In June of 2010 I moved from Richmond, VA to Dallas, TX to take on a new role with my company. Within about a year, tragedy hit my family when we lost several close family members across a few months. The compounding loss was severe, and the grief was all the more difficult in Dallas where I was new in town and did not yet have a support network. All attempts to find support within the Presbyterian church failed. My job was demanding, and fortunately was one I loved, so it was a blessing to be able to throw myself into it to keep grief at bay. But when not at work, I needed a meaningful way to spend my time.
I met some fellow alumni from William & Mary who were involved in an online project at the Special Collections Research Center of Swem Library at W&M (Swem Library). This project was titled, "From Fights to Rights" and commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement. As a part of this project, Swem Library uploaded its archives from both time periods online for volunteers to transcribe from any location. As a history buff, this was an ideal opportunity to do something impactful to mark the Sesquicentennial, but it was also a meaningful way to spend my time after tragedy. It is extremely difficult (and often impossible) to make new friends in a new city while grieving a severe and compounding loss.
I transcribed approximately 1 letter per week - working my way through difficult handwriting and unfamiliar words and phrases, and learning about someone new while carefully typing his or her words. It was clear that the people who wrote these letters understood grief on a huge scale. They weren't simply writing to one another to share news, they were often pouring their hearts out. And it was soothing for me to read their thoughts.
Ultimately, I found a young woman who had a tale eerily similar to my own. She lost several family members in a short period of time, and she was grieving this severe loss as a refugee among strangers. I could easily identify with much of what she was enduring and with what she had to say about it. It felt like finding someone who finally understood!
From that point, I focused entirely on her letters and wondered: why was she alone as a single woman in the 19th century, why and how had several family members died, where was her surviving family, who were these people she was living with, and what ultimately became of her after the war? So, I spent various pockets of time diligently tracking down her tale. I traveled a lot for my career, and this was something easy I could do from a hotel room at night when taking a break from work.
I learned that her name was Harriet Lee Powell (Hattie for short), and she was a teacher. She had lived in Winchester, VA before the war with her parents and two sisters where they ran a boarding school for girls. The war caused the Powells to close the school, and they fled Winchester in 1862 – leaving behind their home, friends, and belongings. They had no money and nowhere to go. To support themselves, the 3 sisters hired themselves out as teachers in homes across the state (like 3 Jane Eyres in a war). The father traveled about working different jobs, and the mother moved often among friends and family. Thus they lived as refugees until the war ended. Hattie lost her two brothers in battle within the first year and lost many other close family members and friends. She endured compounding grief while alone among strangers, and I could so easily identify with that.
When I returned to Virginia after several years in Dallas, I began tracking down the locations where Hattie worked as a refugee. I was curious about the locations where she lived and the people she knew. I have visited some of the sites, met with current owners, and reunited these places with the history that happened there during the war. Throughout these adventures I've built a network of mentors and friends who have encouraged me to pursue this research and to publish it.
I have therefore taken a sabbatical from my career as a CPA to research the Powells and to write and publish a non-fiction account of their experience. While this work is underway, I will publish examples of my research and adventures here.