Name:Roberts Coles, Captain
Date: ca. 1860
Image Number: MCA01cdMCA01
Comments: Roberts Coles was the son of Edward Coles (shown at right), a cousin of Thomas Jefferson whom he urged to publicly work for an end of slavery in Virginia in 1814. When the aging Jefferson chose to leave the emancipation fight to the younger generation, Edward took his slaves to Pennsylvania in March 1819 where they boarded two flatboats for a river ride towards Illinois. Edward freed his 17 slaves in Illinois and endowed them with land. He was elected Governor of Illionis for two terms, but was defeated in 1826 by a pro-slavery candidate. In 1832, Edward moved to Philadelphia where he married Sally Logan Roberts, and they became the parents of Roberts Coles on November 14, 1838.
Despite his northern birth, Roberts thought of himself as a true Virginian. He spent most summers visiting the Coles family in Albemarle County and inherited a piece of property near Enniscorthy. To his father's great disappointment, Roberts Coles returned to Virginia in 1860, where he became a slaveowner and engaged to Jennie Fairfax of Richmond. And then in 1861, the Civil War began in Virginia.
Roberts' father pleaded with him not to support the Southern cause, and if he couldn't fight against the Confederacy to at least remain neutral by going abroad. Roberts, however, believed it his duty to remain loyal to his adopted state, and he pooled his own resources with those of his friends to raise a company of Confederate volunteers from Albemarle, Fluvanna, Nelson, and Amherst Counties. This company was called the Green Mountain Grays, Co. I, 46th Virginia Infantry, and on July 16, 1861, Roberts was elected Captain of some ninety "Grays", who enlisted for one year's service. Like other Albemarle companies, the "Grays" took the train from Charlottesville to Covington and then marched overland to White Sulphur Springs and Lewisburg.
The 46th VA Infantry's first assignment was to save western Virginia from Union attack, which in reality was quite a hopeless task given its command was drastically undermanned and ill equipped in what was essentially a hostile countryside. In the Kanawha Valley, general support was found among the social and politically elite who saw the Confederacy as a means of protecting the status quo, but their money and influence was not enough to overcome the resentment of a people who had voted three-to-one against secession. When the campaign in western Virginia was finally over in December 1861, the 46th VA Infantry had marched hundreds of miles in pursuit of and away from Yankees, and engaged in a few light skirmishes with them. However, the real enemies of the 46th during this time period had been disease and privation, enemies to which many in the regiment had been forced to surrender. On December 23, 1861, the 46th finally arrived in Richmond where supplies were more readily available.
Campaign veterans though they now were, it yet remained for the 46th to be tested in true battle. That test, for some, would come in another state. On January 4, 1862, the 46th left Richmond for Norfolk and, on the January 17th, began the voyage to Nag's Head, a narrow strip of sandy beach lying one-half mile east of Roanoke Island across the Roanoke Channel. When the Federal fleet finally appeared at the southern end of Roanoke on February 6th, the 46th's companies A and I, under Captains Wise and Roberts Coles were loaded onto schooners to be towed by steam tug over to Roanoke Island. At the start of the ensuing battle, Roberts Coles wrote this letter to his financee, Jeannie Fairfax:
On board transport, February 7, 1862--
The battle has commenced. In five minutes we will be on Roanoke Island. The sight is beautiful - our gun boats and batteries are engaging the enemy in full view and the shot and shell are whistling around us. If I fall, God grant you a happy life, as happy a one as I would have tried to have a role in. Be assured my last thoughts on earth will be of you, my dearest Jeannie. Your picture will be the last sight I shall see if time is given me to look once more upon it. I have volunteered for this service. What honor I crave is only craved that you may share it. May God Almighty bless you and may we meet in the world to come if denied that blessing again here. And now I strike for Virginia. Again Goodbye.
Captain Roberts Coles was killed in the battle that followed in which the Union forces were victorious. He is buried in the Coles family cemetery in Philadelphia, but a marker in his honor was placed at Enniscorthy in Albemarle County, Virginia.
The images of Roberts Coles and of his father, Edward Coles, are part of the Margaret Coles Anderson collection; Margaret resides in Keswick, Virginia. Scottsville Museum wants to thank, Margaret, for contacting us and sharing these photos.
The copy of Roberts Coles letter to Jeannie Fairfax, dated 07 February 1862, is courtesy of John Langhorne; John resides in Charlottesville, VA. Thanks, John, for contacting Scottsville Museum and sharing this letter with us.
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