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Early VEA Leaders

Soldiers, clergy and educators form a union

Little is known about many of the founders of the Virginia Education Association in 1863. We know that a group of educators from Petersburg invited a similar group from Richmond to join in the call for the creation of the Educational Association of Virginia.

We also know that some of these early leaders served multiple roles—in addition to teaching, some were clergymen and soldiers, as well.

The VEA’s first president was not only the president of a college, but also a minister who held the rank of captain in the army.

Dr. J. M. P. Atkinson, president of Hampden-Sydney College, was elected as the first president of the Educational Association of Virginia at the December 1863 convention. Dr. Atkinson is credited with keeping Hampton-Sydney alive during the war. He also served as captain of “The Hampton-Sydney Boys,” Company G, 20th Virginia Regiment.

The school’s website carries an interesting story on this minister-educator turned military leader, demonstrating his lack of preparedness for the latter role:

“The story is told that Dr. Atkinson, a minister, actually knew very little about military maneuvers. While instructing his boys on marching, he once directed, "Raise the right leg until the thigh is perpendicular with the body. Then raise the left leg alongside it." It is also told that once after initiating a march, he could not remember the command to turn his troop. They all then marched into a fence.


D. Lee Powell, a Richmond educator, was a key organizer of the 1863 convention and was the presiding officer of the proceedings.

Powell is referred to as Captain in some reports on the creation of VEA. The title came from his involvement with a militia unit in Fredericksburg prior to the war. Although he was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, he did not take up arms until the 1863-64 school term, as classes were interrupted while he and other teachers at the school were called to military duty temporarily to defend Richmond.

At the beginning of the classes in the fall of 1864, Powell wrote this to students and their parents:

“I regret to know that the complaint has been made of this absence from the classrooms. When the enemy are so near to our homes we shall not, I trust, be accused of neglect by pupils or patrons for leaving the more peaceful halls of sciences and taking our places side by side with the fathers and grandfathers of the city in the trenches. The immediate crisis passed, I can promise that there will be no neglect of, and absence from my classes. In my absence the majority of recitations shall be heard by competent assistants; so that there will be no absences of the pupils from the school.”

Powell was active in the Association until his death in 1871. He served on the editorial committee that produced the first three volumes of the Educational Journal of Virginia, from 1867 through 1869.

Just before and during the Civil War (1861-65), D. Lee Powell's school, the Southern Female Institute, occupied the two most western houses on Linden Row in Richmond. [link:]

 Abner Johnson Leavenworth, a Petersburg educator and Presbyterian minister, clearly was one of the primary leaders of the group of educators who called the convention together. He is credited with drafting the Circular of Invitation and his signature appears on a letter to Governor Letcher, inviting the Governor to the convention.

Leavenworth was elected Corresponding Secretary at the organizing meeting and held the position until his death in 1869. His obituary included the following:

“The Educational Association of Virginia, of which he was the secretary, was established in large measure through his zeal and energy. He was an accomplished scholar, a faithful pastor, and, as a successful instructor, has left behind him few equals.”


After struggling to keep his school open during the war, Leavenworth’s school property was confiscated by Union soldiers when Petersburg fell to their control in 1865. Although there is no record of him serving as a Confederate soldier, he was denied recompense by the federal government on the grounds that he had been disloyal.

          In this picture ,
Union troops pose on the porch of A. J. Leavenworth's Female Seminary in Petersburg, Virginia. Founded around 1855, Leavenworth's Female Seminary provided education to young women and stressed intellectual rigor. After the fall of Petersburg in April 1865, Union troops occupied the building and used it as a provost-marshal's office until October 1865. After the soldiers left, the head of the school found that "the library, [scientific] apparatus, furniture, windows, and doors were broken, destroyed, or removed." Leavenworth later attempted to recover damages in the amount of $10,000 from the United States government, but was denied on the grounds that he was "not loyal to the Government of the United States throughout the late civil war.”

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