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Fine Maps

Panorama of War

A little-known artist created an enduring bird’s-eye view of the Civil War’s bloodiest battle By Jeffrey S. Murray Jeffrey S. Murray is a former Senior Archivist with Library and Archives Canada.

Located at the mouth of the Potomac River, the former Point Lookout resort became the home of a Union hospital (in the foreground), a tent garrison (at the top of the peninsula), and a palisaded prisoner-of-war camp. Some 50,000 Confederate soldiers were housed in the prison, which was originally built for 10,000. Although George Everett’s bird’s-eye view has some wonderful detailing and exquisite colors, the print hides the unsanitary conditions the prisoners endured. Courtesy of the Library of Congress cw0257000.

Carrying little more than a pocket notebook and pencil, John Bachelder spent three months slogging across the war-ravaged Gettysburg battlefield. Arriving less than a week after the battle, Bachelder was determined to sketch “every acre of ground—the fences, houses, trees, the undulations—all the ruination so accurately that anyone who was in the Battle will be able to indicate the locality at a glance.” Such detail would help when he interviewed convalescing soldiers about their positions and movements throughout the bloody, three-day ordeal. Some of the walking wounded accompanied him and gave vivid accounts of their role in what one contemporary newspaper identified as the epic struggle “on which hinged not only the destinies of the United States, but … the welfare of the human race.”

Bachelder’s Gettysburg Battle-Field was endorsed for its accuracy by no less than twelve federal officers who had participated in the campaign, four local professionals, and the commanding general of the Army of the Potomac, George G. Meade. Courtesy of the Library of Congress 01158u.
To truly appreciate Bachelder’s attention to detail is to examine the print under magnification. This enlargement shows the battle for Culp’s Hill southeast of the town of Gettysburg. Courtesy of the Library of Congress 01158u-detail.
The bird’s-eye view of Alexandria, Virginia, by Charles Magnus (ca. 1863) has its vanishing point set well above the horizon so the viewer can see buildings in the background in detail, including the distant tent camps and fortifications. The effect gives the mistaken impression that the landscape is tilted. Most post-war bird’s-eye views would follow this convention.Courtesy of the Library of Congress pm009504.

Working around rotting corpses and unexploded ordnance, Bachelder worked in haste, but not without precision as he was creating the groundwork for what would be his latest, and probably most important, bird’s-eye view. His earlier works, up to thirty-five in total, were colorful, compelling views of pre-war cities and towns in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and to a lesser extent Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont. His views combined the creativity of the artist with the accuracy of the cartographer. With a bit of skillful marketing, Bachelder’s lithograph of Gettysburg would prove equally successful and would soon be found in parlors and offices throughout the nation and overseas.

When bird’s-eye print making first began in the 1830s, most views “were drawn in the manner of traditional landscape painting,” writes historian John Reps. The artist selected a position with a minor elevation—perhaps a church steeple or a nearby hill—set up an easel and painted what he saw. With a vanishing point set on the horizon, only the roof lines of distant buildings could be captured. However, by the 1850s artists had learned that by moving the vanishing point higher in the sky, the printmaker would be able to capture more distant features to the same level of detail as those in the foreground. The oblique angle preserved horizontal placement, but in perspective rather than at true scale. More importantly, the lofty standpoint offered an aerial view of the landscape long before flight was feasible. Since it was a view that most folks had never seen, it must have been very attractive if for no other reason than its uniqueness.

Some four hundred views were created in the three decades leading up to the Civil War—proof that bird’s-eye lithographs had found a comfortable niche with American consumers. And as it turned out, it was one they would continue to enjoy even after the war. By the time the fad faded four decades later, American printmakers had added another 4,000 views to their inventory. The art touched on some 2,400 places and was produced in at least a dozen centers.

The intent of the bird’s-eye war artist was to capture as much detail of the conflict as possible. But not so much detail that viewers might be revolted by what they saw. A battle might be raging—troops are lining up, officers are urging them on, and canons are spewing their deadly fire—but there are no dead to be seen, and damage to the landscape is minimal. According to the bird’s-eye artist, war was an antiseptic affair conducted by well-equipped and well-organized armies.

Following the exchange of gunfire at Fort Sumter and the mobilization of forces into a full-out Civil War, Bachelder and many of his colleagues refocused their energies to the production of views that were mostly supportive of the Union Army: large panoramas of battlefields, the seizure of important military installations, and the portrayal of urban centers and their preparations for war.

No doubt this temporary move to war themes was a good business decision. Prior to the war, the market for a bird’s-eye print was primarily limited to the residents of a single town or city. A print of one of the Civil War engagements, on the other hand, could be marketed to all the participants, which for a major battle like Gettysburg included armed units from just about every county and every state in the Union. John Bufford was among the first to recognize the potential that frontline troops offered. His maps showing Sherman’s campaign of 1864 advertised for sales agents “in all the camps throughout the loyal states.” Obviously, the Boston lithographer was hoping his prints would become popular mementos to send back home so families could follow the war’s progress. William Schaus’ bird’s-eye of The Seat of War in Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware was presented to troops with the same idea in mind when it was identified as “invaluable to those who would understand the accounts of the various movements of troops.”

The great expansive battlefields of the Civil War necessitated setting the bird’s-eye view at higher elevations than pre-war urban printmakers used. Bachelder’s Gettysburg print, for example, encompassed about fifty square miles, while John Bachmann’s seven lithographs in his Panorama of the Seat of War took in about 20,000 square miles each. At least one editor likened Bachmann’s views to one of Thaddeus Lowe’s balloon rides. “If one could take an aerial voyage … over the entire seceded [C]onfederacy, he could scarcely gather more connected and serviceable idea of the territory than is thus presented [by Bachmann].” Although the oblique perspective may have created the illusion of a balloon ride, in reality it was higher than what nineteenth-century balloonists could achieve.

When Bachelder’s print was finally distributed to subscribers in late 1864, it immediately caught everyone’s attention. The Reading Times’ enthusiasm for it was endemic. “The position of every regiment is accurately laid down,” wrote the editor, “so that any person can form a clear idea of its position during the three days of fighting. A glance shows the whole field and will give a better idea of it than can possibly be had by going over the ground in person.” In another column, the editor called it “a work of great national importance and of peculiar interest to every patriotic Pennsylvanian.” The Harrisburg Times agreed, identifying it as “the most perfect battle field drawing ever published.” The Wilkes-Barre Semi-Weekly Record went so far as to predict that “it will make war-worn veterans fight the battle o’er again.”

Not surprisingly, a print of such standing commanded a premium price. Most mid-nineteenth-century bird’s-eye views cost from one to five dollars, but a version of Bachelder’s Gettysburg printed in one tint on light paper sold for eight dollars, and a multi-tinted version in watercolor, on heavy paper, sold for sixteen dollars. To help market such an expensive product, Bachelder sought and received endorsements on the map’s accuracy by high-ranking Union officers of the day, which he then used in newspaper advertisements and on the map itself.

Preparing the Gettysburg bird’s-eye view had a profound effect on Bachelder. Although he was only thirty-eight at the time of the battle, he never undertook another perspective drawing. Lest the sacrifices made by approximately 50,000 soldiers at Gettysburg be forgotten, he devoted his remaining forty years to writing guides and histories of the site. Supported in part by a $50,000 appropriation from Congress, Bachelder became an ardent force behind the site’s preservation as a national monument. His bird’s-eye view continues to amaze even to this day. It recently played a central role in a major rehabilitation of the battlefield by the National Park Service.

Jeffrey S. Murray is a former Senior Archivist with Library and Archives Canada.