The website “Hidden Patters of the Civil War” raises the bar for scholarly historical sites. Hosted by the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, it was created by Robert K. Nelson, Scott Nesbit, Nathaniel Ayers, Nathan Altice and Edward L. Ayers.

Hidden Patterns pushes beyond the standard practice of placing a wealth of material online with editorial commentary. The creators demonstrate how we can use modeling techniques to discern patterns within historical data to deepen our understanding of particular regions or events—in this case, wartime Richmond, Va. While some readers might understandably tire of the Virginia-is-the-South theory, the site authors argue that the Confederate capital represented much of the larger Confederacy. The material presented here, and especially the techniques that created it, should convince any viewer of the site’s value.

Of Hidden Patterns’ four textual and five mapping subsites, “Mining the Dispatch” is one of the best. It uses the Richmond Daily Dispatch and a technique called topic modeling to generate topics that reveal patterns in the hundreds of Dispatch issues produced between 1860 and 1865. This technique reveals patterns scholars did not know were there, inspiring new questions and answers about the past.

Other subsites include the “Virginia Secession Convention,” which looks at the state’s secession debates in 1861 with the full text of delegates’ speeches and demographic data on the counties they represented—data that may explain some of their positions. “Mapping Richmond’s Slave Market” highlights the work of painter Eyre Crowe. Moved by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Crowe visited Richmond in 1853 and sketched slave auctions until locals ran him off.

With modern interpretations by art historian Maurie McInnis, the urban footprint offered in Frederick W. Beers’ 1876 Richmond City Atlas and assistance from Google Earth, 21st-century viewers can view a wealth of detail about Richmond’s commercial district, focusing on the slave markets and auxiliary businesses. Other sections map the movements of newly emancipated individuals, and Civil War voting patterns (on a national level). “Text Mapping” uses statistical analysis and visualization to reveal new patterns in newspaper data previously presented in “The Valley of the Shadow” project.

Hidden Patterns ranks among the top three Civil War websites I have ever visited, not just for the material it presents, but also for the work it will inspire in the future. Simply put: Get to your computer and be prepared to devote several hours to a site that will be calling you back for years to come.


Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here