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.
The full interview can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.