Josephine Wakely was born around 1845 in Toledo, Ohio, the daughter of Hiram and Caroline Wakely. By 1860, her family lived in Whiteford, Michigan, where her father worked as a shoemaker. During the Civil War, she kept up a correspondence with several soldiers. Wakely worked as a teacher before marrying John Cornell in 1879.
Wakely's most frequent correspondent was a neighbor, Adam H. Crist, born around 1838. Crist was the son of farmer Jacob Crist and his wife Mary. He enlisted in Company H, 15th Michigan Infantry, as a corporal on December 5, 1861, and fought in the battles of Shiloh, Corinth, Jonesboro, and Bentonville. Crist was discharged in Goldsboro, North Carolina, on April 7, 1865, at the expiration of his service. After returning from the war, he married a woman named Luana, and eventually settled in Adrian, Michigan.