Jedediah Hotchkiss: Roads Scholar

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Jedediah Hotchkiss was General Stonewall Jackson’s mapmaker during the 19th century American Civil War. The Hotchkiss 1867 map of Albemarle County remains an accurate representation of many of the routes still in use today.
Jedediah Hotchkiss was General Stonewall Jackson’s mapmaker during the 19th century American Civil War. The Hotchkiss 1867 map of Albemarle County remains an accurate representation of many of the routes still in use today.

by Phil James

The War Between the States, 1861–’65, was a horrible ordeal. One might ponder who we would be as a nation today, but for the cost of souls and infrastructure lost during that dark period of our past.

Great effort and expense were rendered by each side to gain even the slightest upper hand to overpower a perceived enemy. Since time began, the demands of warfare have spurred innovation and invention. Developments during the American Civil War led not only to more lethal armaments, but also to improved medical practices, including anesthesia.

A less-obvious shortcoming revealed in the early days of the War was the dearth of accurate, up-to-date maps. Commanders undertook misguided troop movements because of unsound information contained in the maps available.

Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson is considered among military historians as a superior tactician. His legendary maneuvers would not have been possible without accurate maps. The excellent maps he had at his disposal came from a seemingly unlikely source—a schoolteacher with an avocation of mapmaking.

Jedediah Hotchkiss (1828–1899) was born in the Susquehanna Valley of New York State. Raised on a farm, young Jed was an astute observer of nature who excelled in school. Graduating at the age of 16, he joined with some friends on a walking tour of central Pennsylvania where he found his first job as a teacher. When his term ended, a second exploratory tour brought him farther south into Page County, Virginia, near Luray.

During his years in Page, he worked as a private tutor, married and started a family. His proficiency at teaching encouraged a group of financial backers to establish an academy and to hire him as principal. It was during this time that he self-nurtured an interest in engineering and mapmaking, skills which would come to define his lifework.

In 1859, he moved to Churchville in Augusta County, where, in partnership with his brother, he established another academy. With the coming of war in spring 1861, he closed the school and volunteered his services for the Confederate Army.

His mapmaking skills were soon revealed and put to use for none other than General Robert E. Lee. In March 1862, he joined Stonewall Jackson’s staff in the Shenandoah Valley, where he was given the order by Jackson to “make me a map of the valley”. This “big job,” as Hotchkiss described it, remained a work in progress for three years. The scope of the map extended from Lexington to Harpers Ferry, an area roughly 25 miles wide and 150 miles long. Hotchkiss produced the 8’ by 3’ map on tracing linen in three portions, glued together.

In addition to geographical features, Hotchkiss’s detailed maps often included names of property owners, useful “services” such as blacksmithing, and notations of features relevant to troop movements such as fence types, gates, orchards, meadows and forest plots.

A detail of Hotchkiss’s 1867 map of Albemarle County, now in the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge.
A detail of Hotchkiss’s 1867 map of Albemarle County, now in the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge.

When not assigned to reconnoiter enemy positions or to map prospective areas for battle, Hotchkiss stayed nearby General Jackson and shared trusted advice on the most efficient movement of troops, artillery and supply wagons.

On May 2, 1862, Hotchkiss recorded in his diary: “The General and staff were again engaged making and repairing roads and helping along the trains [wagons and artillery]… and so by desperate efforts we got… into the entrance to Brown’s Gap… we cut new roads through the woods, made corduroy road, lifted wagons out of the mud by main strength, etc.”

On Saturday May 3rd, the advance section of Jackson’s troops arrived at Mechum’s River Depot and encamped there on the hills and river bottom. The ranks of 16,000+ foot soldiers plus artillery and wagon trains stretched from Mechum’s River Station back to Brown’s Cove at the eastern foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, clogging 11 miles of Brown’s Gap Turnpike with the humanity and accoutrements of war.

Hotchkiss knew the lands of Albemarle County well, having already mapped them with the same accuracy and thoroughness as he had numerous other potential theaters of conflict. Upon arriving on Albemarle soil, he was finally able to relax a bit on his journey.

“I saw many of the men of the Stonewall Brigade bathing in the clear, cold stream at the foot of the mountain, washing off the mud of three days,” he observed. “Vegetation east of the Blue Ridge is starting rapidly. A fine spring day and we greatly enjoyed our ride across the Blue Ridge over a good road. We spent the night at White Hall.”

The troops began departing Mechum’s River Station “at an early hour” Sunday morning, the sick and infirm by train, able soldiers and supply trains on foot and saddleback, led by General Jackson. It took all day and into the evening for the Army to complete the 16-mile trip to Staunton. As the troops detrained, the rag-tag group of locomotives returned east to assist others.

“The Stonewall Brigade marched to Afton,” Hotchkiss noted in his diary, “and took the cars which had been sent back for them from Staunton.”

Captain Jed Hotchkiss, C.S.A., produced a sizeable quantity of cartographic material during the War. His eye was quick to read an area’s topography and his skills were honed by the always critical need for accuracy. Hotchkiss was diligent in his work: making notes and sketches from horseback, sounding fords for safe passage, measuring accurate distance by recording the number of rotations of a rag tied to a wagon wheel, and ascending any available summit to gain better perspective.

Employed as a topographical engineer for the United States Army soon after the War’s end, he utilized his earlier maps and sketches in the production of detailed maps of Virginia counties. His 1867 map of Albemarle County provides an historic, yet still-important look at who we were then, and how close to those earlier but now-familiar paths we have remained.

Nearly all of the 1867 place names continue to be used by local post offices or have been memorialized on E-911 road signage. The map plotted many of the homes of that era along with familiar western Albemarle names such as Ballard, Bishop, Brown, Bruce, Dettor, Harman, Maupin, Perry and Walker. Numerous churches were named as were familiar waterways such as Doyle’s, Mechum’s and Moorman’s, plus Stockton’s and Beaver Creek.

Notable by its absence on the 1867 map, the village of Crozet wouldn’t be established until nine years later, developing along the Virginia Central (renamed Chesapeake & Ohio/CSX) Railroad line.

The practicality of the 19th century roads mapped by Jed Hotchkiss has been affirmed by 21st century global positioning satellites: National Park Service administrators in Shenandoah National Park have reported receiving “emergency” phone calls from frustrated travelers whose in-car GPS units have directed them to locked border gates on remote mountain roads—just outside the Park.

Closing a useful roadway does not negate the route’s utility, but it does add teeth to the adage that sometimes you just “can’t get there from here.”

Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2011 Phil James

2 COMMENTS

  1. I am an eighty-seven year old descendant of Jedediah Hotchkiss and wanted to print your article to send to my four children and six grandchildren. The site would only let me print the gazette headings and not a word on Jedediah, whose wife was Sarah Ann Comfort. Nelson Rounds Comfort was my Great Grandfather. Is there another site that would allow me to print your nice article? Irene C. Stehli

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