Is It Possible To Fit the Civil War Into a Single Chart? Here's One Beautiful Attempt

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Sept. 16 2013 9:00 AM

Is It Possible To Fit the Civil War Into a Single Chart? Here's One Beautiful Attempt

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

This chart, digitized by the Library of Congress, depicts major battles, troop losses, skirmishes, and other events in the American Civil War. (Click on the image to arrive at a zoomable version, or visit the LOC’s website.)

The “Scaife Synoptical Method,” advertised at the top of the timeline, aimed to fit as much information as possible into a single chart. Information on Arthur Hodgkin Scaife is scant, but the Comparative Synoptical Chart Company, apparently based in Toronto, also published his “Synoptical Charts” of the “Cuban Question,” English history, and the life of William Gladstone.

Advertisement

In a 2010 New Atlantis review of historians Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton’s book about timelines, Alan Jacobs pointed out that interacting with completist charts of history, reproduced at any scale, can be a trying experience:

Figuring out how to view these charts properly would not be easy even for a person looking at the original. Get close enough to note the details and you lose sight of the overall pattern; stand far enough back to discern that pattern and you lose the details.

Jacobs' criticism certainly applies here. A war is a complicated thing, and the chart has tried to track so many factors—geographical, political, and financial—that it’s easiest to concentrate on one or two of these at a time.

I noticed, for example, that the far left-hand column charts the decline in value of Confederate dollars, from one U.S. dollar in May 1861 to “nil” in April 1865, while the far right-hand column shows the decline in value of Union currency in relationship to gold, from $1 in February 1862 to $0.75 in April 1865. Perhaps the best way to approach such a chart is  to give up on complete "synoptical" understanding, and delight in those details.

I originally heard about this timeline from historian Peter A. Shulman on Twitter. It also appeared on the Explore Tumblr earlier this year.

Previously on the Vault, another chart with ambitious goals: John B. Sparks’ gorgeous Histomap.

Civil War Chart

"History of the Civil War in the United States, 1860-1865." Comparative Synoptical Chart Co., Limited. Library of Congress.

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

The World

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies

They’re just not ready to admit it yet.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 16 2014 4:08 PM More Than Scottish Pride Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 2:35 PM Germany’s Nationwide Ban on Uber Lasted All of Two Weeks
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 1:27 PM The Veronica Mars Spinoff Is Just Amusing Enough to Keep Me Watching
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.