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The Map That Helped Convince Lincoln Slavery Had To End

Updated July 8, 2020 1.3m views11 items
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One image did more to end slavery in the United States than any other. It was the map through which Abraham Lincoln saw slavery, and it changed the way he thought about the Civil War. 

President Lincoln’s map of slavery was the 1861 U.S. Coast Survey Map. It drew on census data and used groundbreaking cartographic techniques for the era 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 propose abolition. The map pushed him to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and it drove Union support for ending slavery during the darkest days of the Civil War.

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  • The Map Showed Lincoln The South’s Commitment To Slavery

    Photo: J.B. Elliott / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Some in the Confederacy might have used the rallying cry of “states' rights,” but the map painted a different picture. It showed entire regions of the South that were deeply dependent on slave labor, including South Carolina, which led the rebellion. The map’s depiction of the bondage of four million people showed slavery’s hold in the Chesapeake Bay, the Georgia coast, and the Mississippi River Valley. 

    The Coast Survey map also vividly showed which parts of the Confederacy had little allegiance to slavery, guiding military strategy to focus on regions like eastern Tennessee and western Virginia that might hold pockets of resistance. In The New York Timeshistorian Susan Schulten contended that the map may have reinforced Lincoln’s belief that supporting certain Southern Unionists could break the Confederacy – and that a blockade might choke a rebellion that depended on the export of cotton picked by slaves.

  • The Map Of Virginia May Have Helped Win The War

    Photo: Henry S. Graham / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Along with the map of slavery in the South overall, the US Coast Survey also published a map of slavery localized in Virginia. New evidence shows that the mapmakers behind these maps had an anti-slavery agenda. One of the Virginia map’s creators, William Palmer, gave the map to military and political leaders such as the secretary of the Navy and multiple Army generals. 

    Palmer also gave signed copies of the map to foreign diplomats, including one from France. It was critical for Union efforts to keep the French and British from joining forces with the Confederacy. This map, demonstrating Virginia’s reliance on slave labor, may have persuaded European nations not to support the slaveholding states. 

  • The 1861 Map Drew A Link Between The Army And Slavery

    Photo: U.S. Coast Survey, 1861 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The 1861 map vividly showed the South’s dependence on slavery. It also proclaimed the map’s political position in the banner at the top, which reads “For the Sick and Wounded Soldiers of the U.S. Army.” In this declaration, the Coast Survey linked the success of the Union Army with slavery, using the map to promote political change.

    As Susan Schulten argued in The New York Times, the map was unlike anything before. It was simultaneously “a landmark cartographic achievement, a popular propaganda tool, and an eminently practical instrument of military policy.”

  • Lincoln Saw Slavery As Unjust, But He Didn’t Know How To End The Institution

    Photo: Matthew Brady / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    "I am naturally anti-slavery,” Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1864. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” Since the 1850s, Lincoln had publicly argued that slavery was morally wrong, since slaves were people with inalienable rights.

    But Lincoln did not know how to go about ending the institution. At one point, he supported the idea that slaves could be sent back to Africa—a proposition known as colonization—or that slavery might be repealed gradually, in phases. He even considered the idea of paying slaveholders for the loss of their property.