A Family Tragedy

Sally Roberts Coles gave birth to her youngest child, Roberts, one month before her husband Edward’s 52nd birthday in 1838. The young boy would grow to assume an identity and a life completely different from that of his father.

Edward Coles’ decision as a young man to leave Virginia for Illinois defined his life. In Illinois, Coles became his own man politically and ideologically. A generation later, Coles’ son left Pennsylvania for the Albemarle County roots his father had rejected. At 22 years old, Roberts’ motives may have involved rebellion or romanticism. Clearly his decision to live in a slavery-dependent economy emotionally pained his father.

Roberts Coles

Portrait of Roberts Coles, circa 1860. Courtesy of Scottsville Museum (Margaret Coles Anderson Collection).

Roberts started a life in Virginia. He purchased 900 acres, known as “The Plantation,” from a relative, and fell in love with Jennie Fairfax of Richmond. A year later, in April of 1861, the Southern soldiers fired on Fort Sumter and the American Civil War broke out.

Roberts joined with his Virginian neighbors to fight for the Confederacy. He and his friends raised a company of ninety volunteers from Albemarle and nearby counties. The “Green Mountain Greys” mustered into the Virginia Infantry’s 46th Regiment on July 16, 1861, with Roberts as their captain. The news devastated Coles. He recognized his son’s adopted identity as a Virginian would prohibit him from fighting against the South. But he had tried to convince him to go abroad rather than to support the Confederacy and all it represented.1

Two days after getting engaged, Roberts and his company left Richmond to aid in the defense of Roanoke Island. The 23-year-old sustained fatal injuries in the battle on February 8, 1862, in North Carolina. He had written a letter to his fiancée, Jennie Fairfax, the previous day:

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 Jennie. Your picture will be the last sight I 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.

Yours forever,

Roberts Coles


1In October 1861, both Coles and Roberts wrote to Col. John Rutherford (married to Coles’ sister Emily) about Roberts’ decision to fight for Virginia. Roberts wrote: “Although born in Philadelphia, I have always regarded myself as a Virginian. Virginia is the land of my father.” Coles wrote: “From what has occurred, and will probably occur, there is little or no prospect of my ever being again happy.”