Thursday, April 9, 2015

"Heaven Has Seemed to Prosper and Aid Our Cause": Lydia Atkinson Reactsto Lee's Surrender

Today marks the Sesquicentennial of General Robert E, Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. On this occasion, I thought readers might enjoy a particularly relevant except that I discovered in the diary of Lydia T. Atkinson, a teacher at the contraband camp on Mason's Island.

(courtesy of Wikipedia)

In summer 1864 the Friends' Association for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen had sent Atkinson to teach former slaves at Camp Wadsworth in Langley. Due to government policies of binding out children at the camp, her school lost pupils, and the Friends transferred her to Mason's Island in fall 1864. A few months later, Atkinson learned of the momentous news of Lee's surrender. She described her feelings in a diary entry dated April 10, 1865:
Joy upon Joy—cheer upon cheer—love and thanksgiving and praise everywhere! Glory to God in the Highest on earth and Peace Good Will toward men! At dawn this morning were wakened by the loud thundering of guns from the neighboring forts and half sleepily I murmured “Lee has surrendered!” We really thought little of it however until the paper came announcing the glorious tidings! Oh! such a happy, grateful feeling took possession of the heart -- as we began to realize that the war must indeed be over -- and the blessed angel of Peace rest upon our noble banner. It was not the insanity of joy felt when Richmond fell—but a deep quiet happiness too intense for words! Truly God’s blessing seems now to rest upon the American nation! As we have learned to deal justly by the Negro—so Heaven has seemed to prosper and aid our cause.
Atkinson's sense of happiness and relief are incredibly moving, even after 150 years. Her feelings echo those of a war-weary nation upon learning of Lee's surrender that Palm Sunday at Appomattox Court House. Most strikingly, Atkinson's words bear witness to her deep-seated personal belief in the righteousness of the Union's fight for freedom and emancipation. The Quaker teacher, who through her own deeds contributed to the cause, plainly saw the hand of God in the victory over Lee's army.


On a related note, I wanted to remind readers that I will be speaking this evening before the Arlington Historical Society about the contraband camps of Northern Virginia. The event will start at 7 p.m at the Reinsch Library auditorium on the campus of Marymount University. Please click here for more information. I hope to see you there!


Thanks to the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College for providing me with the excepts from Lydia T. Atkinson's Personal Diary from 1864.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

WETA and the Arlington Historical Society: Video Short on NOVA's Contraband Camps

A few weeks ago I sat down to an interview on Northern Virginia's contraband camps with Mark Jones, a Senior Manager of Digital Media with WETA, the main PBS station in the Washington area. Mark works with the Arlington Historical Society (AHS) to create video previews of upcoming lectures sponsored by AHS. These shorts are published on Boundary Stones, WETA's local history blog. Mark contacted me about my upcoming presentation on the camps, which is scheduled for this Thursday at 7 p.m. at Marymount University. He and I talked for about an hour or so at the historic Cherry Hill Farmhouse (c. 1845) in Falls Church. We selected the location for the 19th century atmosphere, as well as the site's proximity to the spot where Camp Rucker, a contraband camp, was located. Thanks for Mark for putting together such a great mini-documentary! And so, without further ado, check out the video below and click here to see the entire post at Boundary Stones!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

N. Virginia Contraband Camps Presentation, Arlington Historical Society, April 9

I am pleased to report that the Arlington Historical Society has invited me to speak next month about the contraband camps of Northern Virginia. During the first years of the Civil War, thousands of slaves fled to Washington in search of freedom. As the number of “contrabands” grew, their living quarters became increasingly overcrowded and unsanitary, while the financial burden on the government continued to grow. Seeking to address these problems, the Union Army relocated freedmen and women to abandoned secessionist properties in Arlington and Fairfax during the spring of 1863. My talk will explore the history of these long-forgotten contraband camps, including economic, social, military, and political dimensions. My presentation will also offer some insights into where the camps were located in Northern Virginia. As readers know, this is a topic near and dear to my heart, and I look forward to spreading the story of the contraband camps.

Below and at the link is some additional information on the event. I hope to see you there!

When: 7:00 pm, Thursday, April 9

Where: Marymount University, 2807 N. Glebe Rd, Arlington, VA 22207, in the Reinsch Library auditorium.

The program is free and open to the public. For additional information, please contact 703-942-9247.


For those who take public transit: A free shuttle bus provided by Marymount University is available from the Ballston-MU Metro Station (Orange and Silver lines). The University is also accessible via Metro bus routes 23A and 23T; exit at the N. Glebe Road and Old Dominion Drive stop.

For those who drive: Marymount University provides free parking. Attendees should enter the main entrance gate (located at N. Glebe Road and Old Dominion Drive) and park in the main lot in front of The Lodge. If that lot is full, visitors may also park in the White Garage, located next to the Reinsch Library, or the Blue Garage, located under Ostapenko Hall. The Security Station at the main entrance can help direct where to park.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Civil War Views: Battery Martin Scott

This week's "Civil War Views" takes another look at the strategic Potomac River crossing of Chain Bridge. The defenses around the bridge became the subject of many wartime photographs and sketches. Aside from a lower battery at the Washington end of the bridge, another gun emplacement, known as Battery Martin Scott, occupied the heights immediate above. The battery was initially composed of two 32-pounders and one 8-inch seacoast howitzer mounted en barbette. Two 6-pounder rifled guns apparently replaced these three artillery pieces.

A few months ago, I discovered that the New York Public Library has made available a collection entitled, Sketches for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper : 138 original drawings of the Civil War by staff artists, 1861-1864. This set of drawings contains many fascinating images of Washington and environs during the early days of the Civil War. Among the drawings is this sketch by Arthur Lumley of Battery Martin Scott:

"High Battery at the Chain Bridge" (courtesy of New York Public Library)

As my friend and fellow blogger Craig Swain has pointed out, the three guns depicted here aren't very precise renderings of the actual armaments at the battery. Below the battery, the wooden span of Chain Bridge crosses the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the more distant Potomac River. A mule team pulls a boat along the canal. The gun position offers a commanding view of the Virginia shoreline and hills. Incidentally, Forts Marcy and Ethan Allen protected the approaches to Chain Bridge on the Virginia side. They cannot be seen here, but sat on the hills opposite the battery.

Lumley's sketch appears as an engraving in the November 9, 1861 issue of Frank Leslie's:

(courtesy of
The paper said the following about the illustration of Battery Martin Scott:
WAR is a fearful and wonderful teacher of topography. Places and objects which a few months ago were known only to travellers, or those dwelling on the spot, are now "familiar as household roads." Washington and its adjacent localities  are to the majority of readers now as well known to them as to their denizens. Among the more prominent spots is the Chain Bridge, which crosses the Potomac river at the Little Falls, about five miles above Washington City. It is the direct route from the camp at Tenellytown and Georgetown to Lewinsville and Langley, and is consequently a position of much importance. Our readers will perceive that the National Government has erected a powerful battery on the Maryland side, so as to sweep with utter destruction any hostile force. Now that the Federal Capital is safe, we trust Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee will be rescued from the rebel hordes, whose presence is unwelcome to the people of those States as it is humiliating to the National cause. (at 389-90.)
Today, I'd venture to speculate that once again, few outside the Washington area know the Chain Bridge! But Lumley's sketch reminds us of  the importance of such places over 150 years ago. So the next time you cross the river there, whether because you commute across the bridge daily, or because you are on a vacation in the area, think back to the sketch and engraving as you look up at the bluffs overlooking the Potomac.


Benjamin Franklin Cooling III & Walton H. Owen II, Mr. Lincoln's Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington (2010 ed.);  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Nov. 9, 1861; OR1:21:1, 911.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Civil War Views: Lower Battery at Chain Bridge

As readers may have noticed, things are a bit "quiet along the Potomac" here on the blog! With a newborn and increased responsibilities on the home front, the time I have for research and writing each night has dwindled considerably. That said, I have many new topics in the pipeline, and much of the related research is substantially completed, so I hope that I will be able to post some original, in-depth content here as we head into the spring and summer. In the meantime, I am launching a new visual series on the blog called, "Civil War Views."

I've recently come across some amazing drawings and photographs of wartime Washington, DC and Northern Virginia. It seems that every day that the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and other institutions are making more and more visual content available on the Internet. Rather than just post a newly discovered image on Facebook or Twitter, I felt it would be nice to offer a little context about the photograph, sketch, or engraving in a good, old-fashioned blog post! So now, without further ado, here is the first installment. . . .

I've written extensively about Chain Bridge over the years. Many of my posts have focused on the defenses that the Union Army erected to protect this key Potomac River crossing. I particularly like this relatively obscure photograph of the Lower Battery at Chain Bridge:

"Battery at Chain Bridge, Washington, D.C. 1862" (courtesy of the Library of Congress).

The photograph shows the battery that was established in 1861 on the Washington side of Chain Bridge. Gun crews pose next to a 12-pounder howitzer (l) and 24-pounder howitzer (r). (Thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Craig Swain for helping to verify!)  The artillery is positioned to fire through embrasures in the earthwork. A few soldiers stand guard, while others mill around at the end of the bridge. The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal is visible to the right side of the photograph. Incidentally, another gun emplacement, known as Battery Martin Scott, was located on the bluffs above the battery pictured here. More on that one in a future Civil War Views post!


Benjamin Franklin Cooling III & Walton H. Owen II, Mr. Lincoln's Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington (2010 ed.).