Capt. Isaac Coles:
Pittsylvania's Own Mark Twain

Excerpted from an article by Henry H. Mitchell and Patricia B. Mitchell, July 1, 1982.

Capt. Isaac Coles

Maud Carter Clement discovered Pittsylvania County's own Mark Twain in Captain Isaac Coles. The written memories of the Civil War veteran will appear in the soon-to-be-reprinted Writings of Maud Carter Clement [published 1982 by the Pittsylvania Historical Society, out of print as of 2001].

Included in this Clement collection are the delightfully descriptive, witty, and sometimes poignant words of Capt. Coles.

As a young man Coles was a member of Company E, 6th Virginia Cavalry of the Confederate Army. He wrote his “War Reminiscences” and “The Experience of a Confederate Soldier in Federal Prisons, 1863-1865” for Mrs. Clement telling of his involvement in Jackson's Valley Campaign.

He also fought in the Battle of Cross Keys and was captured at the Battle of Brandy Station.

In Mrs. Clement's collection Coles recounts an amusing story of the “verdant” (green) young soldiers in his battalion who became separated from their group and later met.

When asked from afar to identify themselves, they were almost shot because their colleagues thought that they answered “Pennsylvania Cavalry” rather than “Pittsylvania Cavalry.” After that incident they always referred to themselves as “Virginia Cavalry.”

Further accounts include his surreptitious feasting (along with his friend Lt. Drake of Kentucky) on the pet cat of General Foster, commander of the prison camp where Coles was incarcerated on Morris Island, South Carolina. Coles commented, “And it was a king's dish indeed, a whole pan full, two whole yawning stomach fulls and to spare!”

Coles also recorded in “Recollections of My Youth” a humorous incident involving a local militia officer who, though ostentatious and grand, was sadly lacking in his knowledge of drill commands.

Coles had a remarkable gift for documentary journalism and an eye for comedy. Isaac Coles died in 1926 at the age of 92, “with his faculties perfectly clear.”

Remaining Capt. Isaac Coles Memorabilia

Forest Home

Captain Isaac Coles's tree-shaded residence “Forest Home” near the Shockoe crossroads is now owned by Mrs. Thelma Barksdale Fletcher of Chester, Pennsylvania.

Most talked-about of the house's architectural details are the spiral stair and the door behind it (with not only a curved door frame, but also the door itself being shaped to an arc).

A few hundred feet away, the monument to Capt. Coles is almost hidden in a dense grove.

Jordan Coles, grandson of Capt. Isaac Coles, has only one recollection of his grandfather: “When my family lived in Chatham during the 1920's, ‘Papa Coles’ would come to visit. He would sit at one end of our marble hearth, and my younger brother Jim and I would sit at the other. Papa Coles would reach across and grab us with his cane and drag us across the hearth to him. We would jump up, run to the other end, and wait for him to do it again.”

That one memory comes back often to Jordan Coles, who today at his home on Peach Street in Chatham sleeps in ‘Papa Coles's’ bed, and writes at ‘Papa Coles's’ desk.

Mrs. Coles displays serving pieces stored in a cabinet which was once ‘Papa Coles's’ armoire.

Capt. Isaac Coles Tombstone

This tombstone at Forest Home, Shockoe, Pittsylvania County, Virginia, marks the burial place of Isaac Coles and his wife, and is inscribed: “In Memory of - Isaac Coles - Born - April 8, 1834 - Married Mrs. M. B. Leftwich - December 23, 1873 - Died - August 5, 1926.”

Staircase at Forest Home

This spiral staircase is seen at Capt. Isaac Coles's Forest Home, now owned by Mrs. Thelma Barksdale Fletcher. Note the arched doorway in the curved wall; both the door frame and the door itself have the same arc as the wall.

Jordan Coles with Capt. Coles's Bed

Jordan Coles at his Chatham home, with his Grandfather Isaac Coles's four-poster bed.

Jordan Coles at Isaac Coles's Desk

Jordan Coles writes at his grandfather's desk.

Mrs. Jordan Coles with Capt. Coles's Armoire

Mrs. Jordan Coles with Isaac Coles's armoire.

Beavers Tavern

The Beavers Tavern marker on the east side of U. S. 29 at Blairs is positioned near the spot where Capt. Isaac Coles had watched the local militia drill during his boyhood. Capt. Coles reported seeing sabres, plumed hats, and fake muskets.


Related Books from the Sponsor

Maud Carter Clement acknowledged that her History of Pittsylvania County is based to a signficant extent on material provided to her by Capt. Isaac Coles:

History of Pittsylvania County, VA

Clement: History of Pittsylvania County

The following books by Patricia B. Mitchell contain quotations from Capt. Isaac Coles, and are available directly from the publisher, and at museums throughout the United States.

Cooking for the Cause

Cooking for the Cause

Yanks, Rebels, Rats, and Rations

Yanks, Rebels, Rats, and Rations: Scratching for Food in Civil War Prison Camps

Good Food, Good Folks, Good Times

Good Food, Good Folks, Good Times: Just Being Southern

This website is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia.