I've begun this project by generating a topic model for the Dispatch with forty topics. Below are most of those topics. (Three topics are excluded, all of which struck me as less than substantive: one consisted of a articles that listed lots of place, another that listed losts of people, and a third that simply seemed remarkably incoherent.) I have given each topic a label based upon my reading of pieces drawn from that category; these labels are informed judgment calls and are imperfect. I've also organized these topics in to a series of themes to juxtapose topics that had some relation to one another. The sparklines (which you can click on for a more detailed view) show the changing space the topic occupied in the paper between November 1860 and March 1865. For many of the themes I've added some brief commentary that interprets the graphs and provides what I hope is some useful context. This remains a work in progress, so I'll be adding more interpretation and context for these themes in the future.


As analyzed in the introduction, juxtaposed with one another these two topics evidence challenges to and the resiliency of the institution of slavery in Richmond during the Civil War. The thousands of fugitive slave ads that appeared in the paper during the war attest to the efforts of enslaved men and women to escape slavery. Hiring and wanted ads, on the other hand, evidence the continued resiliency of the hiring out market in Richmond throughout the entirety of the war.

Nationalism and Patriotism

"Of Monsters, Men — and Topic Modeling" from the New York Times Disunion blog presents a brief but deeper analysis of the "anti-northern diatribes" and "patriotism and poetry" topics.

The topics "poetry and patriotism" and "anti-northern diatribes" both aimed to motivate southerners to rally to the Confederate cause. Articles in "poetry and patriotism" called on southern men to defend their homes, their wives, and their sacred honor. The quintessential articles for this topic are poems that appealed to country, God, honor, duty, and bravery (all highly common and predictive words in this topic). In contrast to the florid and elegiac style of "poetry and patriotism," the language of the "anti-northern diatribes" is profoundly vitriolic. Whereas articles in "poetry and patriotism" celebrated the valiant southern soldier, those in "anti-northern diatribes" viciously condemned northern society. For the editor of the Dispatch, northern society was a haven of political and religious fanaticism and immorality that had cast off the restraints of the Constitution and Christianity and reverted to barbarism. Northern cities had become "sewers into which the whole world has poured its superflous filth and scum," poisoned by decades of European immigration. Northerners, immigrant and native-born alike, were "beastly and degraded," "Pariahs of modern civilization," "an assemblage of brutes and demons, whose fitting end is to be destroyed." Yankee soldiers were even worse, "Wretches who can murder women and children ... [who] ought to be hunted down like wild beasts." Promises of divine retribution against the infidel, licentious, fanatical North consistently punctuated these editorials. These two topics—one extolling the selfless, brave southern soldier, the other condemning the selfish, vicious northern soldier and citizen—are two sides of the same coin. As their graphs suggest, their prominence in the paper rose and fell together. Taken together they provide a register of when and how southern nationalism was deployed in the pages of the Dispatch. The peaks during the first half of 1861, the spring of 1862, and the spring of 1865 correspond to the beginning of the war, the beginning of conscription in April 1862, and the end of the war.

These two topics are related to a third, "secession." This topic focused on issues of law, generally defending the actions of the Confederate states in withdrawing from the Union as constitutional. The rise in the amount of space for these three topics occupied in the Dispatch during the first half of 1861 provide a barometer of the steady ascendency—not a sudden triumph—of secessionist sentiment and the erosion of Unionism in Richmond during the secession crisis and the first months of the war.


As soon as Virginia seceded in April 1861 the paper began to carry pieces about the recruitment, organization, and arming of military units. Appeals to southern patriotism and diatribes about northern immorality alone were not adequate to fill the Confederate ranks. In April 1862 the Confederacy initiated conscription to draft southern men into the army. The graph for articles that offered rewards for the apprehension of deserters, which peaked later that spring, evidences the many southern men who did not want to fight in the army for whatever reason and who deserted. Two other topics in the paper—one consisting primarily of casuality reports, the other devoted to prisoners of war—show two of the reasons why some men might resist service. They register the painful, sometimes tragic, price that was paid by many men in the Confederate and the Union armies.

Often the "false positives" in these topics are particularly interesting. This is the case with some fugitive slave ads that had a high proportion in the topic I've labeled "deserters" in this model. Examples include an ad from the summer of 1862 and another two years later. Both of these ads are unusual for the genre. The typical fugitive slave ad was for a single individual. These two ads instead contained lists of slaves who had run away. The first listed three dozen enslaved men who had been hired out to the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac River, the second nine enslaved men and women. In the latter case, these men and women used a Union raid into Lunenburg county as an opportunity to attempt escape. The former case possibly involved the Union army too; these three dozen enslaved men may have used the Union's capture in April 1862 of portions of the railroad north of Fredericksburg as an opportunity to seize their freedom. Interestingly, the topic model identified these two ads as deserter ads. In part this is explicable because of their atypical nature. Yet the inability of the topic model to always successfully distinguish between fugitive slave ads and deserter notices is interesting. There are number of fugitive slave ads where the topic proportions are nearly evenly split between the "deserters" and "fugitive slave ads" topics. (A few examples are ads from March 21, November 25, and December 11, 1861.) One wonders if the deserter ad was in some ways a derivation from the genre of the fugitive slave ad. After all, both were used to attempt to manage and retain a labor force, a portion of which resisted by running away.