Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lydia Atkinson Arrives in the Old Dominion to Teach at Camp Wadsworth

During the spring and summer of 1864, the Friends' Association for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen became an integral part of relief efforts in the contraband camps across Northern Virginia. One facet of the group's activities involved the appointment of teachers to educate former slaves living in the camps. The Friends' Association was appalled by reports of child labor abuses on the government farm at Camp Wadsworth and in June 1864 sought to remedy the situation by sending a teacher there. As I have written in previous posts, the Friends' Association chose 20-year-old Lydia T. Atkinson of New Jersey to serve as the teacher at the camp near Langley.

A few months ago I discovered that the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College has Atkinson's diary from the period that she was teaching in Northern Virginia. I wrote to obtain copies and received excepts a few weeks later. I wanted to share with readers some impressions that Atkinson recorded around the time that she began her charitable work in Northern Virginia.

At the end of July 1864, Atkinson's father accompanied her to Philadelphia, where she planned to take an overnight train to Washington. As Atkinson bid her dad farewell, she felt overcome by the pain of separation:
Ah, not until that last sad parting came, did I realize how great a trial it was to leave all that was dearest to me behind. It was hard to leave my home and mother yet father was with me then, but when his dear form was really lost to sight -- it seemed for a moment as though I must spring apart and implore him not to leave me! (Diary, July 24, 1864.)
Following a visit with some friends, Atkinson headed to the depot and boarded the train, which was soon "speeding away towards Washington." (Diary, July 24, 1864.)  According to the teacher, "[i]t was a magnificent night -- the full moon shone gloriously down, lending a strange witching charm to every object we passed." (Diary, July 24, 1864.) As the train continued over the miles of track, Atkinson had a hard time finding some rest:
It was long before my eyelids grew heavy with sleep, the beauty of the scene -- the novelty of my position, thoughts of dear ones at home and the new and untried life I was about to enter kept me wide awake until mid-night, after which I dozed but woke at all places of interest. (Diary, July 24, 1864.)
The teacher was well aware of Jubal Early's recent raid into Maryland:
All was quiet as we passed through the cities -- Wilmington, Havre de Grace, Baltimore, etc. Crossing the "Gunpowder" which a week before had been the scene of such intense excitement while the rebels were in Maryland. I began to realize that I was passing over ground that had been trodden by our bitter foes. (Diary, July 24, 1864.) 
Atkinson's thoughts turned to the nation at war:
When I closed my eyes for a moment to rest, I seemed to be vaguely wandering in a dreamland or among the fairies. I dreaded the day dawn which should bring me to a realization of my position. All was so beautiful and calm whispering to the awakened of the goodness and mercy of Him who created all these beauties and reigns in eternal majesty above us. I marveled can it be that man can look upon such a night and not feel toward all mankind a Christ-like love and charity. Yet at that very hour, thousands in our fair land were engaged in deadly conflict with other thousands conscious only of the bitterest hatred and undying hostility towards their foes. Such, alas, is war. The fearful result of the foul war that has so long attended our nation's glory. (Diary, July 24, 1864.)
Engraving of a freedmen's school (courtesy of Georgia Studies Images).

Atkinson arrived in the nation's capital and arranged for transportation to Virginia. On July 26 she recorded her thoughts and impressions as she headed to Virginia and arrived at Camp Wadsworth; the passage is well worth quoting at length:
At last I have reached my destination and stand on the "Sacred Soil" alone among strangers, home and friends so far away! And how do I feel? I scarcely dare attempt to define the emotions that thrill my heart -- everything is so new and strange around me. . . The wagon come for us this morning about eleven and dear Auntie Bigelow accompanied me to my new home. The country we rode through was very beautiful and at first I enjoyed it -- but as we came on and on each weary mile we passed seemed a broken link between home and dear ones and my heart grew oh so heavy! Had I been alone I should have felt almost despairing, especially when one of the numerous guards found some flaw in our pass and we were obliged to return nearly two miles to the Provost Marshall's office. Of course he had gone to dinner and we must wait nearly an hour, not knowing then but we wo'd have to return to the city. We made it all right however and we were allowed to proceed, but I felt so discouraged! At length we reached the long talked of Camp Wadsworth. Driving in, women and children crowded around the carriage, and when it was whispered the new teacher had come, there were evident signs of delight. (Diary, July 26, 1864.)
Atkinson assumed her new duties at the contraband farm, and by November, the Friends Association could report that "the children under her care had advanced rapidly in their studies, and the adults had greatly improved in housekeeping." (First Annual Rpt. 13.)

A month after Atkinson's arrival, the Friends dispatched another teacher to join her at Camp Wadsworth. Mary McLain soon arrived to work at a second school on the government farm. The Friends placed a high priority on educating the freedmen and women around the nation's capital, and Camp Wadsworth clearly stood at the front and center of their efforts.


Board of Managers, Friends' Assn. for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen, First Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Friends' Assn. for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen (1865); Lydia T. Atkinson, Personal Diary (1864).

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