The Military Value of Maps…

“When general william sherman was ordered to strike at the heart of the Confederacy during America’s civil war, he first asked for a map of Georgia and Alabama. The document he received, coloured like a patchwork quilt, was like none produced before it. Officials had annotated it county by county with data from the 1860 census: the population of whites, slaves and men of military age, heads of livestock and acres of crops. Charging towards Atlanta, Sherman knew exactly where to supply his Union army, which fields of sugar and cotton to burn, and crucially, where resistance would be thin on the ground. Without this data-rich map, he later wrote, his mission would have “been subjected to blind chance, and it may be to utter failure”.

Maps are often thought of as records of facts and terrain rather than actors in history. But Sherman’s experience, and that of legions of explorers, colonists and native peoples in North America, suggests otherwise. A map does not merely illustrate the lie of the land, says Susan Schulten, a historian at the University of Denver who unearthed Sherman’s data trove and much more besides for “A History of America in 100 Maps”, a lavish and fascinating atlas. It is also an instrument of persuasion and sometimes of conquest.” (The Economist, 2018, p.70).


The Economist. (2018) Cartography and Destiny: How the West was Drawn. The Economist. 24 November 2018, pp.70.


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