Few American cities have experienced as much change in so little time as did Richmond, Virginia during the Civil War. This website portrays these changes, but also uses the capital of the Confederate States of America as a lens for understanding the larger conflict itself.
Before understanding how the website accomplishes these two tasks, it is necessary to provide some background on both antebellum Richmond as well as on the Richmond Dispatch.
In 1860 Richmond, Virginia’s capital, had a population of 37,910 inhabitants, ranking it as the nation’s twenty-fifth largest city. A total of 23,595 of these residents were white. The remaining 14,315 inhabitants were composed of 11,739 slaves and 2,576 free African Americans. In addition to its racial divisions, Richmond featured two distinct and thriving ethnic populations, composed of Irish and German immigrants as well as their American-born descendants.
Richmond’s location on the James River had defined its development since the city’s founding in 1780. The city’s economic foundation was tied to the agricultural hinterlands as the James River for years had served as the primary transportation system for shipping raw materials and finished products. Richmond’s location at the falls of that river had allowed it to become the hub of this commerce. In addition, particularly during the two decades before the Civil War, the city had taken advantage of its location to become a significant manufacturing center as it was ranked thirteenth nationally in manufacturing—much of it due to its many flour and meal mills and tobacco factories. In addition, the city contained a number of rolling mills, foundries and, most notably, the Tredegar Iron Works, the largest employer in the city with 900 employees. Further, besides its industrial capacity, the city housed numerous hotels and formed a banking center for the Upper South. Clearly all of these factors would lead the newly-established Confederate government to vote on May 28, 1861 to shift its national capital from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond.
Despite the obvious advantages Richmond afforded, when the Confederacy had formed in early February of 1861, it was not only unclear that Richmond would become that nation’s new capital, but even whether Virginia would join with that new nation. Like the other states of the Upper South and the border states, Virginia was slow to leave the Union and join the Confederacy. Indeed, if on April 12, 1861, the Confederacy had not fired on Fort Sumter and thereby cause President Abraham Lincoln to call on the states to raise 75,000 troops to put down the rebellion, there is every reason to believe that Virginia would not have seceded. Back on February 4, when the city elected delegates to the state secession convention, reflecting the city’s conservative political nature two of the three delegates it chose were Unionists. Now, however, with President Lincoln compelling Virginians to take a side, the entire tenor in Virginia and Richmond shifted as all three of Richmond’s delegates joined with the majority of members of the state convention to pass an ordinance of secession on April 17.
When the delegates in Richmond reached their decision, it is doubtful that any of them realized to what degree the events of the next four years would change their state and its capital. This website traces those changes by digitizing the pages of the Richmond Dispatch, the city’s newspaper which with 1,800 subscribers equaled the circulation of all of its competitors combined. Further, as the city’s only non-partisan newspaper since its establishment in 1850, the publication had a reputation for featuring relatively unbiased news. As a daily publication (except for Sundays), the paper provided up-to-date information not only of the events of the city, but the state and Confederacy at large. As the wartime city’s population nearly tripled as it exceeded 100,000 residents and became the national capital, the newspaper’s daily message was addressed to an increasingly larger and much more national readership as it now focused its attention not just on local circumstances but featured news about the movers and shakers of the Confederate government and military. Indeed, starting with the Battle of First Manassas (Bull Run) in July 1861 and in its aftermath, when numerous Union prisoners and hundreds of wounded Confederate soldiers were brought to the city, it became evident that the fortunes of the Confederacy and Richmond were tightly woven.
One way to view these changes is simply to look how the Richmond Dispatch itself changed throughout the war. When the war began the newspaper’s annual subscription rate (for mailed copies) was four dollars. By 1863 that rate had risen to twenty-four dollars and by the last weeks of the conflict it reached one hundred dollars. Further, by summer of 1862 the paper’s traditional four-page format was dropped, likely because of the increasing costs of paper and other materials, in favor of a two-page publication for Monday through Friday, though the four-page edition was preserved on Saturday. In late December of 1864 the newspaper returned to a daily four-page format, but the page size was reduced by about one-third and the print size was increased substantially. Although the newspaper was physically much easier to read, especially now that it used a six-column format, it contained fewer words than before. Clearly the war-created inflation markedly altered the Richmond Dispatch.
As far as the content of the newspaper, the Richmond Dispatch experienced both continuity and change as seen by comparing two editions of the publication, April 18, 1861, the day after Virginia seceded and April 18, 1863, roughly the halfway point in the war. On Thursday, April 18, 1861, a Richmonder who purchased a copy of the paper at a newsstand for one cent not surprisingly found that page one devoted four of its first seven columns toward news of secession and the raising of the Confederate army. Indeed, the headline of column one, simply entitled “The War,” contained articles about events in Montgomery, Alabama, New Orleans, as well as what it termed the “mobocracy” in New York City. Column five discussed news ranging from events of Europe to such short stories as a railroad accident in Petersburg, the impact of the a recent local storm, the accidental death of a St. Louis boy, and a Cleveland man who was run over by a train. Column 6, entitled “Local Matters,” discussed the impact of the recent heavy storm on the Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad and how the recent bad weather hurt the local fruit crop. Turning to page two, a reader would find in the first column a story about a proclamation by Virginia’s Governor Letcher concerning the situation in Virginia. The rest of the columns on page two included news from Northern newspapers, especially New York City. The middle columns featured “Marine Intelligence” concerning shipping as well as boarding and lodging notices. Most notably it also contained “Military Notices” describing upcoming meetings, appointments of officers, and times for drills. Still, despite the clear indication that war had broken out, the entire next column featured an advertisement by Dr. Schlosser, a “surgeon chiropodist,” especially many testimonials about his effectiveness. The last column of page two included want ads, amusements, horses for sale, lost and stray animals, and “servants” for sale and hire. Turning to page three the reader would initially encounter various correspondence about events throughout Virginia including in Harrisonburg, Petersburg, Caroline County, and Gordonsville. The remainder of page three was devoted to advertisements for dry goods, hotels, auction sales of real estate, and rewards for runaway slaves. The sole exception to the many advertisements on page three was the column devoted to “Telegraphic News” from such cities as New York, Montgomery, Washington D.C., and Charleston.” Finally, turning to page four the reader would encounter a full page of ads which featured “Professional Cards” (mainly ads by attorneys), “Special Notices” (largely insurance brokers and woolens ads), steamboat and shipping information, sales of boots and shoes, restaurant notices, sales of china and glassware, tailoring, apothecaries, hates, one column featuring a traveler’s guide (mainly railroad schedules), information about the sale of wood and coal, and discussion of savings banks. Little drawings of such things as boots and shoes or steamboats helped readers quickly identify products or information that interested them.
If the same reader two years later on Saturday, April 18, 1863, purchased the Dispatch, the most noticeable change was that it had doubled in price to two cents at the newsstand, though it only included half as many pages. While this midwar edition of the paper was dominated by advertisements just like two years previously, there clearly were some obvious war-related changes. For example, on page one, column one, the paper now reported a summary of the news of the Confederate Congress that now met in the city. It also featured a column on the value of paper money, an increasingly critical topic for Richmonders and all Confederate residents. In column two it noted how Southern state governments were trying to increase food production and to “diminish extortion.” It also discussed how the letters of a captured member of the 7th Ohio Cavalry noted the tremendous opposition of Ohio Democrats to the new Federal conscription act. Column four, “Local Matters” featured much war-connected information, including how a deserter had recently been killed by the Provost Guard, how a Miss Laura Gordon was being tried in the Mayor’s Court for engagement in the recent food riot in the city, and that two “Yankee cavalrymen” had been brought to Libby Prison. An additional war-related feature on page one included a list of substitutes who had deserted. This detailed list not only indicated the names of these men, but their age, height, eye and hair color, and their occupation. Page two also included war-related information such as a notice about an act of the Confederate Congress to use Treasury notes to pay taxes, various ads placed by individuals looking for substitutes, and a special plea by the ladies of Robertson Hospital needing to procure milk paper. Finally, the newspaper contained a very large list of names of letter recipients being held at the Richmond post office. While such lists had appeared in the newspaper before the war, given the much more mobile population in the city the list of names now took up nearly two columns.
Surely included within the 23 million words digitized from the newspaper (featuring 520,000 surnames and 420,000 place names) users will discover something of interest to them whether it be the name of a soldier who died in one of Richmond’s many military hospitals, circumstances surrounding Federal prisoners who escaped from Libby Prison, an advertisement for a runaway slave, coverage of the debates in the Confederate Congress, or reports of a battle in far off Mississippi.
One important aspect of the website concerns newspaper advertisements. Because as a non-partisan publication the Richmond Dispatch did not receive funding from a political party, as previously-noted, it had to earn much of its revenue by selling advertising space. Advertisements provide an invaluable window not only on the city’s economy, but its social structure and culture. However, because they composed such an extensive part of the paper and were repeated day after day for weeks, in order to save money only one day of advertisements every two weeks has been digitized. Clearly this sampling still captures the diverse nature of these advertisements.
A final component of the website is that later versions will contain additional contemporary printed materials including, for example, the Richmond City Council Minutes, the County Court Minutes of neighboring Henrico County, as well as the printed diaries and correspondence of numerous individuals who found themselves in Richmond during this four year period. These supplemental sources will complement the contents of the newspaper and provide valuable perspective for this era.
Dr. Robert C. Kenzer, November 30, 2005