Isabella Skillman was a graduate of one of the earliest women’s colleges in the country, New York’s Rutgers Female Institute. Skillman was from Long Island; after her training she wanted to do something meaningful with her degree. She left the prestigious and grand Rutgers Female Institute, located in Manhattan, for a rural and remote part of the nation, recently devastated by Civil War. Isabella Skillman became a Freedmen’s Bureau teacher in Lincoln, Virginia.
Freedmen’s Bureaux did important work, but also had to carry on routine tasks that keep any bureacracy running. An illustration of that fact is found in a letter Isabella Skillman wrote to Freedmen’s Bureau Supervisor, Samuel Perry Lee.* Lee forwarded the letter to the Freedmen’s Bureau Leesburg, VA office. The two men’s comments are transcribed below:
Major Samuel Perry Lee (1833-1890) Superintendent Freedmen’s Bureau, 6th Educational Subdistrict January – April 1869
(National Archives M1048, Roll 8 P.758) Lincoln, Va, Aug 14th 1867
“States that she is teaching a Colored School in Lincoln, Loudoun Co. Va, commenced this season, the 1st of May, wishes transportation from Berlin, Md to New York City, and wishes to return to Virginia in September.” SB Lee
Sidney Byron Smith** wrote back to Samuel P. Lee: Leesburg, 27 Aug 1867
“Respectfully returned to Col. Lee with information to my certain knowledge that Miss Isabella Skillman, the within applicant, has been teaching a colored school under the auspices of Friends Society of Long Island H.S. for the past 10 months. The present term of her school began May 1st 1867. She is a very competent teacher and deserves transportation.” S. B. Smith
It was approved by Brown on Aug 30th.
(National Archives M1048, R.5, p.518 #287,288)
We know a little about Isabella Skillman, as well as other Lincoln, Virginia Freedmen’s Bureau teachers, Caroline Thomas and Alice Duvall (mentioned in the first and fourth paragraph of “The Freedmen”) from an article written by Samuel M. Janney in 1869 for the Society of Friends newspaper, Friends Intelligencer. Janney’s motive for writing the article might have been to keep donations coming toward the cost and upkeep of Freedmen’s Bureau schools:
Samuel Janney’s article mentioned a visit to the Philadelphia classroom taught by Caroline Thomas. Perhaps Janney convinced Miss Thomas to leave Philadelphia, because we know she also taught at a Freedmen’s school on William Tate‘s property near Lincoln, Virginia. An excellent study on Caroline Thomas has been done by Larry Roeder, of the Edwin Washington Project, and can be read here. Thomas filled out the March 1869 Teacher’s Monthly School Report from Lincoln, filing it with the Freedmen’s Bureau. She writes of being “assisted by the Friends of Long Island, N.Y.” Did the three teachers – Isabella Skillman, Caroline Thomas and Alice Duvall – attend Rutgers Female Institute and/or know each other from Long Island?
Teaching at Freedmen’s Schools wasn’t for the faint hearted. Though the formalities of war had ended, Southern culture still predominately opposed notions of equality for blacks, and that included education. Violent threats were common. The Fair Facs Gazette wrote about threats and attacks on teachers in northern Virginia. Young female teachers, usually coming from northern states, were frequently subjected to abuse and name calling or worse: thrown rocks, gun shots, death threats, and burned down school buildings.
It is a real disappointment that we have no pictures of the three brave and dedicated teachers, Isabella Skillman, Caroline Thomas, and Alice Duvall. They gave years of their lives and risked personal safety to bring education to formerly enslaved men, women and children of Loudoun County.
High calibre men ran Freedmen’s Bureau offices in the former Confederacy. Here are two examples, Leesburg’s Freedmen’s Bureau chief Colonel Samuel Perry Lee and Washington, D.C. regional Freedmen’s Bureau Superintendent Sidney Byron Smith:
*Samuel Perry Lee‘s military service: born in Hallowell, Kennebec Co., Maine, June 11, 1833; enlisted July 31, 1861 as 1st Lt., Co. E, 3rd Maine Infantry; prom. Capt., Co. E, Sept. 1, 1862; prom. Major Nov., 14, 1862; A.D.C. Gen. Birney and Gen. Sickles; wded. (Thigh) Battle of Fredericksburg, December 1862; wded. right arm (amputated) Battle of Gettysburg, July 1863; Veteran’s Reserve Corps November 1863 to 1864, Wash., DC; apptd. Commander Johnson’s Island POW Camp, Sandusky, Lake Erie, OH, July 1865 to Dec. 1865; on duty with Freemen’s Bureau Dec. 1865 to April 1869; apptd. Capt. 45th U.S. Inf., July 1866; (Bvt. Lt. Col., Mar. 1867 for “distinguished gallantry at Fredericksburg”); d. Oct. 20, 1890; bur. Arl. Natl. Cem., Arl., VA.
**Sidney Byron Smith (1836-1883) b. August 21, 1838, NY;
son of Torry and Jane Smith; moved to Ada, Kent Co., MI
c. 1840; enl. at Grand Rapids, MI, 3rd Cpl., Co. A, 3rd Mich.
Inf., May 13, 1861; prom. Sgt. date unknown; wded. (in the
body three times) Battle of Seven Pines, May 31, 1862;
absent (wded.) until Aug. 26, 1862; prom. 2nd Lt., Co. D, 3rd
Mich. Inf., Jan. 1, 1863; severely wounded, struck in the
left foot by cannonball resulting in its’ amputation, at the
Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, May 3, 1863; trans. 47th
Co., 2nd Btln. Veterans Reserve Corps, Aug. 20, 1863; trans.
Co. B, 12th Veterans Reserve Corps; m. Mariana Sutton
(1842-1921?), Sept. 4, 1866, Fairfax Court House, VA; dau.
of Charles and Phoebe Sutton, sister of Freedmen’s Bureau
teacher, Alice M. Sutton; a Quaker: returned to MI, Nov.
1868; settled in Middleville, Barry Co., MI; occ. Hardware
Store Owner; mbr. G.A.R., Hill Post No. 159; was killed in
a fire in his hardware store in Middleville, Michigan on
October 21, 1883;106 bur. Mount Hope Cem., Middleville,
Barry Co., MI.