The Internet has made it possible for us to reach a great many more persons than writing a small-press-run book and hiding it in the cobwebbed stacks of miscellaneous libraries. Blogs on the Internet put a lot of chaff out there for others to see and read. But they do offer an unparalleled opportunity to reach some Web users interested in subjects bonding them together. I hope these blogs, more or less to be aired each week will pique your interest and keep you coming back for more.
There's nothing an author likes to do more than get the viewer's or reader's interest. If he or she can do this, the Web user may be put into a jocular frame of mine to put up with a writer. Each blog will probably contain a lively treatment of some off-beat or little-known incident in Athens or Clarke County during the Civil War or Reconstruction. Here's the first one:
The Confederate Veteran Who Taught Ex-Slaves in a Yankee Freedmen's Bureau School in Athens, Georgia—and a Union drum major who taught ex-slaves in Athens
Lt. Col. Homer B. Sprague of the 13th Connecticut Infantry Regiment of Volunteers served as the first Freedmen's Bureau agent in Athens, although he was on active duty with occupation forces here in 1865. He encouraged the earliest efforts to educate ex-slaves in Athens and Clarke County. Blacks ardently wished to become literate. It had been illegal during slavery. Most white citizens didn't want ex-slaves educated and gave almost no support to efforts by the federal government to do so, or to efforts by such groups as the American Missionary Association, which furnished many of the teachers for ex-slaves throughout the South.
The Yankee drum major was Bernard P. Jacobs, about 22 years old when he saw duty in Athens with the 156th Regiment, New York Volunteers. He was mustered in as drummer, Co. I, Nov. 18, 1862. He was promoted to fife major on that same date, and made regimental Drum Major Feb. 19, 1864. (From files of the Adjutant General of New York, 1904, and records in the Athens Freedmen's Bureau correspondence.)
"The Colored School of Athens (at the Colored Baptist Church) was opened on the 10th of August, 1865, taken charge of, conducted by Mr. Barnerd [sic] J. [sic] Jackobs [sic], Drum Major of the 156th Regt., New York Volunteers. . ," the Rev. William Finch, a prominent African-American leader in Athens wrote to Freedmen's Bureau Supt. of Georgia Schools, G. I. Eberhart. There were about 60 to 70 pupils in this first black school.
"I don' think that children by any means made more rappid [sic] progress than they have done under Mr. Jacob's teaching. He has become a great favorite among the colored people. . . by his gentlemanly conduct and general good behavior and I know the colored people of Athens would do anything to have Mr. Jacobs come again, after him being discharged from the service of the United States. I don't suppose that any colored school has been opened any where under more difficult circumstances than his without any help and hardly any books," the Rev. Mr. Finch said. Jacobs was mustered out on Oct. 23, 1865.
The Confederate Veteran: Leonard S. Schevenell, a member of an early Athens family headed by Richard Schevenell, had enlisted in Company G of the North Carolina Infantry, also called the Highland Guards. He joined at age 18. A number of Athens men had joined the 25th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, as had Schevenell. He mustered in on April 1862. He mustered out on April 9, 1865, the day Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Schevenell didn't go into details about why he wanted to teach. He must have taken severe criticism from white townspeople for teaching blacks. Richard Schevenell, Leonard's father, had one 61-year-old female slave, according to the enumeration in the 1860 Federal Census.
"I am a white man and the only Southern man I know of engaged in teaching Freedmen," he wrote to Eberhart on Nov. 2, 1865. Schevenell said he began teaching in Athens on Aug. 14, 1865 ". . . on which day I organized the school of which I now have charge." He had 26 pupils. His school met in an African-American church. "There is a general disposition among the colored people to educate their children but very few of them are able to pay for their tuition [$1 per month per student]. The children progress very well in their studies as in general they pay more attention to their lesson than white children," he wrote the school superintendent.
"Being dependant [sic] on my labor for a support I fear I shall have to discontinue my school activities as the amount that I receive for tiuition is insufficient," Schevenell explained.
The Confederate veteran was criticized in a letter written to Supt. Eberhard by Daniel Hough: "The other school is taught by Mr. L. Schevenell, a Confederate soldier, and in my opinion does not amount to much. I don't think he will continue."
Schevenell remained in Athens for many years, but not teaching school. He worked at various times as a bookkeeper and carpenter, and was employed by the Athens Evening News. On Dec. 16, 1904, the Athens Weekly Banner reported his death, saying he died Dec. 8, 1904, falling from the Georgia Railroad trestle into the Oconee River. He is buried in Oconee Hill Cemetery in Athens.
This unlikely pair of Yankee drum major and Confederate Infantry veteran were the forerunners in what would become a major effort to give African Americans an education. During Reconstruction and afterward, many schools gave blacks their first education, long before the whites in Athens had public schools. Whites were also invited to attend Freedmen's Bureau schools, but there is no record any of them wanted to be educated with blacks.
These are mere vignettes of brief teaching careers, but we wonder what motivated the New Yorker and the Athenian to teach black children in Athens. Union military unit members also taught in other Freedmen's Bureau schools and received encouragement to do so. Schevenell, a returning veteran, seemed to count on the low pay to support himself. Jobs were few and far between in Athens that soon after the Civil War.