Comparative and Synoptical System Applied to the Civil War

Civil War InfographicYou might simply describe it as an elaborate chart. This infographic of the American Civil War is making the rounds today on various social media channels. It dates to 1897, though the directions on how to properly interpret the chart have not survived. Apparently, a wave of these infographics was produced at the end of the nineteenth century and I am sure that it fits into an interesting cultural history of visual representations of large periods of time. Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about it, though I do see a loose connection with a Rankean optimism about the knowability of history.

You can click on the pic above for a high resolution image or you can play around with the zoom button at the Library of Congress. Enjoy and let me know if you figure out how to interpret it.

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7 comments… add one
  • Adam Becker Sep 19, 2013 @ 12:42

    Just a quick, simplistic observation (I’ve been mesmerized by this chart for the past few days now and I’m slowly beginning to only sort of understand it): Each state has a section of the column that is blue and a section that’s grey/butternut color. The blue ends at the corresponding month and year that the state seceded from the Union. South Carolina’s blue ends in December of ’60 and Tennessee’s ends in June of ’61.

    I can’t wait to have this printed out so I can look at it without having to scroll around on a computer screen. It seems like new aspects of the chart will keep showing themselves over time.

  • Mark H. Dunkelman Sep 19, 2013 @ 6:49

    Errol Morris used this synoptical chart to illustrate his must-read essay “Whose Father Is He?” in his 2011 book “Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography” (and its previous version, “Whose Father Was He?” in the New York Times Opinionator series). Errol stated in an endnote, “The chart has been described as a ‘history of the Civil War drawn to a time scale of months, and the location of all events is entirely governed by this scale.’ According to the American Monthly Review of Reviews, 1898, ‘A very satisfactory series of historical charts has been prepared under the supervision of Mr. A. H. Scaife. The distinctive feature of these charts is the application of an exact time-scale in the presentation of any given historical period. The idea of distance between events is thus conveyed accurately and impressively. Many ingenious devices are employed in representing historic movements to the eye. Mr. Scaife’s chart of the Cuban question covers the past fifty years of Cuba’s history more graphically. It more than fills the place of a printed volume on the subject. The same is true of the chart devoted to Mr. Gladstone’s life and times. Mr. Scaife also publishes wall charts of United States, English, and Canadian history, a special chart of the American Civil War, a genealogical tree of British sovereigns from 494 to 1897, The Genealogy of the Sovereigns of Great Britain, showing the descent from Earliest Times, of her Majesty, Queen Victoria, and the History of the First Century of the Christian Era, including the Principal Events in the Life of Christ.'”

    • Kevin Levin Sep 19, 2013 @ 7:38

      Hi Mark,

      Nice to hear from you and thanks for the comment. Definitely helps with interpreting this chart further.

  • Andy Hall Sep 16, 2013 @ 12:26

    As infographics go, this is a worthy attempt.

    1. Columns are states, gray for the Confederacy and blue for Union.
    2. The time scale runs vertically, from 1861 at the bottom to May 1865 at the top.
    3. Movements of major field units are marked by black lines, solid for Union and dashed for Confederate. Lines are further highlighted by color — gold for Union, green for Confederate.
    4. Engagements are marked by circles, according to the size of the battle. Most are numbered to a key (presumably lost), but the larger and more important ones are labeled directly. Circles within the larger battles are colored green (Confederate) or gold (Union) to indicate the winner.
    5. Sieges are indicated by solid red bars

    In this closeup, you can see the siege and capture of Atlanta, the march through Georgia ad capture of Savannah at the end of 1864, Sherman’s move north into the Carolinas with Johnston keeping ahead of him, Hood’s army’s diversion into Tennessee toward Franklin (oddly labeled as a Confederate victory) and Nashville, after which it fades away to nothing, and (far right) the ongoing stalemate at Petersburg until a final and sudden collapse in April 1865. There’s a lot going on in those colored lines and circles.

    Finally, this diagram owes a lot to Charles Minard’s famous diagram of Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign of 1812. This CW diagram is harder to follow, but it compresses much more information that Minard’s.

    • Brendan Bossard Sep 16, 2013 @ 15:15

      Yours looks like a pretty good summary, Andy, except for the apparent reason for the numbers labeling the minor engagements. It looks to me like these numbers actually indicate the order in which these battles occurred over time. This is broken down by state and month. For example, if you look at the battle of Shiloh, which occurred in Tennessee in April, 1862, you will observe that just below Engagement #1 is an Engagement #7, which occurred in TN in late March, 1862. Just above Shiloh, you observe Engagement #5 late in April, then Engagement #1 in early May. To the left of Shiloh, in Mississippi, you see three engagements, labelled 1, 2, and 3 as April progresses. To the right, you see two engagements in Georgia.

      I would love to have this great piece of educational art. It would certainly make my 1-year-old son’s neurons percolate. I think that the Civil War maxes out this tool’s usefulness, though. I can’t imagine using it to diagram World War II!

  • Ken Noe Sep 16, 2013 @ 12:11

    I’ve spent far too much time on this brilliant madness today. Almost every vertical column represents a state. Following the lines in that column from bottom to top takes you through military operations in that state 1861 to 1865, with the line swerving left or right as armies approached neighboring states. If armies entered a state in a non-touching column, a note directs you to the proper column (ie, Buell from Tennessee to Kentucky). You also can examine horizontal rows to theoretically get a glimpse of the war across the south month by month. Finally, as I said on Facebook, this may well establish that LSD was available in 1897.

    • R. Alex Raines Sep 16, 2013 @ 15:22


      I’ve just found out about this, and logged on here to see if Kevin was aware of this gem. I’m going to hold off on the LSD comparison, but you know, they had laudanum, cocaine, and magic shrooms available.


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