Linn’s Narrative as Revealed By GIS

GIS or Graphic Information System, is a quantitative method for parsing vast amounts of information in  geospatial context. For the case of James Merrill Linn and his 1862 experience in the Civil war, GIS allows us to give spacial context to his narrative. The existence of certain topological features, distances covered and object encountered all have a vital effect on Linn’s experience. All of this information can be neatly organized in the form of a highly interactive and flexible map. We can mark Linn’s journey through space and give detail to the characteristics present. As Bodenhammer points out, GIS and more generally viewing history through a spatial lens is a fundamental shift in the way history is understood (15). Bodenhammer claims that with a periodic or chronological analysis, certain details can be lost, a recent shift accompanying GIS towards a space includes many benefits. Any region of space has a multitude of inherent characteristics vital for historical understanding.  Bodenhammer writes, “Spaces are not simply settings of historical action but are a significant product and determinant of change…all spaces contain embedded stories about what happened there.”(16) In a general sense this means that spatial thinking elucidate the complexities of history as they are vital actors in historical events. Spaces are embedded with the cultural codes of whatever political arrangements took place. For example, as pointed out by Bodenhammer,  the descepency between European settlers who saw the North American continent as a wilderness, a resource to be consumed and the Native Americans who saw it as home (16). With this information and other historical sources like maps and written observation we can attempt to rebuild a world lost to time.


The question remains, is GIS in fact a source of objective knowledge or simply a method of interpretation? Bodenhammer claims that GIS is not simply a method but the incorporation of diverse forms of data reveal new information as an emergent property.  Does GIS provide an empirical truth or simply the view  of an observer? Bodenhammer acknowledges issues, ” Knowledge was always contingent on the perspective of the observer. Even calculations of the material world depended upon cultural assumptions.” For example, when is a river a creek or a brook? When is a pile a mound and when is it a mountain? As a response Bodenhammer points out that regardless of name, the object and its nature remains the same, through the nature of GIS we can introduce rigid definitions that are flexible through continually evolving technology, preserving some state of objectivity and reducing cultural artifacts (18).


As for Linn, GIS provided many advantages in understanding his narrative. For example, I was surprised by the length and nature of the distances between known location that Linn had to cross. Current physical and historical maps revealed the nature of the terrain covered, including swamp, and thick woods. My page of Linn’s diary heavily featured a state of exhaustion, seeing  the path Linn took it is easy to understand his condition, a spatial understanding of Linn’s world was necessary for the contextualization of this knowledge.