Mary Humphreys Stamps, Undefeated Rebel with an Educational Cause
After the War between the States ended, the South desperately needed educators to prepare its students and older people for the transition from a plantation to an industrial economy. Mary Humphreys Stamps filled that need in New Orleans. Although she was a strong individual in her own right, Mrs. Mary Humphreys Stamps personified the kind of woman teacher that rose from the ashes of the defeated South and built a strong new region.
Mary Humphreys of Mississippi
Mary Elizabeth Humphreys Stamps was the daughter of Benjamin G. Humphreys of Claiborne County, Mississippi. Benjamin was a classmate of Jefferson Davis at West Point, and Mary enjoyed a close relationship with him. Benjamin Humphreys became a general in the Confederate Army, and in 1865 was elected governor of Mississippi.
Mary was born in 1835 and her mother died when she was just a few weeks old. Four years later, Mary’s father remarried and she had a large family of brothers and sisters to look after and play with. She was independent and firm in doing what she thought was right. Much to her father's amusement, she taught his slaves to read.
When she got older, she went to Natchez for the private and exclusive education given to young Southern ladies. After she finished school, Mary served the required period of bellehood when she spent much of her time on refining her beauty, charm, quickness of repartee and solid intellectual gifts. Besides being beautiful and intelligent she had practical gifts. She could fit and make any kind of dress that she saw and turn her hand to almost any type of practical task.
Mary Marries Isaac David Stamps, a Nephew of Jefferson Davis
At age 19 Mary married Isaac Davis Stamps, a nephew of Jefferson Davis. At that time Isaac was a prominent young lawyer of Mississippi and they read Blackstone together on their honeymoon. The young couple moved to New Orleans so that Isaac could study civil law, and after their stay in New Orleans, the Stamps settled at Woodville, Mississippi.
The Civil War erupted six years after the Stamps were married. Mary's father was a Colonel the 21st Mississippi and her husband, Isaac, commanded a company in the regiment. When her husband and father went off to war, Mary was alone with two little girls. She had lost her first child in infancy, and the second, Sallie, died while the Stamps were in Vicksburg. She decided to go home to Woodville, and sent her two little girls on ahead. Mary resolved to take her dead child's body to Woodville to be buried. She would not leave her baby in Vicksburg to an uncertain fate.
News came that the Federal fleet was coming up the Mississippi. She heard that one steamboat captain was going to risk a trip to New Orleans. She bought passage on his boat, taking the coffin of her baby with her. The boat struck a snag, and the passengers were hastily transferred to a smaller ship. The captain called her to leave the steamer. She reminded him of the small coffin. Finally, the captain relented, and the little coffin was carried to the other boat. Mary safely reached Woodville.
Captain Isaac Stamps is Killed in the Peach Orchard at Gettysburg
Captain Isaac Stamps had raised his company from among his friends, neighbors and relatives in Wilkinson County, Mississippi. There were such strong bonds of kinship and friendship between the men that Captain Stamps steadily refused a promotion that would separate him from his company. Captain Isaac Stamps died in the Peach Orchard at Gettysburg, while leading his company in a charge. His men said that he fell farther inside the Federal lines than any other Confederate soldier.
Two weeks later Mary received news of his death. She had traveled to Richmond to see if she could find out what had happened to him. For a moment, she sank under the weight of sorrow at losing Isaac as well as their two children. Then she held up her head again and struggled to go on. She remembered a promise she had made to him. He asked her that if he should fall in the war, his body shouldn't be left among strangers but brought back and buried with his own people. Mary rallied from her grief and set out to fulfill this last promise she had made to Isaac. She went from one official to another to obtain permits, orders, official intermediation. She was turned back from one official door after another.
Mary Brings Isaac Home to Mississippi
Finally, she succeeded. The Federal authorities shipped her husband's body to Richmond, Virginia, under a flag of truce. She started home with Isaac, but west of Montgomery, Alabama, the railroads had been destroyed by the raids of the Federal troops. From Montgomery Mary traveled with an army wagon and a driver and guard detailed to accompany her. She sat proudly beside the flag covered coffin holding her husband's body. Sometimes in the long ride to Isaac's family burial ground in Woodville, Mississippi, she felt sad and discouraged. Sometimes when they stopped at a house or cabin for the night, people didn't want to take them in. They shrank back from the pine coffin or were hostile and suspicious of Mary and her guard. Then, she would wrap herself in Isaac's military cloak and lie beside his coffin, or outside in any weather. Finally they arrived in Woodville and she laid Isaac to rest in his family burial ground.
Even though Mary Humphreys Stamps had lost her husband and two little girls, she had two surviving daughters that she had to support, and her financial condition got worse when the Confederacy was defeated. For a while she taught school in Tuskegee, Alabama ,but she had to struggle to provide for herself and her children. Mary found life without Isaac difficult not only financially, but emotionally.
A Union Solder Visits Mary
One day she had a visitor who made her smile tenderly through her tears over Isaac. As she entered her drawing room, a stranger came to her, bent his knee, and took her hand and kissed it. He told her that the night after the battle of Antietam, Captain Stamps, hearing a wounded soldier groaning, crept out between the lines and found a wounded Union soldier. It seemed like the Union Soldier was dying. Captain Stamps brought him water, soothed him and made him as comfortable as possible. The Captain was leaving when the Union soldier begged him for his name. Captain Stamps gave him his company and his regiment. It took years after the war for the Union soldier to trace Mary, but he kept looking until he found her. He never ceased to write to her afterward and his gratitude never faded.
Colonel Humphreys is Evicted from the Mississippi Governor's Mansion
In 1865, Colonel Humphreys was elected Governor of Mississippi. When the state fell under reconstruction, military orders ordered him to leave the executive mansion at Jackson. His wife and children were ejected with him. Adelbert Ames replaced him. In a letter describing the eviction, Mrs. Humphreys wrote: "As I have received reinforcements from New Orleans this morning, in the person of Mary Stamps, I think I can hold the enemy in check until the Governor comes to our support."
Colonel Humphreys offered Mary a home with him for her and her children. Although they were devoted to each other and she had a loving relationship with her stepmother, she refused. Instead, she went to New Orleans to earn a living for her family. For a time she ran a boarding and day school which quickly earned a good reputation and an increasing enrollment, but it did not earn a great deal of money for Mary. She ran the school until 1877, the year that marked the end of carpet-bag rule in Louisiana and the installation of Francis T. Nicholls as governor of the state.
Mary Does Some Education Reconstruction in New Orleans
With intuitive foresight, Mary Stamps understood that the end of political reconstruction meant the beginning of educational reconstruction. She believed the educational work had to be done by women in the public schools and for women in them. She applied for the position of principal of the Girls' High School in New Orleans and easily outscored her rivals in the competitive examination for it.
The public schools of Louisiana and especially in New Orleans had suffered the ravages of war and reconstruction and needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. Mrs. Stamps found conditions in the Girls' High School that would have appalled any ordinary woman. The administrative standards depended on the whim of the government and the current administrator. The school administration needed to be revitalized and liberated.
Mary Stamps brought the prestige of her name and family, and her social position to her new job. She brought the influence o her circle of distinguished friends, including the foremost men and women of the South. Most importantly, she brought the force of her own character and her personality. She had great beauty but her personal magnetism, her rare charm of manner overshadowed it. Her musical voice and the originality, force, and humor of her conversation were the things people remembered about her.
Mary Revitalizes the Reputation of the Girls' High School
Soon the Girls' High School filled with talented, intelligent and motivated pupils and continued to do so as the school's new reputation spread throughout the city. Mary believed that discipline should be applied equally to all children and encouraged an attitude of cheerfulness and good fellowship. Her motto for chastising students was "Cannon- balls first, small shot afterward." "Daughter" was her term for the punished. Her methods earned her the devotion of all of her pupils.
The character and background of her pupils was another of Mary's concerns. Besides the children of the French, Irish, German, and Italian immigrants - the daughters of mechanics, fruit sellers, maids, - she had pupils who were the daughters of the defeated South. She had to shape this true melting pot of students into disciplined, educated graduates. She did such an effective job that many of them graduated and became teachers themselves.
Mary Stamps also organized the public school alumna into an efficient working body for further school progress and for the maintenance of standards among teachers. This required not only tact and discretion, but firmness and courage. She not only had knowledge but the ability to pass it on, not only enthusiasm, but at the same time judgment.
After twenty one years of being principal of the Girls' High School in New Orleans, she had to resign because of ill health in 1898 and she died two years later in 1900. Mary Humphreys Stamps is one of the southern women who answered the call of "the public schools are demoralized" after the Civil War and changed it to "the public schools are teaching our children."
Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South, Drew Gilpin Faust, University of North Carolina Press, 2004
Tara Revisited, Women, War and the Plantation Legend, Catherine Clinton, Abbeville Press, 1997