When Rufus W. Bailey founded the Augusta Female Seminary in the mid-nineteenth century, the school joined a small, slowly-growing group of institutions intended for the higher education of women. But its predilection for the finer sex is exactly what allowed the seminary to thrive throughout the second half of that tumultuous century.
The first class of the Augusta Female Seminary, a group of fifty-seven young women, scuttled through the doors of the seminary in 1842. At the head was Mary Julia Baldwin. Baldwin spent her four years at the school mindfully and studiously and graduated valedictorian of the first graduating class of the female seminary. Though certainly successful, Baldwin’s time as a student was neither remarkable nor astounding. A high fever as a child had left one side of her face permanently disfigured: Baldwin was never a recluse, but her concern about her appearance did endow her with a shy, introverted demeanor. After graduation, she left the seminary and led a quiet, philanthropic life for the following fifteen years.
Leap through history to 1863. Rumblings of war were shaking the entire nation, and schools across Virginia and the South closed their doors to students, both as a safety precaution and as an economic necessity. Given the hardships and dangers of conflict, education—especially the education of women—fell to the wayside. The leadership of the Augusta Female Seminary, however, felt differently and wanted to maintain their educational standards through the Civil War. When the time came to choose a capable leader to conduct the seminary through the remainder of the war, benefactors of the school scoured its short history in search of the perfect candidate. Requirements included being a female (since all men of age were participating in the war efforts); a strong, intelligent leader; and a steadfast protector with more than a little backbone. They lighted on Mary Baldwin. In 1863, in the midst of our nation’s most turbulent era, Baldwin ascended to the role of principal.
At the time of Baldwin’s promotion, the seminary was facing not just a war but a major amount of debt (a sizable sum of $3,000). Upon discovery of her alma mater’s dire financial situation, Baldwin devoted her entire $4,000 inheritance to the school. With those funds, she not only erased the seminary’s debt but turned it into a booming institution that profited both during and after the war. During her reign, Baldwin transformed the school from one small dormitory to a large collection of three residences for students, equipped classrooms with musical and academic equipment, invested in tracts of land surrounding the seminary, and founded one of the nation’s first financial aid systems for students who could not afford the seminary’s tuition.
Besides being a frugal and wise principal, Baldwin protected her female students from the harshness of wartime. Tales abound of Baldwin’s bravery, tenacity, and pure spunk in the face of the enemy. When marauding soldiers, wanderers, or tramps would alight upon the school grounds, a young student would cry out in fear, “A man! A man!” At the sound of the shrill alarm, Baldwin would pull herself up to her most formidable height and stomp proudly into the yard, brandishing a fire poker like a gun, and demand that the stranger leave at once—and he always did.
Baldwin also became infamous for outwitting the Union enemy when they came sniffing for useful supplies hidden within the walls of the seminary. At one point during the war, the seminary purchased a large amount of priceless flour, supply enough to last them through a winter. The problem was, where were they to store twelve barrels of the valuable hoard? After some thought, Baldwin ingeniously suggested stashing one barrel in each dorm room and camouflaging it beneath a student’s ruffled crinoline: any passing soldier would mistake the barrel of prized flour for a side table draped in a feminine tablecloth. The remaining flour (certainly a dozen gauzily-dressed tables would be a bit obvious) Baldwin stuffed and sewed into mattresses. When a gang of brutish soldiers arrived on the grounds, the thinnest student would powder her cheeks and lie down on the flour bed, so that when a cadet disruptively opened the door to her room, she would sit up from her dense cot with the look of death upon her face. The soldier would apologetically retreat and hastily close the door, none the wiser. When all else failed, or as a final precaution, Baldwin herself would offer to tour the visiting enemy around the seminary, leading them through such a dizzying maze of halls, staircases, and rooms so that the Yankee soldiers would be sure to end the circuit disoriented, lost, and completely oblivious to the existence of a room where a final stash of barrels lay hidden.
Mary Baldwin protected her flock like a brooding hen through the Civil War and continued to do so after it. Despite her uncompromising deflection of Yankee troops, when it came time to move forward, she abandoned the school’s Confederate bias and invited girls from the North and the West to join their Southern ranks. Baldwin continued to govern the Augusta Female Seminary for thirty-four years, leading the school and the Old South into a new era while reforming the curriculum and continually expanding the seminary’s physical and educational reach. Baldwin’s influence on the school is evident given its renaming in 1895 to the Mary Baldwin Seminary, and finally Mary Baldwin College in 1923. Even today students celebrate Founder’s Day not on a day pertaining to Rufus W. Bailey, but on October 4, Baldwin’s birthday.
Baldwin’s touch of historical exceptionalism is evident as the school is consistently ranked among the top women’s universities in the country. Mary Baldwin College, like most schools, has a Latin motto: Non pro tempore sed aeternitate , “Not for time, but for eternity.” Perhaps Baldwin herself chose the phrase based on her own affiliation with the school, for it is her voice that will continue to guide the college, not just through her own time but for ages to come.