The timeless themes of love and war are revealed with startling intimacy in this collection of personal letters written during the turbulent years of the American Civil War.
The letters present a snapshot of the lives of Major J.N. Coleman of the Third Texas Cavalry and his fiancée, Virginia E. "Jennie" Adkins. John’s letters from the field provide readers with a unique insight into the horrors, excitement, and day-to-day monotony of a soldier’s life in the Confederate army, while Jennie’s letters detail life on the home front in Marshall, Texas.
The letters also reveal the stresses of conducting a long-distance relationship during a time of great societal upheaval. Jealousy, loneliness, romantic intrigue, parental disapproval, and plans for a secret elopement are revealed as the two young Texans attempt to maintain their love affair amidst the great War Between the States.
Also included in the collection are letters from John’s brother Tom, Jennie’s brother George, Jr., and a receipt for the funeral expenses associated with John’s death in 1881.
The Coleman (John Nathan and Virginia Eliza “Jennie” Adkins) Papers collection is intended to provide a first-hand perspective on the Civil War from the viewpoint of an East Texas Confederate Major and his fiancée. While the letters are an interesting resource in their own right, discovering more about the background of John and Jennie Coleman, the Third Texas Cavalry, and the city of Marshall, Texas provide the appropriate context for the letters, thus making them a richer resource for researchers and Civil War aficionados alike.
John Nathan Coleman was born in Hancock County, Georgia on September 19, 1835. He moved to Harrison County, Texas in December 1854. John established J.N. Coleman & Co. and soon became a wealthy merchant. In the turbulent years of the early 1860s, as Texans moved closer to seceding from the Union, John became active in meetings on the secession crisis. However, despite his ardent secessionist leanings, the census of 1860 reveals that Coleman owned no slaves.
Coleman enlisted in the Third Texas Cavalry (then known as the South Kansas-Texas Regiment) on June 3, 1861 and was quickly promoted to Commissary Sergeant after proving himself in battle. He was granted several furloughs and returned home to Marshall at least twice during the course of the war. John was promoted to Captain and Assistant Commissary of Subsistence on May 10, 1862. He received his final promotion to Major and Brigade Commissary commander on December 8, 1863. John served four years and two days in the Confederate army and was paroled on May 15, 1865.
John returned to Marshall and married Virginia Eliza “Jennie” Adkins at the Methodist Church on August 2, 1865. Jennie was the daughter of Judge George B. Adkins; her brother, George, Jr. was also enlisted in the Confederate army and died while a prisoner of war in Louisiana. The Adkins family enjoyed a slightly higher standing in society due to her father’s position and wealth gained through his occupation as a hotel keeper, but Jennie was still subject to the same rigors of frontier living that affected the lower social classes. Jennie continued to participate in the social activities available to her during wartime, including balls, socials, and concerts, often with an escort from the officer corps stationed at Marshall during the latter years of the war.
The vagaries of sending letters during a time of war led to a number of episodes of jealousy on John’s part that are revealed throughout the collection. Often, the lack of letters from Jennie led him to despair of their “secret engagement” ever becoming official. But a letter from home at just the right time would serve to rekindle the fires of romance, and Jennie wrote tenderly of her affection for her “dear absent one.”
John and Jennie settled in Marshall after the war and lived together until John’s death at age 45 on October 16, 1880. Despite their relatively short period of marriage, their brief time as husband and wife produced six children, listed in the 1880 census as George, Thomas, John Jr., Willie, Virginia Jr., and Mary. Jennie received a Confederate pension in 1914 and lived out her remaining days in Palestine, Texas at the home of her daughter, Mrs. B.F. Norman. She died there on March 1, 1932 and was buried in Marshall.
The Third Texas Cavalry was organized in 1861 as the South Kansas-Texas Regiment under the command of Elkanah B. Greer. The regiment was reorganized in October 1862 as the Third Texas Cavalry. The 3rd Texas saw action at Pea Ridge, Arkansas; Chustanalah, Indian Territory; Iuka, Mississippi; Corinth, Mississippi; Vicksburg, Mississippi; Vernon, Mississippi; Yazoo City, Mississippi; and the defense of Atlanta, Georgia over the course of the war.
In mid-December, 1863, command of the Third Texas was given to 25-year-old Gen. Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross and was known for the remainder of the war as Ross’ Brigade. Starting on May 14, 1864 the Third Texas was involved in 86 clashes in 112 days, including a brutal fight at New Hope Church, Georgia.
In January 1865, during the waning days of the war, the regiment was assigned picket duty in Mississippi. The following February, 180 troopers left for home, uncontested by a dispirited leadership who refused to pursue them as deserters. Ross took a leave of absence in March, and after the Confederacy’s surrender to Union forces outside Appomattox Courthouse, the brigade was paroled on May 15, 1862. Most of the discharged troopers returned to the East Texas communities from which they had enlisted.
For a detailed description of the Third Texas Cavalry’s participation in the Civil War, see Douglas Hale’s The Third Texas Cavalry in the Civil War, University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. Or see the Third Texas Cavalry’s entry in The Handbook of Texas Online.
Marshall played an important role during the Civil War, supplying goods and ammunition to the Confederacy, offering native sons as soldiers and leaders, and hosting the Confederate government of Missouri after the fall of Vicksburg.
By 1860 the city was the fourth largest city in Texas and the seat of the richest county. The county had more slaves than any other in the state, making it a hotbed of anti-Union sentiment. When Gov. Sam Houston refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, Marshall's Edward Clark was sworn in as governor. Marshall would also produce Texas's third Confederate governor, Pendleton Murrah. Marshall became a major Confederate city, producing gunpowder and other supplies for the Confederate Army, and hosting three conferences of Trans-Mississippi and Indian Territory leaders. The city also became the capital of Missouri's Confederate government-in-exile, earning it the nickname the City of Seven Flags—a nod to the flag of Missouri in addition to the other six flags that have flown over the city.
Marshall became the seat of civil authority and headquarters of the Trans-Mississippi Postal Department after the fall of Vicksburg. The city may have been the intended target of a failed Union advance that was rebuffed at Mansfield, Louisiana. Towards the end of the Civil War Richmond had $9 million in Treasury notes and $3 million in postage stamps shipped to Marshall, possibly meaning that Marshall was the intended destination of a government preparing to flee from advancing armies. Marshall was occupied by Union forces on June 17, 1865.
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