Wartime drafts: Harpers Ferry man made detailed battlefield maps

Editor’s note: This article is one in a series about West Virginia’s statehood, which is commemorated this year in its sesquicentennial celebration.

It is remarkable to think that many of the most accurate Civil War maps we have today of the Battle of Second Manassas and other Civil War battles were drawn not by a trained cartographer but by a telegraph operator from Harpers Ferry.

Robert E. Lee Russell drew Civil War maps as a hobby. Even more remarkably, his maps were not drawn in the wake of the battles, but in the 1930s and 1940s, nearly a century later.

The Library of Congress — to which his maps were donated, along with the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore, Md., — calls Russell’s maps of the Manassas battle “the most comprehensive cartographic delineations of troop movements in existence.”

The Russell map collection includes 51 maps showing troops movements in short intervals at Second Manassas. The maps cover the period between Aug. 19 and Sept. 2, 1862.

A glimpse at Russell’s extensive notes shows the following information leading up to the battle: “On Monday, August 25th, Lee, disregarding all military precepts, divides his army in face of a superior force, and sends Jackson out around the Federal right flank (Map 12) to break up Pope’s rear communications, while Longstreet demonstrates to hold Federal’s attention. Cutting across country (Map 13) Jackson reached Salem, 26 miles, where he bivouacked for the night. At 2 a.m., on 26th, Stuart started to overtake Jackson (Map 14), reaching him near Gainesville by 4 p.m. (Map 15).

Russell’s work grew out of his interest in the Civil War. He decided to make his own maps when he found that he had more information on particular battles than were shown on any maps that he had seen. His work began with making small illustrated folders for various battle sites and then eventually expanded to drawing battle maps.

Russell’s other map cover battles at Petersburg, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Wilderness, North Anna, Bolivar Heights and the Maryland campaign. Along with his maps, Mr. Russell offered extensive information on the battles to accompany each one.

The maps were drawn with pen and ink and colored. The Union soldiers are shown in blue. The Confederates are shown in red. The maps were drawn in a large scale (two and a half inches to the mile) and show detailed movements of troops. If they were small enough to flip from page to page, observers could almost see the regiments moving forward into the battle.

Russell was born in Harpers Ferry on Dec. 24, 1878, the son of Edward Russell, who worked for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and grandson of Richard Russell, who had emigrated from England and worked at the federal arsenal.

Russell worked as a telegraph operator, first for the Valley Railroad of Virginia and then for Western Union in Staunton. He transferred to the Postal Telegraph office in Baltimore in 1899. Eventually The Sun newspaper purchased the operation and he became a telegraph operator for the newspaper.

Russell’s mapmaking began in earnest in the 1920s as a hobby. In his lifetime, Russell produced more than 1,500 maps, including more than 1,000 on the Civil War.

Russell died on June 18, 1953. He is buried in the Thornrose Cemetery in Staunton.

His map collection is now available digitally or in book form from researcher Jackie Milburn of Boyce, Va. Maps can be purchased at

www.cartographicprints.com.

 

— Bob O’Connor writes from Jefferson County.

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