Do we have a Spy Map from the Civil War?

Written by Lindsay Bliss, Graduate Student in Historical Archaeology, Department of Anthropology

Last semester, shortly after William and Mary Special Collections acquired the latest Jamestown map, I was given the opportunity through my Geovisualization and Cartography class to examine this map for an assignment. As an Anthropology Graduate student, to say I was thrilled would be a vast understatement. This was an amazing opportunity to gain more knowledge about a fascinating map and an important local historical spot. I was ready to dive in and see how much information I could gather about this map!  

The Jamestown Island Civil War map was recently acquired by Special Collections.

Upon first glancing at the map, I knew this was something special. The detail on this map was unlike many maps of Jamestown I had previously seen. The map was drawn on blue lined paper with pencil and pen. I wondered: Was this historically accurate? There was no date or author on the front of this map and the back was inaccessible, so I needed more context and clues. Looking closer, I could see the complexity, labels, and detailed descriptions of areas. What made this even more intriguing was the verbiage as this map was clearly drawn by someone who was observing the island.   The wording was certainly one of observation from the author, not first-person narrative. 

In addition to the map, I was provided with an audio recording that could shed some light on this map. Researchers speculate that this could potentially be a spy map from the Civil War! The tone and verbiage fit this hypothesis. The detail in this map, such as the amount of information conveyed and the attention to labeling, could potentially align with this idea as well. But I needed more information. Could it really be a spy map? First, I examined the legends of this map and read all of the notes in the corners for further scrutiny. Next, I looked beyond the map to see what historical clues I could find. 

Jamestown Island was occupied by the Confederate Army from 1861-1862, and an earthen fort was erected on top of the original 1607 fort. This earthen Civil War fort was known as Fort Pocahontas. The Confederate Army erected this fort to prevent the Union Army from traversing the James River to attack, but this idea never came to fruition. The Union Army never conducted an attack via the James River, and Fort Pocahontas never saw any action. The fort was abandoned by the Confederate Army the following year (late 1862) and was briefly occupied by the Union Army. Looking at the map, research suggests that this map was drawn approximately late 1861 - early 1862 based on the information provided and the completeness of the fort depicted in the map. 

Lined paper was in circulation in the early 1800s and became the preferred paper by the 1820s, which supports the theory that this map could have been created during the Civil War. All indications support the theory that this map was drawn during the Civil War and could potentially be a spy map. But what else could this map tell us?

A closer visualization of the Jamestown Island Civil War map.

Looking further into the verbiage and tone, the author was certainly observing the fort versus someone who was occupying it. In the bottom left corner, under the legend, the author states that the Redoubt “appears to be larger than the encampment” and gives the approximate length and width of the island followed by a note stating the guns “upon the Redoubt are pivot ones [and can] turn any way”. 

In the bottom right corner, the author describes the river, stating that the river at this point (the southeast corner of Jamestown Island) was very shallow and troops could not land on the island except in small boats. The author continues that the “woods offered some cover for skirmishes and they could easily hold their position against ten times their numbers”. Another clue that that this map was created by an onlooker is in the top right corner where the author notes that “the Picket guard at 13 & 14 have spy glass & can see seven or 8 miles down river”. Using words such as “appears to be larger”, “they”, and the observations about the river, woods, and Picket Guard, one could easily see how this map was created by someone who was observing the island versus living on it. With this verbiage and contextual clues, the theory of this being a spy map is supported. 

The next step in confirming this theory is to eventually see what, if anything, is on the back of this map. Maybe there is a date or the name of an author. Maybe there are other clues about this map that we haven’t thought of yet. But until we can uncover these potential clues, we will continue to suspect a spy map! 

For more on Lindsay's research, please visit her StoryMap.

The Jamestown Island Civil War map is currently in conservation. We will update this post as more information is discovered about this map.