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NYT: Visualizing Slavery

As the Civil War anniversary celebrations begin, Susan Schulten presents a map that reflects data from the 1860 Census, the last time the federal government took a count of the South's vast slave population. The map confirms that the Civil War was as much about defending states' rights as it was about maintaining a system of free labor. The map also explodes certain myths about where the bulk of slaves resided and parts of states that were devoid of slavery.


The 1860 Census was the last time the federal government took a count of the South's vast slave population. Several months later, in the summer of 1861, the United States Coast Survey — arguably the most important scientific agency in the nation at the time — issued two maps of slavery that drew on the Census data, the first of Virginia and the second of Southern states as a whole. Though many Americans knew that dependence on slave labor varied throughout the South, these maps uniquely captured the complexity of the institution and struck a chord with a public hungry for information about the rebellion.


The map uses what was then a new technique in statistical cartography: Each county not only displays its slave population numerically, but is shaded (the darker the shading, the higher the number of slaves) to visualize the concentration of slavery across the region. The counties along the Mississippi River and in coastal South Carolina are almost black, while Kentucky and the Appalachians are nearly white.

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.


Conversely, 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.

Read more at the New York Times and find out if your historical "reality" is reflected on this map.

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