Published in the Summer 1998 through Spring 2000 Issues of the Ramparts.
We are deeply indebted to David Dean of Rochester, New York, who has graciously permitted us to publish these letters from his private collection. Mr. Dean is descended from Jeannie’s sister Louise.
Following is a series of letters written by Jane Augusta McKinney Coues, know as “Jeannie” to her friends and family. Jeannie was the wife of Dr. Elliott Coues (pronounced “cows”), the Fort Macon surgeon, and a renowned naturalist.
Jeannie accompanied Captain Coues when he was assigned to Fort Macon in February, 1869. Initially, their living quarters were inside one of the Fort casemates. During their 20 months stay at Fort Macon, Jeannie corresponded frequently with her sister Louise.
Fort Macon, North Carolina
March 13th, 1869
My dear Sister:
I have been thinking of writing you for ever so long, but have been waiting till I felt like it. We came here the 14th or 15th of Feb. I suppose this is as pleasant as most forts and I ought to like it for my life in all and I ought to like it for my life in all probability will be spent in just such places – but I don’t. I might like it better perhaps if I had any ladies society. There is only one here beside myself. She is very nice and pleasant but I don’t feel drawn to her. Though we occupy adjoining rooms I never see her except at meals or walking about the fort.
When we first came there was one lovely lady here – daughter of a celebrated Boston scientific gentleman and niece of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Her family is very intimate with some of Elliott’s people and she had frequently heard of Elliott both as a surgeon and naturalist, so that on our arrival we were at once admitted within the pale. One week ago her husband’s regiment was ordered to Savannah and some new troops stationed here, which we don’t begin to like as well. Just as sure as I get to caring for anyone they are ordered away, so that I feel now that I don’t want to know anyone again.
I don’t know how to describe Fort Macon so that you will get my idea of it. It is built on a little island two miles out from the mainland. It is in the form of a hollow pentagon, and has a moat and a drawbridge. On the ramparts are cannons commanding the harbor and ocean called guns en barbette. The fort is turfed over and from the water looks only like high breast works, but in reality it is 40 ft. high. The entrance is called the sally-port and there is a guard of 10 or 15 men stationed there night and day. No one enters without being challenged. That is, no one living outside the fort.
Whenever the officer of the day goes in or out of the fort, a sentinel calls out in a stentorian voice: “Commanding Officer! Turn out the guard!” on which the guard fall into line and salute the officer as he passes. Or maybe he doesn’t want to be bothered with so much ceremony, in which case he calls out to the sentinel: “Never mind the guard.” All day and all night long the sentinel with his horrid voice is either saying: “Commanding Officer, Turn out the guard,” or else: “Who goes there, Halt!” Every sunset and sunrise the cannon over my casemate is fired, and every day when the time comes I get so nervous expecting it that I feel as though I should fly.
I go over to Beaufort nearly every day in a rowboat to market. The officers all “mess” together. We have eight servants. The cook is splendid. Oysters are only 30 cents a bushel and almost everything else is cheap. We might save a good deal of money here for there is nothing to spend it on, but Elliott’s pay isn’t nearly as much here. It isn’t cut down, but the reduction comes in this way. In Columbia there were no government quarters and officers were allowed a certain sum per month according to their rank to rent quarters. Elliott’s allowance was $54 a month, but as we boarded we had no rent to pay so we had the $54 for other purposes. Here, as government furnishes quarters we don’t get that.
It is very healthy here and nice places for Edith to play. Warm days she is taken down to the beach and there she rolls over and over, fills her eyes and hair full of sand and makes little mud pies, though she hasn’t attained too much proficiency in the latter. Everything is so clean on the beach that I like to have her there. The sea comes up twice a day and washes away all impurities,
I have some coarse, unbleached linen, something like Holland, that would make Alice two capital everyday aprons. Send me a good pattern and I will make them. Love to the bairns and to Mother and Mr. Dean.
With much love,
Following is the second of a series of letters written by “Jeannie” Coues, the wife of the post war Fort Macon surgeon and renowned naturalist, Dr. Elliott Coues. At this time, the Fort was being used as a Federal prison. The soldiers at the Fort served as guards to forestall any escape of prisoners.
Fort Macon, North Carolina
April 16, 1869
My Dear Sister:
I have been taking a hard gallop on the beach this evening, and my hand trembles so I can scarcely write. Your paper, note and pattern all came to hand. I am too busy to make the aprons for some time, but will after a while. I was sorry to hear Mr. Dean’s father was dead, but I suppose he was very old.
We have had a terrible tragedy here since last I wrote, and indeed that has been partly the reason for my long silence. Three weeks ago one of the young officers who had just arrived at the Fort that day had been spending the evening in our quarters. He went out for a few minutes and the next we heard, was several shots. Elliott rushed out and in a minute a dead soldier was brought in and in another minute came men bearing Lt. Alexander shot through the lung. There had been an alarm of fire and Lt. Alexander rushed upon the ramparts to extinguish it. When one of the sentinels outside the moat challenged him, not hearing the reply, he fired at him and also at a soldier who ran to the rescue – killing the latter instantly.
Such a night I never passed. I was the only lady at the Fort and he wanted me with him. I never witnessed such excruciating agony in my life. He lingered 24 hours. He was a young boy – only 20 years old – and life looked very bright. But when I told him he was dying he met it very bravely, and after I had talked with him a while he seemed perfectly resigned. I had never thought to be permitted to point a dying soul to Christ. He was a bright, handsome boy, the pet of the whole regiment and his mother’s darling. His body was embalmed and sent to his father – General Alexander, who is stationed in Minnesota. Such an occurrence would be shocking enough in a community, but when it happens among a few people shut up in a Fort and isolated from the rest of the world, it seems doubly awful.
About ten days ago I went up to New Bern to have my teeth filled. The dentist worked on them four days and then my mouth got so sore I had to come home. It will cost seventy five dollars to have them put in order. I do wish Elliott would consent to my having a false upper set.
We have been so stirred up lately that I have accomplished very little. I have bought some cambric to make a baby dress for Laura but don’t know when I shall get up courage enough to make it. My machine works splendidly. My literary efforts have been confined lately to correcting manuscript for Elliott. He is working hard all the time, and in a certain select circle is already looked up to as an authority. He is publishing constantly, but the scientific articles you wouldn’t care for, and the literary articles I can’t send for we never have more than one number of a magazine or paper and those Elliott always sends to his mother.
Did I tell you that she bought me a black lace shawl in Paris and that I am expecting it every day? Elliott’s brother, Dr. Coues of the Navy, that you remember I told you about, has been ordered to the Mediterranean Squadron, and at last accounts was the guest of the Marquis de Monthelon, The French Minister to Lisbon.
Edie is gaining in beauty and precociousness every day. About a week ago Martha brought her in after having a secret interview with her in the kitchen, and said: “Now Edie, Dancy, Dancy,” where the little tot cut out into the middle of the room, with one hand on her side and the other above her head, like a regular little ballet girl, and danced around and round and shuffled her dear little buttoned boots like everything. And now every time the drum sounds she dances regularly. You asked me a while since to send you pieces of her dresses. I still keep her in white and shall for two or three years yet. I think it the prettiest thing for children and for grown people too, for that matter. I shall not come North this summer, unless perhaps we should have the yellow fever here. This is a very healthy place. In fact, Beaufort is the watering place for North Carolina, and besides that we can’t afford to travel this summer. One way and another our expenses are enormous.
Elliott keeps two horses and we have splendid canters on the beach. Two days ago we went 10 miles away in a sailboat to see a whale that had been harpooned and was lying on the beach. It was 50 feet long, and when the roof of its mouth was cut off and placed on the beach it formed an arch high enough for me to stand erect under. I knew whales were large but how large I never realized until it loomed up before me. Elliott is very fond of sailing, hunting, etc, and we frequently go out on excursions.
I was going to write a letter to Mother but couldn’t you send this scrawl to her and save the trouble of writing expressly. Is she keeping house? You never say a word about Frank or what he is doing.
( End of letter missing. )
Ft. Macon N.C.
June 14th 1869
My dear Louise –
I have been reading Browning’s “The Ring and the Book” all the morning, and as I laid it down just now I thought about Owen’s calling poetry “rough reading,” meaning of course the uneven lines. That set me to thinking about you and so I will write a few lines.
My steel pen is lost and I am forced to resort to a lead. A letter from Laura a week or so ago announces the advent of a baby girl – but of course you know of it already. Early this morning I made a lemon cake that is enough to make one “holler.” I wish the children could run into my cupboard and get a piece of fruit cake that I am trying to dispose of. All the spring I have intended trying my skill at a fruit cake, and about two weeks ago I made one. It took most of one day to make it, and what with tasting it and eating fruit, etc, I was sick as death of it when it was done, even though it was all my fancy painted it.
Edith is the only child at the Post now and is fast being spoiled. Several of the officers keep a private paper of candy for her and she trots around to the different rooms and asks for “tan tan” every morning as soon as she is dressed.
It is pretty warm here now, or would be were it not for the sea breeze. I ride my little pony every evening, when it is pleasant. Martha’s voice is wafted to me just now, remarking to Hannah, who is ironing with a good deal of emphasis – “What you makin sech a noise for? When I hears any person poundin so with their flats, I know they ain’t ironing much.” Contemptuous snort from Hannah.
The flesh grows weak.
Ft. Macon, N.C.
Yours of the 15th was received two days ago. Yesterday morning in the balm and blossoming I walked on the beach and put your pretty verses in my memory. You ask if I am engaged in vanities. I am rebosoming old shirts. The weather is pretty warm. We are having an Italian awning put up this morning and I am to scallop it and bind with red.
Have just finished Ring and the Book. It grows on me. When I have digested it shall read again. Am arrayed in clean and stiff striped wrapper. Have just finished some pique dresses for the bairn who is stretched under the mosquito netting sound asleep. I have analyzed every flower that grows hereabouts. I am laboring under the disadvantage of a gold pen…the only form in which gold is unwelcome.
Doesn’t Sterling talk yet? And are Owen and A. going to school, and has O got his front tooth yet? Did it ever occur to you that I might like to hear about Frank…
Where is my indelible marker?
Aug. 30, 1869
I have been down again for the past few days with dysentery. I had hoped to get through the summer without it. I overheard Elliott saying to someone that he was confident that I could never undergo a prolonged attack such as I had for several months last year, and I am of the same opinion. However, I am not worried about it and hope to be about in a few days.
Edith is well. About a month ago she had a violent attack of croup. She was put to bed at seven o’clock as usual, seemingly in perfect health. About an hour afterward I heard a whistling, choking noise that, although I had never heard it before, my heart told me was the croup. We ran to her and found her little face purple, her eyes set, and strangling. Then followed a few awful minutes. People heard me screaming and came running in. In a few minutes the medicine made her throw up the phlegm, she being meantime in a hot mustard bath. After that she seemed very much relieved and had no return of the strangling, though she was very sick for several days. She is entirely well now and is this present moment engaged in flying a kite.
The indelible pencil was received all right and acknowledged next day in a long letter. The wintergreens were sparingly partaken of at short intervals, and went straight to the spot. I was delighted to know that you had such a good time at home. I think it must be very pleasant to be invited out so much and have people glad to see you. Elliott has just made me a present of a silver tea set with an urn to match. Tea pot, water pot, sugar bowl, cream pitcher and slop bowl lined with gold, handsomely chased, each piece marked Coues in old English characters – to be used every day.
I believe I told you we were keeping house. One of the unmarried officers lives with us. Our dinner today is – a pair of wart chickens, a large baked fish, stuffed with Irish potatoes and eggs, and garnished with slices of lemon, the usual vegetables, and grapes for dessert. My dinner is milk porridge. In a fishing excursion the other day I caught 7 immense blue fish just as fast as I could pull them in. No bait is used, just a piece of white or red cloth sewed on
( end of letter missing )
This is the fourth of a seriees of letters written by “Jeannie” Coues, the wife of the post war Fort Macon surgeon and renowned naturalist, Dr. Elliott Coues. At this time the Fort was being used as a Federal prison.
9 AM Oct. 5th, 1869
Fort Macon N.C.
I have this moment risen from the breakfast table – (coffee, hot rolls, broiled chicken, fried potatoes) feeling a strong desire to put on my hat and make a morning call at the Troy Parsonage. That being out of the question, I seize my plume.
Edith is mounting her broom-stick preparatory to a canter around the plaza. Elliott is reading the New York Times, for which he writes. Mr. Bigelow, our former minister to France, is the present editor. I have been reading during the past week (while knitting stockings for Edith) Alexander Dumas’ “Love and Liberty.” It isn’t a story at all, but the history of France in the time of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, and is to me extremely interesting.
I was glad to hear that Lizzie is with you. Give her my love. Under her eyes I imagine you will gather up the loose ends of yourself and household. You spoke of a dressing for cabbage. Send it. Elliott is going to Washington the last of this month to meet his brother-in-law who sailed for this country the 2nd of October. His sister-in-law and two children sailed from New York the same day to meet Dr. Sam Coues, who is cruising in the Mediterranean. The whole family will then bruise about Europe getting polished to such an extent that I shall meet them, if I ever do meet them, with fear and trembling.
Louise I am vexed as I can be with you for not sending back that Liberal Christian with Elliott’s article about the way green houses are heated. I think I will never send you anything anymore. Why don’t you give me the Springfield news? Also, where is mother going to live this winter? How I do wish I had a home. Other officers’ wives are always getting boxes from home and going home and staying months at a time and having their children petted and made much of by their grandmas. Dear me I do wish I were rich! Well I must close. Write often and long and believe me as ever
Your aff. Sister,
P.S. I weigh 110 lbs and am probably the thinnest mortal that ever lived.
This is the fifth of a series of letters written by “Jeannie” Coues, the wife of the post war Fort Macon surgeon and renowned naturalist, Dr. Elliott Coues. At this time the Fort was being used as a Federal penitentiary.
8 o’clock PM March 12, 1870
Fort Macon, N.C.
I may say that I was entirely overcome by your last; such a flow and such paper would do credit to Queen Victoria herself! You ask me to visit Aunt Jane with you. I didn’t know before that I had an Aunt Jane, or rather I had forgotten the fact. I should be very much pleased to visit her or any other of my relatives if I thought they cared to see me … but as I haven’t had any communication with them for some 18 or 20 years I don’t flatter myself that they especially care to re-make my acquaintance.
Your plan for us to meet somewhere in New York is impracticable for we have neither of us funds enough to stay at a hotel together. You speak of us visiting Central Park, the “Battery,” etc. The Battery is not considered a place of fashionable resort. I believe it used to be years ago but is now given up to the lower classes. I want you to make your arrangements for your visit without any reference to my coming to Troy. Go whenever you feel like it. I am sorry you are to move in Sept. as that is the month that would be most convenient for me to visit you. However, if my funds hold out, I will try to see you some way or other. I have got to have a good deal of work done on my teeth, which will take my money up dreadfully.
I am very sorry to hear you are all so miserable, and I don’t see how you can get along. Don’t think of taking Sterling with you. If the whole family goes you might as well stay at home. Then beside the care of him you will have to fuss about his clothes, and whenever you want to go out you will have to leave him with someone to take care of. Again I say Don’t think of taking him.
What do you mean by this sentence – “Perhaps I had better visit the Sterlings after my return from the East.” This is the first intimation that I have had that you contemplated any such trip. If it wouldn’t be asking too much, might I ask when and how this idea originated and what points in the East you intend to move on? Don’t forget to enlarge on this subject when you write.
I am overwhelmed with work. Have been cutting and basting for a long time and now just as I have a big basketful ready for the machine it refuses to take a single stitch. I feel as if I could fly at it and smash it into a thousand pieces. If you want a wrapper pattern I have one which I consider embodies all the virtues of which any human wrapper is capable. I could see my best dress cut up by that pattern without a pang. Elliott is sitting at his desk writing and I am permitted to sit not far off and bask in the rays of the German student.
Did I tell you that we had moved into a little row of cottages just outside the fort in consequence of Elliott’s being the second officer in rank. All of the houses are one story and the following is a plan of them …
This will give you an idea of my cottage by the sea.
With love ,
This is the sixth, of a series of letters written by “Jeannie” Coues, the wife of the post war Fort Macon Surgeon, Dr. Elliott Coues, addressed to her sister Louise. At this time the Fort was being used as a Federal penitentiary.
Fort Macon, North Carolina
Oct. 20th, 1870
My Darling Sister;
Your stunner of the 17th is this minute received, and I rise from a sick bed to indignantly deny the base assertions you scatter broadcast through out it. What motive other than pecuniary could I have for not coming to you? The fact that I had been spending so much all summer was the reason why I couldn’t come instead of being as you say the very reason why I could. I am confident that $30 would have been the very least that a trip to Canton would have cost, and that $30 I didn’t have to spare. My stay in New York was a purely business matter. I went there and stayed there expressly to get the Dr. ordered North, which I accomplished.
We are going either to Fort McHenry near Baltimore, or Fortress Monroe, Va., in two or three weeks or maybe a month. This is at present a secret in military circles. I wanted very much to get to Boston, but the oldest surgeon in the Army is stationed there and didn’t of course want to be moved, so my next choice was Baltimore or Ft. Monroe.
I arrived here two weeks ago – found my family salubrious and everything lovely. My baby is as plump and pretty as ever and has beautiful golden hair half way down her back. She says and does everything and I think her the darlingest of darlings. I am so glad that you are having a pleasant time. Give my love to Aunt and Uncle and the girls. Tell Lucy that I have no photographs of myself at present, but will certainly have some taken this winter after we are settled in our new home and will then send her one of us all. You know we can’t get anything of the kind down here.
Last night I spent the evening next door. Didn’t go to bed until 1 o’clock and was wakened this morning at reveille by the baby, all of which combined has given me a sick headach.
I wish you would write me while at Uncle John’s and give a full account of your visit and tell me about Lucy and Gertrude. I wish Lucy would write me. I can’t spend my summers in Baltimore any better than I can here, so I shall certainly see you early next year …funds or no funds. You can’t possibly want to see me any more than I you. Don’t eat up the plum preserves. When I think of the new counterpain my heart goes pit a pat and would’s it were with thee. Are any of the children with you? Are you comfortable as to clothes? Do, do write immediately.
POSTSCRIPT – JEANNIE’S LIFE AFTER LEAVING FORT MACON
by Randy Newman
For the past two years, readers of the Fort Macon Ramparts have followed a young mother’s life at Fort Macon in the late 1860’s, as revealed by her letters to her sister in the North. Jane “Jeannie” Coues was the wife of Fort Macon’s Surgeon, Dr. Elliot Coues. Dr. Coues made his living as an Army officer, but his primary interest in life was developing and enhancing his international reputation as an authority on North American birds. When the Army reassigned Dr. Coues in 1870, we lost our correspondence connection with “Jeannie”.
In November 1870, Dr. Elliot Coues, along with his wife Jeannie and their daughter Edith Louise, would leave Fort Macon to go to Fort McHenry. Jeannie must have been very excited about this move from Fort Macon for one of the best army posts, located near Baltimore Maryland. Also, with her husband’s transfer came a pay raise from $2500 to around $4000. The officers’ quarters at Fort McHenry were of sturdy construction, well heated and ventilated. Jeannie now had a home that provided her family with the comforts which had been lacking at Fort Macon. The Officer’s House at Fort Macon had cracks in the wall that let the sand and rain in. Jeannie probably never missed her house at Fort Macon which she called “my cottage by the sea”.
On January 16, 1872, Jeannie gave birth to her first son, Elliot Baird Coues. Dr. Coues wanted to name their son Spencer Baird (Spencer F. Baird was then the Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution), but Jeannie had her heart set on Elliot Baird. Sometime around late September 1872, Dr. Coues would be sent to Fort Randall, in the Dakota territory. In 1878, Jeannie would give birth to another son, Beverly Drinkard. Jeannie had two other children, but both died in infancy.
On November 26, 1880, Dr. Coues was ordered to Fort Whipple, Arizona Territory. He had begun his military career at Fort Whipple and did not want to return to this outpost. He considered this appointment an insult. Dr. Coues did not want to return to “tent-life in unbookish Arizona”. He believed this appointment from the War Department was secretly arranged by his “worst enemy”. Dr. Coues’ “worst enemy” was his wife Jeannie. Dr. Coues would write “…my whole career is at present blocked, in the deadlock brought about by the most devilish malignity and ingenuity of my infamous wife, whose subtle antagonism has been manifested for years in every possible endeavor to thwart and hamper and degrade me… I have been utterly helpless; and so sure did a long matured plot leave her in full possession of my name, house, children, and money…”
Jeannie’s hatred for her husband had resulted from his many affairs with other women over the years. In 1881, Jeannie and her husband decided to go their separate ways. Jeannie continued to reside at 1617 K Street, Washington, D.C., where the entire family had lived before Dr. Coues’ second tour of duty in Arizona. Jeannie kept custody of their daughter, Edith Louise, and youngest son, Beverly Drinkard. The oldest son, Elliot Baird, went with his father. On May 12, 1886, Jeannie filed for divorce in the District Court of Washington, D.C. On July 27, the judge granted the divorce on the grounds of desertion. According to the decree, Jeannie was to receive fifty dollars a month from Dr. Coues and was to have custody of the children, except Elliot Baird, who was to stay with his father. Dr. Coues died on December 25, 1899. The lowest point in Jeannie’s life must have been on January 2, 1913, when her oldest son, Elliot Baird, passed away.
Edith Louise was age two while at Fort Macon. She would ride a broom-stick around the fort and would often ask for “tandy” (candy) from the soldiers of the fort. The soldiers made a point to keep candy in their pockets for Edith. Later, she would receive her education at the Convent of Notre Dame in Maryland, and from private tutors.
On April 22, 1901, at the age of thirty three, Edith married Nelson O’Shaughnessy of New York City. The wedding took place in Rome, Italy. Nelson O’Shaugnessy worked for the American Diplomatic Service. In 1907, Edith would give birth to her only child, Elim, a son. Elim would also spend most of his life in the diplomatic service as a Foreign Service Officer.
Edith became an excellent writer and wrote many books. Her first and best known book was A Diplomat’s Wife in Mexico. Around 1920, Edith wrote about her mother, Jeannie: “My mother is very tall, her figure little or not at all bent by time, and her gait is of a peculiar rhythmic majesty. She generally wears capes of unique and beautiful cut… Often too I picture her sitting at one end of the long white table of the white upper chamber, the light from the electric bulb in the paneled ceiling, cutting out her beautiful, high, straight nose, deepening her large-socketed, still blue eyes, tracing her delicate, so often smiling lips, and finding the gleam or sparkle of something around her unravaged throat. Over her face lies a great calm which has come after much combating with circumstances and many enforced or voluntary renunciations… Under that light yesterday she was saying, ‘Love your griefs; they are your best friends. Looking back over these many years I see that the good and admirable things of life have indeed belonged to adversity rather than prosperity”.
Jeannie spent her last years traveling with Edith and her family. She died on January, 1925, in Rome. Edith O’Shaughnessy died on February 18, 1939, in New York City. The author, Randy Newman, is a Park Ranger at Fort Macon State Park. The source of much of the material in this article is the book titled: “ELLIOTT COUES, Naturalist and Frontier Historian” by Paul Cutright & Michael Brodhead.