MIDDLEBURY — The question “What was General Lee thinking at Gettysburg?” has puzzled historians for decades. For Middlebury College geography professor Anne Kelly Knowles, the question came to her almost at the same time as a way to uncover the answer.
A pioneer in historical geography, Knowles uses geographic information systems (GIS) technology to shed light on historical questions and situations. The technology can process and analyze massive databases, so long as the data is attached to a physical location.
“What I love about GIS is that it gives me more ways to answer interesting questions,” Knowles said in an interview. “(It) is a tremendously flexible, adaptable tool for solving geographical problems and understanding the physical world and the social world.”
Knowles has used GIS to examine many social and historical phenomena, including changes over time in American iron industry factories and the geographies of Nazi camps and ghettos during the Holocaust.
The technology, she said, enables scholars to create “a much more detailed picture than historians could have accessed previously.”
Her innovative integration of GIS and historiography recently earned Knowles a coveted Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in the area of historical scholarship.
The project that caught the Smithsonian Institute’s eye was her work on the Battle of Gettysburg. But to hear Knowles speak of it, her groundbreaking project — dynamic, multi-layered maps that literally show what General Lee could and could not see through each step of the battle, which in turn sheds light on his decision-making and state of mind — occurred to her almost by accident.
Knowles had already used GIS to make sense of a massive dataset of iron industry factories and knew of the GIS function called “viewshed analyses,” which she said is most commonly used by high-end real estate developers to figure out the best views from a property.
“I was also told it was used to help ski resorts place the top of a ski lift so that when people got to the top, they would have that ‘eureka!’ moment,” Knowles added with a laugh.
Her interest in Gettysburg and Robert E. Lee dated back to her graduate school days, Knowles said, when she studied history as well as geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“One of my most exciting classes was a class on Civil War history, where we particularly studied the personalities of generals,” Knowles said. “I wrote a paper on Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, and I became fascinated by those characters, and how their character influenced command decisions.”
This study led to Knowles’ own eureka moment when linked GIS and Lee at Gettysburg.
“I was certainly interested in Gen. Lee, I’d studied him some, and somehow ‘viewshed’ and ‘Lee’ came together,” Knowles said. “I was living in Washington, D.C., at the time, which is not far from Gettysburg. I had visited with my family. Anyway, it came together in this question.”
By recreating the landscapes that Lee, the leader of the Confederate army, saw from his command post at Gettysburg, Knowles gained insight into how he was thinking over the course of the three-day battle that marked the farthest northern advance of the Confederate army in the Civil War. For one, she could show that Lee didn’t see the Union Army troops coming to reinforce the Union lines.
Her maps also show details of the battlefield that led Lee to order the infamous Pickett’s Charge, which sent thousands of Confederate soldiers in a suicidal march across an open field under enemy fire.
“Our research suggests that what he witnessed unhinged him and made him give a command that was hopeless,” Knowles told Smithsonian.
Historians looking on the battlefield today do not see the same scene as Lee because new plants, a reservoir and quarry have changed the topography.
Knowles’ use of GIS to answer historical questions is an innovative use of a technology that is often used elsewhere for practical, problem solving like mapping voters in electoral districts or plotting a new sewage system for a city. The first GIS, Knowles said, was developed by the Canadian government to analyze and make sense of land use across a country that has the second-largest land mass on Earth.
“The basic method for making any map, even a really slick digital map, is to create layers of information that come into registration with one another to tell some kind of story,” she said.
That story can be basic: these are structures where people live, this is how many people are there. Knowles was part of a movement in the mid-1990s that began to use GIS to explore more complex stories.
“A small group of historians and historical geographers were really very interested in applying GIS creatively to very large data sets about history, and to answer historical questions that were really geographical,” she said.
In her current project Knowles works with the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. For the past six years, she has been on a team of nine interdisciplinary scholars that the museum gathered to analyze and interpret massive amounts of data on Holocaust victims and survivors.
“I felt chills down my spine,” she remembers. “Immediately, my mind started racing with the many geographies of the Holocaust, what a powerful thing it would be to dig into that. I was hooked immediately.”
Some of what Knowles has explored to date include mapping the Budapest ghetto to see how its geography affected Jewish families’ vulnerabilities to surveillance and access to food; mapping the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp to see how, over time, the Nazis built structures that deviated from their ideal plan; and an animation that maps Nazi incarceration centers, internment camps, and concentration camps across the Europe from the early 1930s until the end of the war. More than 80 Middlebury College students have assisted with research and worked on the project in the past several years.
Though manipulating GIS technology is an acquired skill, and a practical skill, Knowles believes there are other factors that are more important to doing interesting work with GIS tools and in her academic fields more broadly.
“You can have conceptual approaches to geography that are historical, because they come from historical questions. That doesn’t take GIS. That takes a geographic imagination,” Knowles said.
The geographical imagination is something that Knowles tries to cultivate in her students. It is not a technical achievement, but a way of understanding interactions between human beings and geographic space.
“Something that works for almost everyone is drawing maps,” said Knowles. “I start out most students making maps with colored pencils and tracing paper … if you do it by hand, something happens in the mind. An eye-hand-brain connection that is a little more spatial. More spatial than doing it on a computer. ”