2017-08-30 / Front Page

Local family diary reveals details of Civil War

by Trish Rudder

The Ft. Delaware cell where Atkinson was imprisoned and where he kept a diary. photo submitted by Carole Clark Mitchell The Ft. Delaware cell where Atkinson was imprisoned and where he kept a diary. photo submitted by Carole Clark Mitchell It’s been 155 years since Berkeley Springs resident Robert Atkinson – a possible spy -- met his fate at the train station at Sir Johns Run.

According to family member Carole Clark Mitchell of Hancock, Md., on August 4, 1862, her great-great-grandfather, who had a small farm about six miles south of Bath, was on his way back to his Baltimore, Md. business after visiting his family and was at the train station located west of Berkeley Springs.

Atkinson was standing there with his father-in-law when he was arrested by Union soldier Lt. Camp and taken to the 54th Pennsylvania Regiment where a Col. Campbell charged Atkinson as a spy for the Confederate Army, according to Atkinson’s diary.

Atkinson had $150 on his person (a lot of money for that time) and several letters. Mitchell said he gave the money to his father-in-law but there was nothing written about the letters.

Having $150 “fuels the rumor that he was working in Richmond, [Va.] on some kind of woodworking project with the government.”

Atkinson had a woodworking business in Baltimore. He made cabinets, caskets, arranged funerals and performed embalming. In 1861 before the war broke out, he returned his wife, Mariah and four children ages five, three, two and six months to the Rock Gap area of Berkeley Springs (part of Virginia at that time) to the care of his father-in-law.

Mitchell said Atkinson was charged with being a southern spy and held as a political prisoner.

According to Atkinson’s diary, on August 5 he was transferred to Harpers Ferry where “old John Brown’s engine house was used as a jail.”

On August 7, he was transported to Baltimore’s city jail and on August 9 he was incarcerated at Ft. McHenry in Baltimore. The next day he was transported to Ft. Delaware on Pea Patch Island, the Union Army’s prison in Delaware City, Del. During his two and one-half months there, he kept a diary.

Atkinson was offered parole if he swore his allegiance to the Union and he refused. On October 19 he finally accepted parole on terms “honorable to a southerner,” but he had to return to Baltimore to live to be able to check in with the parole board there. He was not allowed to visit his family in Berkeley Springs.

He made arrangements to live with friends, but it was clear that he was ill with pneumonia when he arrived in Baltimore and needed medical attention. On October 22, he walked to a Catholic convent where his older sister, Isabel was the mother superior at the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Baltimore to get medical attention. Atkinson died on December 25, 1862. He was 38 years old.

“We do not know in which cemetery he is buried, or what happened to any property he may have had. This young man had an exciting and tragic life. He was truly a legend to the members of the Atkinson family,” Mitchell wrote. Tracing the family’s history

Mitchell said she has traced Atkinson family members back to the 1700s.

She said she had heard family stories that “we had a relative who was a Civil War prisoner,” but didn’t begin to dig deeply into old records until her brother Edward passed away 15 years ago. He had wanted the two of them to search records about their family history, but Mitchell said they never got around to it. After her brother died suddenly in 2002, she began her research.

In honor of her brother, Mitchell researched the DuPuis family first.

Around 1915, Mitchell’s grandmother Isabel Atkinson left West Virginia and took a train to White Cloud, Kansas where she was a teacher on the Indian reservation of the Iowa of Kansas and Nebraska tribe. She ended up marrying Charles DuPuis, an Indian there, 11 years her junior and who may have been one of her students. Mitchell said her brother was very proud of their Native American heritage.

The diary told the story

Robert Atkinson kept the accounting of his arrest and incarceration in his diary that Mitchell had access to. The diary was found in her mother’s old trunk that originally belonged to Mitchell’s grandmother. Her mother wanted to sell the trunk and fortunately, Mitchell said, the diary was found before the trunk was sold.

He came to America on his own

Civil War era Robert Atkinson was born in 1824 in Durham, England and came to the United States on his own at the age of 22. According to the U.S. Census, he was a resident of Berkeley Springs in 1850.

In 1857 at age 32, he married Mariah Michael, who was Andrew Michael’s daughter from the Rock Gap area of Berkeley Springs. He took his bride to Baltimore where he had his business. Reliving Atkinson’s journey

Several years ago, Mitchell and her cousin Dennis DuPuis of South Carolina, traveled the journey that Atkinson took in 1862 from Sir Johns Run to Delaware. They took pictures at each facility, especially one of the entrance to the Delaware prison called “the sally port” and used Atkinson’s diary to document “exactly” the walk from the entrance to his prison cell, she said.

DuPuis said he and his grandson went to Ft. Delaware five years ago. When they were waiting for the ferry to take them to the prison, DuPuis read portions of Atkinson’s diary and others were listening. “They were terribly interested,” he said. A Ft. Delaware museum historian was notified that a family member had a diary written by a Civil War prisoner and was also interested to learn more from Atkinson’s diary. The historian met DuPuis and his grandson to escort them to enter the room where Atkinson was imprisoned. He said the “cell” was about a 15-ft. by 20-ft. room that was shared with other prisoners.

“We saw the room and imagined him walking the steps when he arrived shortly before midnight,” DuPuis said.

“The best part of this venture for me was to be able to read it [the diary] through his handwriting,” he said.

The historian was interested in Atkinson’s account of the violin that came to the prison.

According to Atkinson’s diary, those prisoners who could play the instrument were able to keep and play the violin before passing it on to someone else. The story was confirmed by the historian that a violin arrived at Ft. Delaware, but no idea when, and it was noted in other people’s diaries. The violin was passed from prisoner to prisoner, and the prisoner who had it last at the end of the war, it would be his.

The historian told DuPuis that the family of the prisoner who had the violin last donated it to the museum.

Documents to be housed here

A copy of the bound notebook of documents Mitchell researched and of Atkinson’s diary is to be displayed at the Morgan County Genealogical Historical Society in the Morgan County Public Library and will be available to the public. Mitchell was still adding documents.

“It’s a puzzle and you don’t stop in the middle of the puzzle,” Mitchell said.

“Was he a spy?” “Did someone turn him in?” “Why would he be picked up at Sir Johns Run waiting for a train?” “Why was he carrying that much money?”

All questions the family wonders about and Mitchell would like answered.

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