H-SC President, 1857-1883
On the fourth ballot of the third election within nine months, the Board settled (11 May 1857) on a late-entry compromise candidate, J.M.P. Atkinson 1835, a graduate of Cushing's last class and the first alumnus to be President.
A member of an old Dinwiddie County family, he had a number of connections in the College, including two alumni brothers, one of whom was the Episcopal Bishop of North Carolina, and a third brother had been a Trustee. He himself had gone on to three years of graduate study at Princeton Seminary after the full course at Union Seminary. During the pastoral career that took him to Georgetown, D.C., the College had given him a D.D.
He was an inspired, if unexpected, choice. In the longest presidential tenure to date, Atkinson successfully steered the College through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and into a new age in education. By all accounts he was the most genuinely beloved - even revered - of Hampden-Sydney's Presidents and managed to keep the College solvent while upholding disciplinary and academic standards.
Very much a father-figure to students and many of his faculty, he was elected Captain when the student body organized its unit - mustered as Company G, 20th Virginia Regiment - for Confederate Army service.
He attracted, and managed to keep, excellent professors, and, as far as finances would allow, supported the "modern methods" in the curriculum that his successor was able to implement.
Failing health led him to consider retiring as early as 1873, and his anointed successor was ready when Dr. Atkinson, the first President to retire from the office, handed the presidency over in summer 1883; he died only three months later.