Author Interview: Elizabeth Belanger

Author Interview: Elizabeth Belanger

This month, we are sharing an interview with Elizabeth Belanger, author of “‘A Perfect Nuisance’: Working-Class Women and Neighborhood Development in Civil War St. Louis,” which appeared in our March 2018 issue. Elizabeth is an associate professor of American Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and has published in the Journal of American History, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, and the Public Historian.


Thanks so much for talking with us, Beth, especially during such a busy point in the semester! I want to begin by hearing more about how you became interested in this subject. What led you to pursue this line of research?

My article draws from the wonderful collection of complaints, investigations, and official correspondence that make up the Missouri Union Provost Marshal papers. During the Civil War, the Union Army, and specifically the Provost Marshal, was tasked with keeping order in St. Louis. His office compiled large amounts of paperwork, including original complaints filed by Union women against Confederate sympathizing women. As I began to sort out St. Louis women’s complaints from the much larger collection of materials, I was struck, apart from the multiple misspellings and name variations employed by different officials for the same person, by the tone and vehemence of working class women’s testimonies. Their zealousness in asserting Union loyalties were matched only by the number of profanities they slung at their Confederate sympathizing counterparts. Looking at these documents, two patterns emerged. First, the use of the term “nuisance” to describe Confederate sympathizing women. Second, the fact that (thanks to the thoroughness of the Provost Marshal’s office) almost every complaint made sure to note where the accused and accuser lived. Who were these women? What was it about the setting of Civil War St. Louis that brought out such strong emotions? Why did they use term “nuisance” to describe other women? And finally, what did all of these questions have to do with the geographical space in which these women lived? These are the questions that animated my research.

That sounds like a real treasure trove of documents. Given your emphasis on examining neighborhoods, can you share with us the value of urban history for scholars of the Civil War era?

Scholarship in urban history adds new dimensions to our study and conceptualization of the “home front” and “battlefield” in the Civil War era. One of the points I make in my article is that many inhabitants of St. Louis considered the city as an extension of the battlefield. Even though historians might not classify the many skirmishes that happened on St. Louis’s streets as “battles,” it’s clear to me that St. Louis’s residents believed they were part of a larger war effort long after the Confederate Army had left the region.

What you do see as your contribution to the historiography of women’s loyalty during the war? And, how does your work inform our understanding of the unique situation in border states like Missouri?

My work examines the role women played in shaping the home front political climate. Like most historians, I build on a foundation of previous historical scholarship. In my case, I looked to other women’s historians: Anne Marshall, Judith Giesberg, and Sharon Romeo, to name a few. In my article, I took a close look at the spatial politics of women’s war activism. In St. Louis, working class women used an administrative apparatus of war, the Union Provost Marshal’s Office, to wage political battles against their neighbors. Mapping the arena in which these women acted, the streets and buildings of their neighborhood, illuminates the role of women in shaping dialogues about political, ethnic, and, to some extent, class differences, in a city that lived and breathed the war.

As a Union occupied city in the Upper South, St. Louis is a fascinating case study of the material effects the Civil War had on an occupied populace. As historians LeeAnn Whites, Adam Arenson, and others have noted, St. Louis also became a testing ground for the Union to develop occupation policies and protocols. How was the Union going to deal with city residents who supported the Confederacy? Looking closely at a border city like St. Louis shines light on the extent to which everyday city residents, in my case working class women, worked in, around, and with these developing protocols. It demonstrates how occupation was a process, an ongoing negotiation that reveals how residents thought of themselves in relation to their neighbors, their city, and their government.

Your article also embraces the “spatial turn” in historical scholarship. Can you explain what the spatial turn is, and how you approached this research?

Um….. how much time do you have for this interview? All joking aside, I would describe the “spatial turn” in historical scholarship as a renewed interest into how questions of space and place intersect with the many other questions that categorize historical scholarship. For example, in my own research I asked how the experience of neighborhood space shaped and was shaped by working class women’s political loyalties in a Civil War border city. I would hesitate to call these questions new. Since the beginning of the profession, historians have understood the importance of situating their work within a larger geographical context. What characterizes today’s spatial turn, however, is the accessibility of mapping software that makes it easier for researchers to visualize the spatial contours of their work. I’m not sure I could have discovered the patterns I discovered in my data without GIS technology. Just to give you an idea of my methods, here is how the visual elements of the project unfolded.

Because of its historic nature, I had to transfer location data by hand. So I would find an address in the Provost Marshal’s records, locate the address on a historic map, and then transfer the historic data into a latitude and longitude on a computer map. Each type of location, home of accuser and accused, market, streetcar line, public building etc., was on a separate map “layer.” Once I was done placing these sites, the GIS software allowed me to combine, sort, and overlay the various layers. It allowed me to visualize the relationship between, let’s say, the homes of my accused women and the locations of streetcar lines. I do think it’s important to note, however, while technology allowed me to store and present my data, at the end of the day, I approached my research just like any other historian–I looked for patterns, relationships, and silences in the data.

That sounds complicated and time consuming, but it can clearly help you see your data in new and interesting ways, as we learned from your article. Do you have any advice for those who might be interested in exploring this spatial turn? Are there any specific resources that novices might find helpful?

It’s been amazing for me to watch just how quickly mapping technology has advanced since I first found the Missouri Union Provost Marshal Papers. I used desktop ArcGIS to construct my maps, but I made that decision, in part, because my institution had ArcGIS software and support staff. Today there are a multitude of free and subscription services designed for individuals who are new to GIS including Carto, Mapbox, and Google Maps. ArcGIS also has an online platform. All of these sites have online tutorials although I have to confess I benefited immensely from working with a member of our support staff to learn the ArcGIS program. Equally, if not more important, is the incredibly body of scholarship (both online and in print) which draws from spatial technologies. Kelly Knowles and May Hillier’s book Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship was one of the first I read. Stephen Robertson’s work on Digital Harlem (digitalharlem.org) broadened my vision of the types of questions maps could help answer. I also found it valuable to look for models outside of the discipline of history and found the work of geographers Mona Domosh and Don Mitchell compelling examples of the difference place and space make in historical scholarship.[1]


Thank you so much for participating in the interview, Beth. To learn more about Civil War St. Louis, please check out her article in our March 2018 issue, on Project Muse. And readers, if you have questions, please leave them in the comments here or on Facebook!

 

 

[1] Anne Kelley Knowles, ed., Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship (Redlands, CA: Esri Press, 2008); Mona Domosh, “Those “gorgeous incongruities”: Polite Politics and Public Space on the Streets of Nineteenth-Century New York City,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 88, no. 2 (1998);209-226; Don Mitchell, The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space (New York: Guilford, 2003).

 

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