Visualizing Slavery: The Map Abraham Lincoln Spent Hours Studying During the Civil War


If you look close­ly at Fran­cis Bick­nell Car­pen­ter’s 1864 paint­ing “First Read­ing of the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion by Pres­i­dent Lin­coln” (see above — click image for a larg­er ver­sion) you will notice a map in the low­er right-hand cor­ner, next to the group that includes Lin­coln and his cab­i­net.

The map in the paint­ing was a doc­u­ment Lin­coln con­sult­ed often dur­ing the Civ­il War. It was cre­at­ed by the Unit­ed States Coast Sur­vey using data from the 1860 Cen­sus to show the geo­graph­ic dis­tri­b­u­tion of the South’s vast slave pop­u­la­tion.

Car­pen­ter lived in the White House for six months while work­ing on his paint­ing, and accord­ing to his­to­ri­an Susan Schul­ten, author of Map­ping the Nation: His­to­ry and Car­tog­ra­phy in 19th Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca, the artist encoun­tered Lin­coln por­ing over the map on more than one occa­sion.


The map (click it to see a larg­er ver­sion) is an ear­ly exam­ple of sta­tis­ti­cal car­tog­ra­phy. The slave pop­u­la­tion of each coun­ty is rep­re­sent­ed numer­i­cal­ly and through a grad­ed scale of shad­ing. The high­er the num­ber of slaves, the dark­er the shade. In a 2010 piece in the New York Times “Opin­ion­a­tor” blog, Schul­ten writes:

The map reaf­firmed the belief of many in the Union that seces­sion was dri­ven not by a notion of “state rights,” but by the defense of a labor sys­tem. A table at the low­er edge of the map mea­sured each state’s slave pop­u­la­tion, and con­tem­po­raries would have imme­di­ate­ly noticed that this cor­re­spond­ed close­ly to the order of seces­sion. South Car­oli­na, which led the rebel­lion, was one of two states which enslaved a major­i­ty of its pop­u­la­tion, a fact stark­ly rep­re­sent­ed on the map.

The map helped Lin­coln visu­al­ize what he was up against. Areas along the Atlantic coast and Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er, for exam­ple, are dark­ly shad­ed. The white pop­u­lace in those areas was fanat­i­cal­ly resis­tant to eman­ci­pa­tion. “Con­verse­ly,” writes Schul­ten, “the map illus­trat­ed the degree to which entire regions — like east­ern Ten­nessee and west­ern Vir­ginia — were vir­tu­al­ly devoid of slav­ery, and thus poten­tial sources of resis­tance to seces­sion. Such a map might have rein­forced Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­col­n’s belief that seces­sion was ani­mat­ed by a minor­i­ty and could be reversed if South­ern Union­ists were giv­en suf­fi­cient time and sup­port.”

For more on Lin­col­n’s map, vis­it Rebec­ca Onion’s post at Slate.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“Ask a Slave” by Azie Dungey Sets the His­tor­i­cal Record Straight in a New Web Series

The Civ­il War and Recon­struc­tion: A Free Course

The Poet­ry of Abra­ham Lin­coln

The Last Sur­viv­ing Wit­ness of the Lin­coln Assas­si­na­tion

African-Amer­i­can His­to­ry: Mod­ern Free­dom Strug­gle YouTubeiTunes – Clay Car­son, Stan­ford  (in our col­lec­tion of 750 Free Online Cours­es)

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Comments (6)
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  • ANappyNerdGirl says:

    This is pret­ty inter­est­ing, thank you for shar­ing!

  • Richard Barbrook says:

    This map shows why U.S. Grant’s strat­e­gy defeat­ed the slave­own­ers’ rebel­lion.

  • Mark Curran says:

    Sor­ry, that’s not the map that caused Lin­coln so much anguish.

    The map about what areas the South­ern lead­ers demand­ed become slave states — THAT’s the 800 mil­lion head­ed mon­ster Lin­coln was deal­ing with.

    Do you even know South­ern War Ulti­ma­tums?

    The map you showed was a slave den­si­ty map — where slav­ery already exist­ed, because of pre­vi­ous killings, ulti­ma­tums, and ter­ror­iz­ing. Lin­coln, and any­one else who paid atten­tion to US his­to­ry 1800 ‑1865, was actute­ly aware of the killings and machi­na­tions that sur­round­ed every spread of slav­ery.

    See Lin­col­n’s let­ter to Speed, to see how amaz­ing­ly aware Lin­coln was, down to the minu­tia of who was where, who was killing who, and why.

    There is a map Lin­coln most like­ly referred to, but it was in his head, and he spoke of it often. We do teach his House Divid­ed Speech, but stu­pid­ly take it as some rhetor­i­cal device — that Lin­coln could not pos­si­bly mean South­ern lead­ers were build­ing machin­ery, as he called it, to spread slav­ery North and South, and push it around the world (in oth­er speech­es).

    It only sounds biz­zare to us, that Lin­coln would accuse South­ern lead­ers of inten­tion­al­ly focus­ing on spread­ing slav­ery, by the most vile means, to rest of USA, includ­ing the North.

    Oh hell YES they did exact­ly that. And if you get all Jeff Davis papers, you will see it.a nd get the speech­es of the US Sen­a­tor who passed Kansas Act, then rushed to KS and began his own killing sprees and acts of Ter­ror — Davis Rice Atchi­son.

    Atchi­son, more than any­one, was blunt and boast­ful, about his vow, and how he worked for Jeff Davis for “the entire South” to spread slav­ery into all areas, even those that reject­ed slav­ery and were already free states.

    There is not one — NOT ONE — high school or col­lege teacher who teach­es this basic and amaz­ing fact. Even after Kansas reject­ed slav­ery, every after Kansas was a free state, even after Con­gress accept­ed Kansas as a free state and 90% of the white male cit­i­zens vot­ed against slav­ery — Jeff Davis PERSONALLY insist­ed Kansas must accept — respect — and pro­tect slav­ery. Davis fur­ther said the resis­tance to slav­ery was the “intol­er­a­ble griev­ance” — even though Kansas vot­ed 90% against slav­ery.

    This is the kind of think Lin­coln — and oth­ers — well knew. Hell, the South boast­ed of it. Jeff Davis wrote it, in his OWN BOOK. Go read it. Go on, go read it.

    US Sen­a­tor Davis Rice Atchi­son boast­ed he and his hired men would keep killing and keep hang­ing, and keep drow­ing, until slav­ery was all the way to the Pacif­ic, includ­ing states that were already free states.

    That sounds bizarre, because US text books fail to show what South­ern lead­ers did, then bragged about. They bragged they were killing to spread slav­ery, and spread it against states rights.

    That’s right, spread slav­ery against states rights.

    Learn what South­ern lead­ers did– killed to spread slav­ery for GOD and boast­ed they would keep killing and keep spread­ing slav­ery, and they issued War ULti­ma­tums to that effect.

    Then Lin­col­n’s words will make more sense to you.

  • Mark Curran says:

    actu­al­ly, Grant defeat­ed the South for one basic rea­son, and if you paid atten­tion to Jeff Davis at the time, and Rich­mond papers at the time, and Robert E Lee at the time, you would know this.

    Deser­tions. Mas­sive deser­tions. So mas­sive that Jeff DAVIS had to plead to crowds — most­ly of elder­ly men and women — for them to urge the desert­ers to return.

    Did you know that? No, because no one told you.

    The Rich­mond edi­tor, Pol­lard, wrote at the time, an incor­rect pre­dic­tion, that the Con­fed­er­ate loss, because of such mas­sive deser­tions, would for­ev­er bring shame upon the South.

    Pol­lard, of course, had lit­tle idea of the pow­er of repeat­ed BS. Jeff Davis said, specif­i­cal­ly, that two thirds of COn­fed­er­ate sol­diers had already desert­ed in 1864, and explained– prob­a­bly cor­rect­ly — that if just half of the desert­ers came back, the South could not lose.

    Davis also said the deser­tions were just as bad in Army of Vir­ginia — Lee’s army. Lee said he army was “evap­o­rat­ing” and want­ed to hang more desert­ers.

    Put this down –gen­er­al igno­rance of why South lost — as par for the course. Very lit­tle is taught now, about the cause of the Civ­il War, or why the South lost, because South­ern apol­o­gist put out such a mas­sive amount of non­sense which we some­times call Lost Cause. Until they lost, South­ern lead­ers were quite proud they were killing to spread slav­ery for GOD and spread it against states rights. Kind of a big deal, because not only did they boast of that, they did that.

    They killed to spread slav­ery, and they boast­ed of it. They boast­ed of it loud­ly and proud­ly, some­times blunt­ly, in the case of David Rice Atchi­son, some­times in Orwellian dou­ble speak.

    Jeff Davis own cow­ardice is white washed too — yes it is — go see his wife’s let­ter, if you don’t believe me. And her book. Is it too much to ask “his­to­ri­ans” to read her book, where­in she say he told her to get her­self killed. Is it too much to ask the same “his­to­ri­ans” to read her let­ter to Blairs, donat­ed to library of Con­gress by the Blair chil­dren? In that let­ter she tries to cov­er for Davis, but ind­ver­tent­ly describes his cap­ture, how she had to run to him, pull him to her­self, and tell the sol­dier to leave her alone “ITS MY MOTHER”.

    That’s not what some­one else said, that is what SHE wrote, and the let­ter still exists, and has been a pub­lic doc­u­ment, along with her book, longer than any read­er of this has been alive.

    Also avail­able, Davis speech about the deser­tions, mas­sive as they were, which grew even more amaz­ing after Davis tried to shame the women into send­ing the desert­ers back.

    Orig­i­nal sources make a mock­ery out of what the dri­v­el is, that pass­es for his­to­ry.

  • Lea Groves says:

    I would like some­body to talk about the efforts of the slave states to orga­nize expan­sion of the confederacy/US ( I don’t know if the move­ment was for the whole coun­try to be expand­ed) to the islands and Cen­tral Amer­i­ca and take slav­ery there in a more orga­nized mannner.

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