University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab has launched "Visualizing Emancipation" (, an interactive online map that shows where and when slavery fell apart during the American Civil War.

The map enables users to set in motion more than 3,000 events that occurred across the South during the war. It displays them alongside the movement of Union troops and the shifting legal boundaries of slavery, providing new understandings of where and when emancipation occurred.

“Emancipation did not happen on just a few days, by a single document, or on a fixed field of battle,” said Edward L. Ayers, president and a historian of the American South at University of Richmond. “It came around the edges of the story. It started before the war began and ended long after the smoke cleared. It happened on dark roads and in formal government documents. It started, stopped, raced forward and cut back.”

Ayers and Scott Nesbit, associate director of the lab, led the project.

“The trick,” Nesbit said, “is making the patterns of emancipation visible to scholars, students and the public, while acknowledging the complexity of when, where, and how slavery fell apart in the American South. It is clear from this project that the chance for freedom first and most consistently came on water and rails, following in the footsteps of the Union army.” 

“Visualizing Emancipation” takes advantage of sources that had already been digitized, linking back to military correspondence, newspapers, and wartime letters and diaries. It invites users to help fill in the gaps in evidence using documents found online and in archives across the country.

The Digital Scholarship Lab partnered with Azavea, a geospatial analysis software development company, to develop the project. The online application uses open source tools including OpenLayers, GeoServer and PostGIS to build an interactive timeline and heatmaps on a mapping interface. 

The project was partially funded by an Office of Digital Humanities start-up grant of $48,155 through the National Endowment for the Humanities’ We the People initiative.