Weird History The Map That Helped Convince Lincoln Slavery Had To End  

Genevieve Carlton
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One image did more to end slavery in the United States than any other. It was the map Lincoln used to see slavery, and it changed the way Lincoln thought about the Civil War. 

Abraham Lincoln’s map of slavery was the 1861 U.S. Coast Survey Map. It drew on census data and used groundbreaking cartographic techniques to visually depict the four million Americans held in bondage in the Southern states. The map revealed which counties had the highest concentrations of slaves, as well as which parts of the Confederacy might be the least committed to the institution.

Lincoln relied on this snapshot map of slavery before the Civil War to decide how to end slavery. The map pushed him to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and it drove Union support for abolition during the darkest days of the Civil War.

In His First Inaugural Address, Lincoln Said He Wouldn't Interfere With Slavery In States Where It Already Existed


In His First Inaugural Address... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Map That Helped Convince Lincoln Slavery Had To End
Photo: Alexander Gardner/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In 1860, President-elect Lincoln had not even been sworn into office before a wave of Southern states began to secede from the Union. First, South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, followed in January by Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, seven states had vowed to leave the United States over the issue of slavery.

In his first inaugural address, Lincoln declared, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” But as time wore on, one map would play a large role in changing Lincoln’s mind.

Then, A Map of Slavery In The South Shaped The Civil War


Then, A Map of Slavery In The ... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Map That Helped Convince Lincoln Slavery Had To End
Photo: U.S. Coast Survey, 1861/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

This map, produced by the US Coast Survey in 1861, drew on census reports from 1860 – the last year that the US government collected census data on slaves. The map shows the prevalence of slavery by county, with darker counties representing a higher percentage of slaves and lighter counties a lower percentage.

The map was visual proof of the South’s dependence on slave labor. It also gave the public a way to visualize the variations of slavery throughout the South during the middle of the Civil War. And more importantly, President Abraham Lincoln relied on the map in deciding how to end slavery.

The Slavery Map Was A Radically New Way Of Mapping


The Slavery Map Was A Radicall... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Map That Helped Convince Lincoln Slavery Had To End
Photo: U.S. Coast Survey/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The US Coast Survey was largely responsible for mapping US coastlines and waterways – in fact, the act that created the agency, signed by President Thomas Jefferson in 1807, was called "An Act to provide for surveying the coasts of the United States."

A slavery map was not exactly in the agency’s job description, but that did not stop the US Coast Survey from producing a groundbreaking map in 1861 that shaped the course of the Civil War. The map relied on a new way to show population variations using shading. As the map explains, some counties “appear comparatively light,” because of low slave populations, while other areas showed a high concentration of slaves.

Parts Of Cotton Country Were Over 90% Slaves


Parts Of Cotton Country Were O... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Map That Helped Convince Lincoln Slavery Had To End
Photo: U.S. Coast Survey, 1861/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The 1861 Coast Survey map showed that in some counties, over 90% of the population was made up of slaves. Along the Mississippi River, slaves vastly outnumbered free whites. Many of these slaves may have reached the Deep South via the “slavery trail of tears,” which forced a million slaves to walk a thousand miles from Virginia to cotton country.

Lincoln had seen these very slaves when he traveled the Mississippi river in 1828 and 1831, transporting farm goods to New Orleans. But the urban South, like New Orleans, had a much smaller percentage of slaves – only 8.9% of the population in Orleans Parish, Louisiana, was made up of slaves, for example. The rest of the city was largely comprised of whites and free blacks. These numbers drove home the vastly different experience of slavery in Confederate cities and the countryside.