Quaker teacher Sarah Cadbury

Pennsylvania Quaker Sarah Cadbury was one of nearly 30 teachers that the Philadelphia and New York branches of the denomination sent to teach thousands of contraband slaves at Yorktown during the Civil War. The teachers founded at least 6 schools and taught both day and evening classes of as many as 150 students. (Courtesy of Ronald E. Butchart / July 17, 2013)

Gaze into the 150-year-old photograph of Pennsylvania Quaker Sarah Cadbury and you may not see anything particularly special.

But behind her unassuming expression and plain-Jane hairdo stirred a revolutionary devotion to human freedom.

Like nearly 30 other Quakers from Philadelphia and New York, Cadbury traveled to Yorktown during the Civil War not just to preach the Gospel and save men's souls but also make the thousands of fugitive slaves gathered at sprawling Union fort "unfit" for any return to bondage.

Contrabands at the Allen House, Yorktown, May 1862

Thousands of fugitive slaves fled to the Union lines at Yorktown after the Confederate retreat in May 1862. This archival picture from Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's campaign shows some of the slaves encountered at Allen's Farm near Yorktown. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress / July 17, 2013)

Working with Brig. Gen. Isaac J. Wistar -- a former Quaker who had been turned out of his meeting for taking up arms in defense of the Union -- this determined cadre of teachers instructed the contrabands day and night for more than three years. And reading and writing were just the beginning of the lessons designed to give them the tools they needed to make new lives as freedmen.

Just how impassioned the Quaker brethren were in carrying out this cause can be seen in the disproportionate numbers of teachers they sent to the contraband camps in the South. Though representing only 1 1/2 percent of the Christians in the North, University of Georgia historian Ronald E. Butchart says, they dispatched 10 percent of the teachers.

And of all of the teachers who continued to work beyond a couple of years, more than 50 percent were Quakers allied with the Friends' Freedmen's Relief Association.

Though they played important roles throughout the South, the primary focus of their work was Yorktown, where as many as 12,000 fugitive slaves had gathered by the summer of 1863.

"Slaves were fleeing from all over Virginia toward Union lines -- and often moving by the hundreds," Butchart says.

"So you're talking about a huge number of people."

Butchart will be included among 7 scholars presenting talks Saturday in a daylong symposium on the African-American experience at Yorktown during the Civil War.

The program will be held 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. at historic Shiloh Baptist Church, which was founded in 1863 by contraband slave John Carey and Philadelphia abolitionist preacher Jeremiah Asher, who had accompanied the 6th US Colored Infantry Regiment to Yorktown.

The church is located at 11053 George Washington Highway, Yorktown, near the battlefield. Registration is $15. Contact historian Diane Depew at diane_k_depew@nps.gov or 757-898-2412 for more information.

Here's a link to my July 17th story exploring the contraband settlements at Yorktown in detail.

-- Mark St. John Erickson




Brig. Gen. Isaac J. Wistar

Former Quaker and Brig. Gen. Isaac J. Wistar ordered the construction of 3 contraband slave settlements housing thousands of fugitive slaves after becoming commander of the Union forces at Yorktown in July 1863. The settlements soon became the site for schools and houses of worship, too, as the slaves began their new lives out of bondage. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress / August 31, 2012)