THE WASHINGTON POST – In the summer of 1781, General George Washington and his French engineers probed the British defences of New York looking for a way to attack.
While the British responded with heavy gunfire, Washington observed, and the engineers prepared a map of the enemy positions.
After studying the map, the Americans and the French realised that New York was too well defended, historians say. Washington decided instead to slip away and attack the British force at Yorktown, Virginia. There, three months later, the British surrendered and the Revolutionary War drew to a close.
Now the historic French map, along with more than 1,000 other rare maps and images, have been donated to the Fred W Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon by a noted New York collector.
The maps, some of them one-of-kind, drawn in pen, ink and watercolour, come from the collection of Richard H Brown, an author and expert on Revolutionary War-era maps and images.
They are part science, part art and part narrative history.
“I constantly . . . try to bridge this link between map and art, because so many of the people who were doing them were artists,” said Brown, the retired founder of a New York investment firm. “They may not have been Picassos. But they were pretty talented artists in their own right.”
The bulk of the collection, estimated to be worth about USD12 million, arrived at the library late last month.
It will eventually be available to scholars, in person, and later some of the items will go on public display, library officials said. Most of the pieces have already been digitised and are online.
Jim Ambuske, the library’s digital historian, said the collection may be one of the best of its kind in the country.
The collection includes 13 maps once used by Washington’s French subordinate and Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette, and one co-authored by Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter Jefferson.
The latter work, in its 1751 rendering of Virginia and Maryland, suggests prosperity, and slavery.
The map’s dedication emblem, or cartouche, depicts a harbour scene in which a prosperous-looking young man sits smoking a pipe, while slaves work in the background and one presents him with a drink on a tray.
“I think that’s, unfortunately, a vision of Virginia commerce,” Brown said. “That’s what it was. It was masters. It was slaves.”
The map, by the elder Jefferson and Joshua Fry, says it shows “the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina.”
It was the standard map of the area for decades, Brown said.
It shows a tract of land that would one day become Washington, DC – just up the “Patowmack” River from Alexandria, north of “Cameron’s Ordinary,” between Goose Creek and Magee’s Ferry.
In 1751, the only thing depicted there was the homestead of someone named Watson.
The collection also includes a giant multivolume atlas called the Atlantic Neptune. Dating from 1776, it was “arguably the most important atlas published in the 18th Century to depict North America,” said Ambuske.
There are also books that include maps within their pages, like the British officer John Graves Simcoe’s 1787 journal of his time as commander of the Queen’s Rangers, a crack outfit of pro-British American “loyalists”.
Another map from 1762 shows “Cherokee Country” in what would later be Tennessee. It lists the main Cherokee towns, some of which, Toqua, Tallassee, and Chilhowee, still appear on modern maps. It also names their “head men” and the “number of fighting men they send to war.”
“The individual map can tell a short story,” said Kevin Butterfield, the library’s executive director.
And it can be a record of a battle, or of one that didn’t happen.
The 1781 French map of New York was part of a wise decision not to start a battle, said the library’s Deputy Director of Leadership Programmes Joseph Stoltz.
That year, the American and French forces planned to link up and attack British-occupied New York.
Beforehand, the allies conducted a “reconnaissance in force” to get the British to shoot at them so that engineers and cartographers” could spot the British forts, Stoltz said at the library. “As the Americans and the French are thinking through what would an attack on New York look like, they realise this is going to be a lot more complicated.”
Aides produced hand-drawn maps and a 30-page plan in French – which was also donated to the library – and presented them to Washington and the French general Rochambeau, Stoltz said.
“This would have been one of the maps,” he said.
“New York Island” was protected by a network of forts, from Harlem Creek to the tip of Manhattan, the maps showed.
The attack would have required seven different assaults, and the generals realised, “This is not a good idea,” Stoltz said. “It would have been way out of their league.” They began looking for alternative targets, and “as a result of these maps” started a contingency plan for besieging Yorktown, he said.