The Story of the Colemans: “I Can’t Think of You All but What I Am Most Ready to Cry”
Submitted by: Willis Whichard, Jerry Padgett, Bud Padgett, Obie Whichard, and James Padg
James and Julia Coleman moved to Cherokee County, North Carolina before 1850 along with seven children: William, Frances, Joe, Hugh, Mary, George, and David. They had five more children — Susannah, Cornelius, Sarah, Nebraska, John, and Elizabeth — once settled in their new home.
In addition to farming, James was also classified as a blacksmith in the 1860 Census. In 1861, Clay County was created from part of Cherokee County, and the Coleman farm was situated within the new county. The Colemans had prospered, bought additional acreage, developed fertile fields, and acquired livestock, and life was becoming easier. However, the nation was entering a period of protracted turmoil, and North Carolina seceded from the Union on May 20, 1861.
On November 6, 1861, two of the Coleman boys, Hugh, aged 21 years, and George, only 17, enlisted in the Confederate infantry. Since the first Confederate draft was instituted on April 16, 1862, one can conclude that they chose to enter the Confederate Army voluntarily.
They reported to Company E, 39th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, which was composed largely of Clay County men.
The winter of 1861 was harsh in Tennessee’s mountains, and men suffered without sufficient food and clothing. Many died of exposure and disease. More soldiers died from disease in both the Confederate and Union armies than were killed in battle. In April 1862, Hugh Coleman died of measles. He was buried in Clinton, Tennessee.
On July 2, 1862, the two remaining older Coleman boys, Joseph, aged 24, and William, 25, enlisted or were conscripted into the cavalry. Cavalry companies were elite units made up of men who could afford to furnish their own horses and saddles. Captain William Patton Moore organized the Clay County company, mostly from local men.
When he went to serve the Confederacy, William Coleman left his wife, Elizabeth, and his toddler son, James, behind.
On October 2, 1862, after three months of service, he wrote a letter to his father-in-law, Madison Curtis, discussing both his experiences and those of his brother-in-law, Howell Curtis.
William wrote, “[W]e are in common health at this time with exception to my old complaints…Howell is well and there is not a siveler [more civil] man in camp than he is.” William explained that their food rations were lacking, feed for their horses was scarce, and they were training outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, in full view of a town, which he called “Clledghil.” William mentioned that his father, who was originally from Tennessee, would recognize the field where they were drilling.
He stated that there were six companies camped in that area, nine soldiers in the camp had deserted (from an east Tennessee company), and there were about 2,500 who were in the hospital. William took pride in his company: “We are the best company in the Battalion. [T]he commander in this place says that [Yankees] can’t beat us.”
William also shared that he was conducting a prayer service in the camp and he missed his family: “[W]e had a prair meeting last night…[I]f we never meet again in this world hope and pray that we will meet in heaven…I can’t think of you all but what I am most ready to cry.” William concluded with requests that the letter be shared with his father and that they all write to him as soon as possible. He sent money for Elizabeth and informed Madison Curtis that he was sending his saddle home “by Patton to the Fort Hembree.” Apparently, William had received a government issued saddle while at camp, so he sent his personal saddle home by William Patton Moore who, records show, made regular, mostly unauthorized, trips home to Fort Hembree, a pioneer settlement near the present town of Hayesville. Madison Curtis was to retrieve it for him.
Almost a year later, on September 19, 1863, Confederate and Union forces met around Chickamauga Creek or, translated from its Indian name, “River of Death,” The battle lasted for two days. Confederate General Braxton Bragg led 66,326 soldiers to battle, and 18,454 of them died.
George Coleman’s company fought in the middle of the attack at Chickamauga. Joe Coleman, fighting in the same cavalry company as his elder brother William, was one of the casualties. Furthermore, William was probably injured in that battle, since we know from family oral history that he was shot in the leg or hip. State records do not specifically report him as wounded then, but they do list him as “Absent, sick, and dropped” for the September-December pay period in 1863. That particular phrase was commonly written in the files of soldiers who were wounded and unable to continue fighting.
Perhaps, William was fighting alongside his brother when Joe was killed, and, wounded himself, kept Joe’s horse and left the battlefield, crossing the mountains to Clay County.
After the battle of Chickamauga Creek, George Coleman deserted. However, he was later awarded a citation for merit, and returned to Clay County to lead a long, productive life. The evidence is also clear that William returned to Clay County after the battle. Furthermore, sources confirm that William was compensated for the “use and risk” of his horse from January through March, 1864. If he had left the battlefield with only Joe’s horse, William’s horse might have continued to serve the Confederacy.
In 1864, William Coleman arrived home. Elizabeth had been pregnant when William left, so when the soldier returned, they had not just one son—James—but two: Andrew was born April 2, 1863. A few months after William’s homecoming, in October, Elizabeth died. In a period of just four years, William lost two brothers, two brothers-in-law, his infant daughter, Roxanne, who died before the war, and his wife. Eventually, he married Adeline Rogers, and they had six children — Maggie, Ellen, Georgia, Robert, Marvin, and Cordie — in addition to William’s two sons by his first wife, Elizabeth.
In 1874, James Coleman, William’s father, died and was buried in the Hayesville Methodist Cemetery. Two years later, William Henry Coleman died at the age of forty.