Virginia Eliza “Jennie” Adkins, the daughter of a prominent judge and hotel owner, was 10 years younger than John Nathan Coleman when their surviving love letters started.
Coleman, at 26, was a Confederate soldier trying to prove himself to Adkins and to his disagreeable future father-in-law as the fight for the United States raged.
There were just a couple of hang-ups. The two were secretly engaged, and the world they first grew together in was collapsing.
“I am getting very tired of the army and anxious for the 13th of June to roll around. We are here in this hypocritical state when we hear nothing, see nobody, in fact [are] buried alive,” Coleman wrote his beloved Sept. 19, 1861. “Newspapers as scarce as rain during a Texas summer and letters a perfect curiosity.”
It also ended an abhorrent chapter in U.S. history.
Known as “The John and Virginia Adkins Coleman Papers,” the collection of 19 letters between the two lovers and 32 letters overall runs from 1861 to 1881 and offers a glimpse of a love story that prevailed through an existential test of the nation.
The letters are housed in Baylor University’s Texas Collection.
The documents serve as a reminder that no matter the miles, the strife or frustration, a note of affection can help conquer all during a time when all’s fair in love and war, Baylor curator of digital collections Eric Ames said.
The documents have been accessible on the Texas Collection website for about 10 years, Ames said.
Baylor University obtained the letters through Mexia podiatrist and Civil War buff Douglas Guthrie. Guthrie received them from a patient who said she was Adkins’ great-granddaughter. Both have since died.
Because not all of the responses to some letters are included, developing a full picture of Coleman and Adkins’ relationship is nearly impossibly, Ames said. He spent six weeks deciphering the fine, cursive print on each side of the letters, including the crevices of creased, torn and rusted pages.
“This is the only Civil War collection of letters we have fully online. We have other letters from those years and other collections,” Ames said. “It’s amazing, and the other folks here at Texas Collection have a lot of other assets from this era that could be correspondence, documents or maps. I’ve seen a number of things, but this one was one of the first for our digital projects group that came sort of fully formed.”
Coleman, born in Georgia in 1835, moved to Harrison County in 1854 to establish his own mercantile business, according to the collection records. With a net worth of more than $50,000 by 1860, the business made him fairly wealthy for the time period.
He eventually enlisted with the Third Texas Cavalry.
The Calvary was the first to serve outside of Texas, traveling all over the South, from Arkansas to Georgia and Tennessee, collection documents state.
Coleman and his regiment were involved in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, the first major battle west of the Mississippi River; the Battle of Pea Ridge, which is now the most intact Civil War battlefield in the U.S.; and the Atlanta campaign, a series of battles in northern Georgia against Union General William T. Sherman, among others.
While Coleman’s letters show he bounced around from place to place, he doesn’t mention specific details of any battles he may have seen.
“It’s not like a detailed after-action report,” Ames said. “He does mention having to run from the Yankees or having heard about part of the battle where the Union has destroyed some railroad cars. My conjecture is he doesn’t think Jennie will care that much. I think he thinks she wants to know, ‘Are you OK? Did you survive?’
“And he writes periodically about being on horseback, so we do know he has a horse. At the end of the war, he’s cashiered out as a major, Maj. Coleman. He’s supposed to help round up supplies, find places to sleep. . . . He has more access to finer things than the common Calvary man or foot soldier, an infantry man. But even then, he suffers.”
Coleman had his fair share of illnesses, stating at one point he was thin and had started balding. In one letter, he talks about how the Federals stole his clothes and he can’t help but thank Adkins for sending a needle bag and a couple shirts just in time.
“A strange thing happened last night — I slept at a house in a real feather bed,” he writes in a letter from Oakland, Mississippi. “What a difference — two blankets on the wet ground and a feather bed. We have been so long without tents and cooking vessels that we can sleep in mud holes so the water don’t run over our nostrils and eat raw beef or pork just killed so it is salty and a little warm.”
Adkins’ letters are all sent from Marshall, which served as a station for Confederate troops.
She’s often Coleman’s only source of news from home, other than the occasional soldier who returns from the station. Coleman relies on the connection to home and his love for Adkins for emotional stability, Ames said.
She often teases Coleman as a sassy, teenage spitfire, saying, only after Coleman regained his health enough to regrow his hair, that she didn’t want to marry an old, bald-headed man, Ames said.
“She’s constantly writing about soldiers coming in and out of town, and they have balls and dances and things, and he gets kind of jealous,” Ames said.
The two also send gifts back and forth and share pillow talk and adoration, with lines from Coleman stating his desire to “plant a lover’s kiss on thy ruby lips and with words of burning love rekindle the fire of devotion.”
Adkins writes to Coleman that he “cannot conceive how much you are loved, and how often you are thought of.”
Despite the prevalent words of affection, the pair doesn’t always seem to get along. Sometimes jokes are mistaken for criticism, and each writes apologies for clarification. Sometimes, both seem to be a little melodramatic.
But maybe it’s because they go weeks or more than a month without receiving a letter from each other at times. Or maybe it’s how Adkins and Coleman both freely talk about the other men and women who come in and out of their lives. Either way, they do fuss, and fuss often, Ames said.
Coleman often writes how he doubts Adkins’ ability to stay loyal during their engagement with other suitors rumored to be in town, and Adkins is often reassuring her heart belongs only to him. She starts almost every letter with “My dearest friend” and he often closes with, “My darling woman.”
On Jan. 10 1863, Coleman wrote a letter of devotion and commitment about how his eyes wouldn’t stray toward any other woman and how his attraction toward her was still strong, even when he was preoccupied with war-related struggles. At the time, he hadn’t received a letter from Adkins in six weeks and feared it was because he wasn’t wooing her enough in previous statements that she might stray herself.
“If I ever thought our engagement would end otherwise than in the union of two devoted hearts, I would pray God to continue this war until my life was at end and that a day would never pass unless rivers should run red with human blood,” Coleman wrote.
She responded on Feb. 8, 1863 in more of a coarse tone, saying she wasn’t sure what to make of him and thought everything was running smoothly between the two.
“Why is it that you cannot trust me? Of course I will comply with every promise made to you, and I will expect you to do the same towards me. Have I not promised to be yours, and have I ever broken a single promise made to you?” Adkins wrote. “I know very well what your answer would be. But there are times when you think of me more than at others, and you become very anxious to see me, and your affections are deeper than ever.”
Question of devotion
The question of devotion is a reoccurring theme, Ames said. And why wouldn’t it be? She’s home dancing with other soldiers while he’s being shot at, Ames said. She’s fighting off rumors by playing coy, not necessarily acknowledging the truth of their engagement and not necessarily denying it to others either, the letters show.
“That letter (from Adkins) was basically implying, ‘When you’re busy with the war, you don’t think about me a lot. It’s when you’ve got the down time, now you worry about me and you’ve got time to write this letter,’ ” Ames said. “I try to put myself in that mindset. I’m a young man and he started a successful business in Marshall, made some money before the war.
“He didn’t own slaves but was very pro-secession. He wanted out, so when the war started, he enlisted very quickly. He’s a guy who had some success and had been secretly engaged to Jennie before he left. Her dad was a judge, a hotel owner and apparently had some pull, and didn’t know they were engaged when he left.”
Not until Aug. 9, 1863, half way through the war, does Coleman finally works up the courage to ask Adkins’ father for her hand in marriage. The letter, from Pelahatchie Depot in Mississippi, states how much Coleman wishes he had asked in person, but wasn’t sure he would be able to visit Marshall anytime soon. He acknowledges the engagement had been ongoing for some time and asks Adkins’ father to “consent to our marriage at some future day.”
One of Ames’ greatest regrets is the fact that the collection doesn’t include a response from Adkins’ father to the proposal, he said.
“Jennie’s replies after that indicate he’s mad. He’s not happy about this because he’s heard some scandalous rumors about John, which are never fully addressed,” Ames said. “John writes back and says, ‘Don’t listen to these people who are nay-saying me to your dad. I’m a good guy, you know this and we’re going to get married when this is all over.’ He ends up being right.”
The couple was married in August 1865 and had six children soon after. Coleman’s mercantile business took off, and by 1870, the family employed a house servant, and his net worth was about $2,000.
Coleman died in 1880 at 45 years old, and his wife goes on to live with a Confederate Widows Pension from Texas until 1932, when she passed away at 87. They were buried together in a single plot in Marshall, Ames said.
“My favorite part is they both do get the happy ending. I was afraid as I went through these, I’d find she dies or he dies, she married ahead of him or something happens,” Ames said. “It’s the fact they both lived through this incredibly intense four years, with him out in the field, facing death every day and her back home, trying to keep her family provided for. And in the end, he served honorably through the whole war, he gets cashiered out and is able to go home and they’re able to get married, to be together and live a life where they have six children in a pretty short time span. They both got the happy ending, and that was a little bit of a surprise.”