Electronic Library Digitizes Collection of Civil War Letters

They were written in places with names like Mechanicsburg, Okolona, Queens Hill and North Duck River. But today, letters written by a Confederate major from East Texas have found a new home at the Baylor University Electronic Library.

The story of how the letters wound up in the hands of the librarians at Baylor is almost as fascinating as the story of the letter writers themselves. Dr. Douglas Guthrie, a Mexia podiatrist and self-affirmed Civil War buff, was informed by a patient that she and her siblings had dozens of letters written by a Confederate officer and his fiancee over the course of the war. Better yet, she offered to give her share of the letters to Guthrie.

Around the same time, Guthrie was among a group of Lions Club members who heard a presentation from John Wilson, director of development for the Baylor University Libraries. Wilson spoke about the work being undertaken by the Electronic Library in the areas of material digitization, preservation and online access for research. Guthrie was intrigued, and after speaking to Wilson, agreed to loan the letters to Baylor for inclusion in the program.

The majority of the letters were written by Major John N. Coleman, a Confederate soldier who saw action with the Third Texas Cavalry. Coleman's outfit, known informally as "Ross' Brigade" after its leader, General Lawrence Sullivan "Sul" Ross, saw action at several key battles over the course of the war, including Pea Ridge, Ark., the siege of Vicksburg, Miss. and the Atlanta campaign. Coleman, who served as the brigade's commissary officer, was responsible for procuring and distributing food supplies to the Texas troopers.

The rest of the letters were written by Adkins, who in 1861 was the teenage daughter of a Marshall, Texas, hotel owner and judge. Before enlisting, Coleman and Adkins entered into a secret betrothal, vowing to become officially married when Coleman returned from the war. Over the course of the war, Adkins wrote Coleman often, but the rigors of war and the dangers of sending letters across the Mississippi River made letter-writing sporadic. This made for several episodes of jealousy on Coleman's part, most of them based on misinformation and rumors.

"I started referring to them as my 'Confederate Days of Our Lives' project," said Eric Ames, the information specialist who scanned, transcribed and uploaded the letters. "When you read them, you really get drawn into the story of who these young people were, what they experienced and how their lives turned out."

Ames' research revealed that Coleman and Adkins were married in August 1865 when Coleman returned to Marshall after receiving a parole from the victorious Union Army. However, John died in 1880. His widow lived until 1932 and even received a Confederate pension from the state of Texas for the final 18 years of her life. In addition to leaving behind six children, their Civil War romance left behind an equally important resource: their letters.

"These letters allow readers to experience the war on a very personal level," Ames said. "When you read them, it's very easy to empathize with John and Jennie. These are very personal items, and they certainly convey a deeper appreciation for just how emotionally devastating the Civil War was for those who lived it."

The Guthrie Civil War Letters Collection is part of an ongoing project at the Electronic Library designed to preserve rare and historic documents and make them available online for research. Currently, the Electronic Library is working to harness the power of technology to become a unique repository for items unavailable elsewhere.

The letters are viewable online at contentdm.baylor.edu. Also included in the Baylor Digital Collections are the Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Sheet Music and the Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies Vertical File.

For more information, contact Tim Logan, director of the Baylor University Electronic Library, at 254-710-6665.