Story

More than Just a Map

Posted on Tue, October 28, 2014
  • by: Tom Paone
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You never know what you’ll uncover once you do a little digging. Museum Technician Tom Paone discovered something quite remarkable from what at first appeared to be a simple map.

It is sometimes hard to believe just how much you can learn from some old pieces of paper. While searching in the Archives of the National Air and Space Museum, I came across an odd-looking map from the American Civil War. The map features a label in the corner stating that it was drawn by Colonel William Small while onboard “Prof. Lowe’s balloon,” and is dated December 1861. The map, however, almost looked like it fit better in the year 2011 as opposed to 1861. The map features a view of the coast of Virginia, but it is clearly drawn from the perspective of someone overlooking the land, as opposed to a view directly overhead. The map also features labels without any explanation as to what they represent. This only created more intrigue. Who was Colonel Small and how did he find himself drawing a map from a balloon? Why was the map needed in the first place? What are the items labeled without a key? These questions could only be answered through the fun and exciting quest known as historical research!

A black and white copy of a Civil War map drawn from a balloon by Colonel William F. Small. 

The first step in the hunt for answers involved going to the original source. The National Air and Space Museum Archives only had a black and white copy of the map since the original was located a few blocks away at the National Archives and Records Administration. After a conversation with my friendly neighborhood archivist, I was able to locate the file box that had information on the original map. The original map itself is very fragile and it is placed in deep storage at the National Archives. It was drawn on the Civil War equivalent of scrap paper in pencil and was never intended to last over 150 years.

The original copy of the Civil War map drawn from a balloon by Colonel William F. Small is located at the National Archives and Records Administration. 

The file box contained numerous letters which helped reveal all sorts of information to answer the many intriguing questions raised by the map.  

Who was William F. Small?

Portrait of William F. Small. Small used balloons during the Civil War to sketch maps of Confederate forces.  

Colonel William F. Small was a lawyer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the outbreak of the American Civil War. In June 1861, Small was mustered into the Union army as colonel of the 26th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The 26th Pennsylvania had been organized in Philadelphia on April 20, 1861. After some initial training, the 26th Pennsylvania was sent to Washington D.C., passing through Baltimore and coming under attack from some not-so-friendly mobs. After the initial excitement, the unit spent the first year of the war in the capital, and then they were moved to Budd’s Ferry, Maryland on October 20, 1861. The map contains a “Budd’s Ferry” label on the left side, meaning that the unit was still at Budd’s Ferry in December of 1861 when the map was drawn and dated.  

Why was the map drawn in the first place?

Letters in the map file also offered some insight into why Colonel Small was sent up in a balloon to draw the map. In one letter dated December 9, 1861, General Joseph Hooker, the general in charge of Colonel Small and his unit, tells Brigadier General Seth Williams that, “My engagements not permitting me to devote the time requisite for making the sketch of the opposite shore required by the Major General Commanding [George B. McClellan], and not being skilled in sketching, I requested Colonel Small 26th Penna. Regt. to render this service.” This tells us that the map was created because a request came from the top commander of the army to have a map made of the Confederate forces in Virginia, and Hooker delegated the task to Colonel Small. The map also seemed to be well received. In the same letter, Hooker goes on to state, “He [Colonel Small] has performed this duty very satisfactory (sic), and I trust the General may find it so.”  

How was the map created?

This letter, written by Colonel William F. Small, accompanied a map that was sketched in 1861. 

In another letter located in the file at the National Archives dated December 9, 1861, Colonel Small explains:

In accordance with your request, endorsed upon a telegram of the 7th inst. from the Head Quarters of the Army, requiring that ‘a draughtsman should make use of Prof. Lowe’s balloon’, for the purpose of ‘making a map of the enemy’s position opposite your lines’, the undersigned has the honor to report that he made four ascensions, during yesterday and to day, at a point north of and near Budd’s Ferry, and succeeded in obtaining a sketch of the encampments and batteries in Virginia, fronting your division.

This tells us that once the order was received, the Union balloon was set up in Budd’s Ferry, Maryland so it could be utilized for this task. The balloon was brought to a height of 700 feet during four different ascensions and Colonel Small acted as a “draughtsman,” which is someone who can create very detailed drawings. The height of the balloon provided Colonel Small with unblocked views of the entire countryside and he was able to capture a great deal of information in his sketch.  

What are the items labeled without a key?

This is the second page of a letter written by Colonel William F. Small The letter accompanied a map he drew that detailed Confederate forces.

Although the map features a caption, several of the items on the map are labeled with letters, but no explanation as to what they mean. Thankfully, the same letter located in the file at the National Archives by Colonel Small provides the missing information. Within the letter, Colonel Small explains, “…nine encampments of the enemy are visible, covering a space of about Seven miles…,” which are shown on the map numbered one through nine. He also explains, “There are also three batteries – and a fourth, it is reported, is in progress of construction, - between the Chapawamsic [Chopawamsic] and Quantico Creeks, which are designated on the map by the letters A, B, + C.” Finally, Colonel Small states, “The encampment marked No. 7 on the map, is much the largest of those observed, and apparently contains several regiments. All of them together, however, do not appear to be occupied by more than 12,000 men.” These statements provide all the information to properly read the map and see what was going on across the river from the Union army on December 9, 1861.  

Why should anyone care?

A modern recreation of Colonel William F. Small's Civil War map.

In our world featuring satellite imagery and Google Earth in the palm of our hands, it is hard to appreciate just how amazing this map was at the time it was created. In order to make the map, troops from the 26th Pennsylvania, under artillery fire from Confederate forces, helped Colonel Small ascend in a shaky, wind-blown balloon to sketch what he saw in order to gain critical information about the enemy position. He even included a little image of the balloon! This information allowed the Union army to locate troops where they were needed most. This type of information is still critical to military commanders today, though they now gather it with satellites, aircraft, and drones instead of draughtsmen in balloons. Military commanders today can even use GPS and the Blue Force Tracker system to track individual soldiers in the field. Our technological advancement can even allow me, sitting in the comfort of my home, to recreate the very map that Colonel Small did more than 150 years ago in just a few seconds—all without any motion sickness or cannon fire.

Learn more about ballooning during the Civil War on the National Air and Space website.