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The Widow Thompson’s Fence

June 2024
1min read

McElfresh Map Co.
Civil War Maps

18- x 24-inch map prints, $24.00 each: Shiloh, CODE: MFC-1 ; Antietam—Morning, CODE: MFC-2 ; Antietam—Afternoon, CODE: MFC-3 ; Pea Ridge, CODE: MFC-4

Set of two folded maps, $18.00: Antietam—Morning & Afternoon and Gettysburg—First Day, CODE: MFC-5

In a small town in upper New York State the cartographer Earl B. McElfresh draws the most precise and handsome maps available of Civil War battle sites. His watercolor scenes of Antietam, Pea Ridge, and Shiloh at first look too naive and softly colored for battlefield maps, like a child’s view out an airplane window. Unroll the Antietam plans—“Morning” or “Afternoon”—and a cheerful, verdant world meets your eye. The legend identifies the clean-bordered patches of plowed ground, corn, stubble, clover, haystacks, woods with stacked cords, and four varieties of fences. This changing landscape was in some cases leveled into bird’s-eye nothingness over generations of mapmaking.

McElfresh works not only with historians but also with an agronomist who identifies from war photographs what was growing where. By consulting farmers’ damage claims, the team has added buildings, crops, orchards, and fences that were missing from all previous surveys. In researching his new Gettysburg map, McElfresh discovered that a stone wall mentioned in regimental histories appeared on no maps of the site. A farmer had built a road through it shortly after the war. Similarly, McElfresh and a Park Service expert were able to eliminate a rail fence that had guarded the Widow Thompson’s orchard on maps of Seminary Ridge since 1868, when it had been transposed with another fence nearby.

McElfresh’s beautifully exact scenes hide their scholarship as gracefully as they tell us what these places were in the months before armies collided over them: unsuspecting farm towns in their bloom. The fields, he says, are “as they were … before they became world famous.”

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