick, combat path to an eagle or star?”

“Funny thing that, the call for engineers was desperate,” he waved a self-explanatory hand at the works around us, “West Point graduate, attached to the engineers in the Fifties, they begged me away from the infantry – gave me a promotion on the spot, promised the combat engineers would give me more than a fair shot at fame, fortune . . . pension.”

“Your perfect job description.”
“How could I decline?”

“How indeed,” I looked over his shoulder at a topographical map covered in thick geometric patterns, the outlines of redoubts, trenches, parallels, and traverses, “You make that?”

“’Course,” replied the best cartographer in the Class of ’46, hell, the best in the school, “but c’mon, I’ve got something to special to show you . . . especially you,” he moved quickly, surely, expertly down the crumpling pile like a land locked crab. I thudded behind him. We passed Clio, she turned away with disdain when she realized there was no potential for snacks, stopped at the surveyor’s wagon where Albert rooted through a mountain of files, papers and portfolios. He finally pulled out a leather map case case, opened it tenderly, and delicately pulled out an aged map.
“It’s in good shape,’ he intoned with reverence, “handle it gently.”

I took it, only its appearance was fragile, it was as stiff as plaster.  
It took a moment to realize what it was, that realization was dizzying:

I held a map made by one of Rochambeau’s engineers in 1781. While I took in the details, Albert answered the obvious question, “I got it in the archives in Washington – we didn’t have any current maps . . . shit, that’s wrong, we didn’t have any maps of the area at all. Then some bright light that amazingly wasn’t you figured out that three armies had already fought here, there had to be a bunch of maps somewhere.”

“They just handed it over?”
“Well,” he looked off toward the Confederate lines, “they did hand it to me . . . in a large pleasant room where they told me to take all the time I needed to copy it. Then they left.”

“Obviously, they did not know you.”
“Saw the maple leafs and made some basic assumptions,” he squinted, the better to suppress a grin.
“All proved wrong,” I smirked in return, “you have to protect this.”
“Oh, I am, believe me, don’t even like to pull it out in the sunlight, but I knew you’d appreciate this more than anyone I know.”
“Thank you for that.”

He shrugged, took the map from my hand, carefully placed it back in the case, “C’mon. I’ll show you what we’re doing.’ He headed back up the dirt hill, leaving me to scramble after him.


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