Scrapbook Reveals Lives of Famous 19th Century Chapel Hillians

By Suzy Barile

Ella Swain is best known as the defiant young Chapel Hill woman who married a Union general at the close of the Civil War, shocking close family and friends. The daughter of University of North Carolina President David L. Swain (1835-68), , Ella was 22 when she met and married Smith D. Atkins whose troops occupied the famed university town in April 1965.

Ella Swain and Suzy BarileThat August, as Ella Swain and General Atkins exchanged wedding vows at the UNC president's house, outraged students rang the college’s bells and hung her new husband and her father in effigy from the bell tower. Local residents are reported to have spit on the wedding invitations and closed their doors and shutters when the wedding party passed by.

Yet a recently discovered scrapbook Ella began shortly after her marriage and kept until the mid-1870s tells far more about Ella than her scandalous action ever could. Inside its 87-pages are handwritten correspondence, poetry, and illustrations from magazines and newspaper clippings, even a piece of the wallpaper from the Swain family’s Franklin Street home.

Every page reveals much about the controversial young wife and mother: her fondness for Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and John Quincy Adams’s “The Wants of Man.” She also included a sketch of Queen Victoria, of a woman helping a child read, and of New York City and its harbor, a place Ella and her husband visited on occasion.

Ella Swain and Suzy BarileA handwritten note to Mrs. Swain contains several lines of Poe’s poem “Lenore,” beside which Ella wrote her mother’s name, Eleanor, then explained how her father thought of his wife as his Lenore: “It was the thoughts of … you my Mammy … that filled with tears his tender eyes & cursed his quivering lips when he gave them to me, some years ago.”

The pages also underscore the sadness that seemed to cast a shadow over Ella: obituaries for her brother Richard Caswell Swain, family friends Thomas Ruffin Sr. and Judge William H. Battle, and a cousin, Daniel M. Barringer. Recorded in the margin of the first page of the scrapbook is the phrase “Died D.S. Atkins Freeport, Ill.,” a reminder of the June 1868 death of her fourteen-month-old son David.

The discovery of the scrapbook is as intriguing as its contents.

Anna Laughlin of Orange City, Florida, was helping a friend move in 1996 when she stumbled upon the scrapbook lying atop a pile of trash in the dumpster of an assisted living complex. Clearly it was old--the edges of the pages brittle and the spine missing its cover--but she wondered why anyone would throw away what to her seemed a treasure.

An amateur historian, Laughlin took the scrapbook home and wrapped it for safekeeping. Occasionally she would thumb through it, wondering about the people and towns whose names it contained: Ella H. Swain, D.S. Atkins, Anne Swain, Thomas Ruffin, Dr. Deems, and Edward Wadsworth, and Freeport, Ill., Greensborough, N.C., and Chapel Hill.

She believed the names held the clue to the scrapbook’s ownership.

Almost fifteen years after she rescued it, Laughlin was determined it was time to solve the mystery. On the Internet, she typed in the names of the people and places, and when she typed in Ella H. Swain, Laughlin found the answer. I'd written a book, Undaunted Heart: The True Story of a Southern Belle and a Yankee General, published that year (2010) about my great-great-grandmother, Ella Swain Atkins.

“I think I have something that belongs to you,” was a message I received on Facebook one day, soon after the book came out. “Today was the day. As I sit here at my computer … I have discovered thru the miracle of the internet--Ella's great, great granddaugther!”

We swapped books. I sent her a copy of Undaunted Heart and she sent me the scrapbook.

Ella's story only deepened as I carefully scanned the pages. One of its most revealing stories is that of Ella’s older sister, Anne, who suffered from headaches so debilitating that she self-medicated with opium she harvested from the seedpods of poppies grown in the Swain family’s Chapel Hill backyard garden.

Occasionally Anne was institutionalized for the headaches, which were considered a form of mental illness. The affliction was so great that her mother once wrote to a friend that only in the “close of this life” did she see relief for her daughter. Mrs. Swain hoped “her suffering will end in glorious immortality.”

Glued to one of the scrapbook’s pages is a swatch of faded wallpaper, identified in Ella’s handwriting as being “From the wall of Anne’s bedroom Chapel Hill 1868.” Next to the artifact, Ella wrote words she attributed to Anne: “Insanity instead of being regarded as a misfortune is too often treated as a crime.”

How the personal scrapbook of one of Chapel Hill’s most famous residents found its way to a dumpster of an assisted living facility in Orange City, Florida, is a mystery that may never be solved.

The best imaginable scenario is that it was kept after Ella’s death in 1881 by her daughter, Dot Atkins Cobb, then passed on to Dot’s daughter, Eleanor Hope Cobb Newell, who died in 1970 in Orlando. When some of Newell’s furniture was sold, the scrapbook may have been left unknowingly in a drawer. Its new owner, not having Laughlin’s curiosity, tossed it out.

“As sappy as it sounds,’ Laughlin wrote, “I must admit that I am a little weepy at this point knowing that soon--you will be touching your own grandmother’s handwriting.”

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