Tuesday, January 18, 2011

North Carolina Civil War atlas will use technology to help tell the story

The Union brass thought Fort Fisher well worth the blood shed in several assaults and the time and logistics necessary to launch one of the largest amphibious assaults in U.S. history.

And when the prize near Wilmington, N.C., fell in January 1865, the writing on the wall for the Confederacy became even clearer.

Gen. Robert E. Lee’s last major supply line was gone.

“Without that lifeline, he would have been done a lot sooner,” says Mark A. Moore a research historian and IT specialist with the state Department of Cultural Resources.

Moore, a whiz in GIS and other mapping technologies, produced a painstakingly accurate map of the Jan. 15, 1865, assault on the doomed fortifications.

The Fort Fisher map and others from North Carolina’s approximate 435 engagements will be the cornerstone of a coffee table book meant to provide a comprehensive view of the Tar Heel State and the Civil War.

The book also will feature articles, essays and illustrations.

Timed to be released during the Civil War sesquicentennial, the book, with a working title of “The North Carolina Civil War Atlas,” will break ground in many ways, said Moore and Josh Howard, a research historian with the state archives.

“The audience will be popular and scholarly,” Moore (right) told the Picket recently. “Serious research is going into these maps.”

The authors are particularly excited about county maps and charts that will provide data on a range of subjects: Population, 1860 election results, enlistment, casualties, deaths, desertions and more.

The atlas will look at a state that provided nearly 135,000 troops to the Confederacy and lost perhaps 34,000 citizens in combat. An extensive collection of unit rosters has assisted the researchers.

It will also tell the African-American story, including data on slave ownership by county and the service of men in the Federal army’s U.S. Colored Troops (USCT).

According to Howard, 25 percent of the state’s population had slaves -- perhaps only one or two -- at the outbreak of the war.

“We’re not talking about a huge plantation economy,” said Howard.

And it wasn’t as if the Unionists were progressive on racial attitudes, Moore added.

Letters from Confederate soldiers indicate fighting so that others could keep their slaves was not a priority.

The atlas will include data and text on the 5,000-6,000 African-Americans from North Carolina who fought with the USCT.

“For some [black North Carolinians], the first time their ancestor is in the records with a last name is with the UCT,” Howard told the Picket.

Howard and Moore are working with the UNC Press on the atlas, which will likely have an online companion. They expect it will be published between 2013 and 2015.

“We will have groundbreaking information and visuals,” said Moore. “I’ve studied this for years.”

Campaign roads and battles will be shown in new ways, he said, making a specific reference to Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s march through North Carolina and the battles of Goldsboro and Bentonville.

“We will have the context for North Carolina in the larger picture” of the war, Moore said.

North Carolina sent most of its sons to fight in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Although it will have a military bent, the atlas will delve into the homefront and features excerpts from noted diarist Catherine Edmonston.

North Carolina was a relative latecomer to secession, but it paid a heavy price.

“Once they were in, they were in,” said Moore.

Howard (right) insists the atlas and sesquicentennial will be a time for the state to provide its most accurate account to date of the war’s impact.

“It’s a commemoration, not a celebration,” he said.

Fort Fisher map excerpt is from the North Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial website. USCT image is from the Florida State Archives Photographic Collection

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