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Turncoat: The Civil War Story of
Colonel Charles Read Collins, CSA

By Roger Applegate
with Research Assistance from Ron Ciani

Milestones Vol 35 No. 2

Author's Note: It is with a profound sense of loss that I submit this article, knowing that it will forever contain the last contribution by research expert, Ron Ciani. Ron passed away unexpectedly on May 1st,.

Throughout the Civil War, a large number of Beaver County men swelled the ranks of Federal regiments and fought to preserve the Union. Yet, despite his deep Western Pennsylvania roots, and the possibility of being labeled a "turncoat", there was one Beaver County native who decided that his interests lay in fighting for the south.

Charles Read Collins was born on December 7, 1836 in Allegheny City on the north side of Pittsburgh, the eldest son of Thomas Collins, Jr. and Elizabeth Heartt Collins. Sometime between 1850 and 1854, the family moved to the Oak Hill district of New Brighton where his father worked as a teacher.

The Collins name was prominent in Western Pennsylvania, due chiefly to his grandfather, Thomas Collins, Sr. who was a noted and very wealthy attorney in this area. Thomas Sr. received his legal training in Dublin, Ireland and immigrated to the United States in 1796 where he married Sarah Read, the daughter of famous Philadelphia attorney Collinson Read, and moved to Pittsburgh. Thomas Sr. was accepted to the bar in Beaver County in 1804, and as further proof of his prominence, Collins Township, which later became a part of the city of Pittsburgh, was named after him. The couple had one son, Thomas Collins, Jr. As mentioned earlier, Thomas Collins, Jr. worked as a teacher, but he was also an 1826 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, a fact that was to influence the future course of young Charles' life.

Following in his father's footsteps at the age of seventeen, Charles Read Collins began the application process to be accepted into West Point. In a letter to Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, Collins wrote:

Wishing to procure an appointment of Cadet, at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, I herewith forward my application, and state, that, I am in my 17th year, of fair English Education.

The Honorable M.C. Trout, House of Representatives and Wilson McCandless, Esq. Of Pittsburg, PA will favor me with testimonials of character etc. to your department.

With Respect,
Charles Read Collins

Collins was to suffer an initial disappointment as Representative Trout had decided to nominate another candidate to fill the cadet vacancy. The disappointment was not to last as the other candidate decided that he no longer wished to become a cadet, and on September 1, 1854, Charles Read Collins entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. In a foreshadowing of future events, he served his first year under the command of Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee, then Commandant of the Academy. By all accounts, Collins was a bright student, became Adjutant of the Cadet Corps as a senior, and was well liked and respected by his classmates.

On a beautiful sunshine day in July, 1859, following five years of schooling, Collins graduated third in his class of twenty-two cadets, and was promoted to a Second Lieutenant of Topographical Engineers. His first assignment was in Washington D.C. as the assistant topographical engineer for making maps of the explorations that were going on in Utah between December 21, 1859 and March 18, 1861. It was during this posting that Collins was to meet and romance Miss Susan Augusta Mason of King George County Virginia, a member of a well known southern family. Susan was one of the four daughters of Wiley Roy Mason, owner of the largest law practice in the region and a very wealthy land owner.

Collins and Susan Augusta Mason were wed in November 1860, most likely at the Masons' summer home, "Cleveland" in King George County, Virginia. It is interesting to note that all four of the Mason daughters along with three of their female cousins married army officers. All of the ladies were known for their beauty, and at one point, General Sherman remarked, "Those Mason girls will break up the army."

Between March 18 and May 27, 1861, Collins served in a new position as Assistant in the Topographical Bureau in Washington, D.C. , and following the outbreak of hostilities with the southern states, he was sent to Elmira, New York on "mustering duty" from May 27 until his resignation from the United States Army on June 10, 1861. It is interesting to note that his resignation coincided with the battle of Bethel Church, which was the first land battle fought in the State of Virginia since her secession from the Union nearly two months prior.

We know from our history that many officers from southern states resigned their commissions to join the Confederate army, and that was understandable, but why a soldier with deep northern roots whose only southern tie was through his wife? Could he have done it for love? Morris Schaff, one of his contemporaries from West Point, had written a book called "The Spirit of Old West Point" about his time both at the academy and in the Civil War, believed that his defection to the south was not only due to love, but may also have been due to Collins' apparent friendship with Jefferson Davis:

"There must have been a great personal charm in Jefferson Davis notwithstanding his rather austerely courtly address; and it has occurred to me that in it, next to the almost irresistible influence of marriage ties, may be found the explanation of the fact that a number of Northern men, his personal friends, like Huse of Massachusetts, Cooper of New York, Ives of Connecticut, Gorgas and Collins of Pennsylvania broke the natural bonds of home and blood and fought for the Confederacy....."

The theory makes sense, but we also must take into consideration that living in Washington D.C. near his in-laws, he would have been under their and his wife's influence however subtle that may have been. Also, we must consider that the family eventually included three confederate generals (Field, Maury and Alexander) along with several other relatives who were ranking confederate officers. In fact, secessionist feelings seemed to run high in the Mason family as at one point, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had ordered the arrest of Wiley Roy Mason along with several of his friends and neighbors. Although Mr. Mason was never arrested, a union regiment once looted his home and carried off a great deal of household and personal goods. Loyalty to the north would certainly have made for interesting dinner conversation!

In any event, two weeks following his resignation, Collins was commissioned a Lieutenant of artillery in the confederate army. His brilliance, background and perhaps some familial influence, quickly earned him a series of promotions, the first was to Captain of Engineers in October of 1861 where he served on the staff of General Fields and Smith and later served as engineering officer on General Kershaw's staff. While there, Collins served at the battles of Fair Oakes and the Seven Days Campaign.

In April of 1863, he was promoted to Major and took over as second in command of the 15th Virginia Cavalry, his first combat command. To most accounts, before Collins arrived, the 15th Virginia was a poor fighting outfit and suffered from bad morale and uneven discipline. According to "Tom", a slave of one of the officers, the regiment had "never stood fight or fire, but always shows a clean pair of heels per man." Perhaps an unfair comment, because the regiment had spent most of its time split up on detached duty and was used almost exclusively for picket and surveillance. Also, their original commander, Colonel Ball had been off on medical leave for almost a year and would never return. Other officers were on detached duty, so the unit was always short of officers, resulting in a lack of training and poor morale.

When the Confederate army moved north toward the battle of Gettysburg, the 15th was again to stay behind the fighting and protect communications. This was the final insult to a group of 15th Virginia regimental officers, who decided to show their displeasure at being used so poorly, by writing a petition to their brigade commander, General Henry Wise:

"We would respectfully represent that the undersigned all the officers present of the Companies below stated, are much dissatisfied in their present Regiment-because there are companies and material in them that are not calculated to reflect credit on the service but great discredit on their associates in arms. On account of that element in the Regt., we have not (as a Regt.) the confidence of the authorities and are done great injustice in being kept in the back ground and on picket along the Rappahannock River. We did not enter the service to "play soldier" but to act it, and when our Courage is questioned by the country simply from associations we feel the humiliation which is common to Virginia soldiers who are will to "do or die" for their country..........

Of course as soldiers we obey orders and serve where directed, but we command as good fighting men as ever "Mounted a steed" and desire a bold and dashing leader who will give us chances in the field........."

Poor discipline didn't only pertain to the enlisted men. Lt. Colonel Critcher who was in command of the 15th Virginia Cavalry at the time of Major Collins arrival, was charged with being absent without leave. Apparently, he decided to visit home to attend a funeral without permission and ended up being captured hiding in some weeds by a federal unit. It is interesting to note that while Critcher was hiding, his slave Tom was attempting to divert Union attention until a cocked pistol was put to his head and Critcher surrendered himself rather than see Tom shot.

The capture of Critcher opened the door for Major Collins to assume command. With Charles Read Collins in charge, the discontented officers were to get their wish for that "bold and dashing leader". Collins began to establish his leadership and instill discipline in the 15th Virginia and his efforts were noticed by those above him as well as by the increased unit pride from the men he led.

In numerous skirmishes with federal troops, Collins was to prove his personal bravery and leadership abilities as his troops performed as well as any southern cavalry unit. This was to be further proven as the southern command consolidated its cavalry units into six brigades with two divisions. The 15th was assigned to Lomax's brigade in Fitzhugh Lee's division. An example of the progress made by the 15th as a fighting unit as well as Collins' personal bravery comes from a report written by him following a fierce fight at Bristoe Station in October, 1863 against superior odds. It reads:

"...After following the enemy back to their support, we fell back into the woods and formed, under a very heavy fire from a force on the opposite side of the railroad. We charged this force and drove it back until we were met by two parties of the enemy, one on each flank. The one on our left was checked momentarily by one of the other regiments of the brigade. We fell back again a short distance, rallied, and repeated the charge. These charges were made five or six times, and as we were forming after the last charge, the enemy withdrew their entire force."

When Charles Read Collins was recommended to formally take over the regiment and be promoted to Colonel, he was highly recommended by both General Lomax and General Stuart. General Fitzhugh Lee praised his "high scientific attainments, spotless integrity and great courage" and called him "one of the rising officers of our army." In addition, General Joe Wheeler recommended him for promotion to brigadier general, but the Secretary of War refused because Collins could not be spared from his unit.

Fortunately, for his domestic life, the 15th Virginia was mostly stationed in northern Virginia near his home. While the war dragged on and Charles Read Collins was building his reputation, he and his wife became parents of two boys; Charles Collins, Jr. who was born on February 6, 1862 and Wiley Roy Collins who was born on March 22, 1864 only a scant few months before the Spotsylvania Campaign would result in Collins' death.

On may 6, 1864 as General Grant's two day battle of the Wilderness wound into stalemate, Grant made the fateful decision to continue moving south toward Spotsylvania Courthouse instead of following the usual union course of "retreat and try again next year". The first key to this movement, which was to become the opening salvo for the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, was for Union forces to take Todd's Tavern because it commanded a threeway intersection of the vital Brock Road. It wouldn't be an easy assignment as Fitzhugh Lee's veteran cavalry division, including the 15th Virginia, was holding that spot.

With this objective in mind, the Union cavalry commander, General Philip Sheridan ordered Wesley Merritt's and David Gregg's brigades to recapture the road intersections at Todd's Tavern. Merritt's division advanced directly down the Brock Road and then north of the Tavern, where they ran into Fitzhugh Lee's confederate cavalrymen. The fighting was sharp, but when Gregg's division appeared on Lee's flank, the rebels were forced to retreat down Brock Road. Todd's Tavern now lay firmly in Union hands, and Merritt followed hard on Lee's heels toward Spotsylvania Courthouse. About two miles south of Todd's Tavern, Lee stopped and threw up some log breastworks. Late in the afternoon, Merritt attacked the breastworks with the dismounted 19th New York and some of the heaviest cavalry fighting to date took place with terrible losses on both sides. The fighting was so fierce that at one point, the logs in the breastwork caught fire and the combatants were so close that they were firing at point blank range between the burning logs. As this action was taking place, Colonel Collins was killed by a union bullet while directing his dismounted troops near the breastwork.

As the flames licked the burning barricade, and the union assault was repulsed, the confederate cavalry remounted and retreated to another breastwork farther down the road. At this point, General Fitzhugh Lee realized that Collins had been killed and that his body still lay near the first burning barricade. According to William D. Matter in his book, "If it Takes All Summer: The Battle of Spotsylvania":

"A confederate private remembered years later that he and a major were ordered by Fitz Lee to retrieve Collins' body. They rode forward, dismounted amid a hail of bullets, and attempted to place the body onto the private's horse but had difficulty lifting it. Finally they gave up, remounted, and dashed for the works. They leaped the works and arrived safely, but the private's horse was hit and killed during the leap over the works."

As darkness began to fall, the union forces abandoned the field and returned to Todd's Tavern taking Charles Read Collins body with them. One of Collins' old West Point classmates, Morris Schaff, who was advancing to Todd's Tavern with the Union 5th Corps, takes up the story:

"It was a long, dark, and gloomy ride; Grant and Meade with their staffs passed us. On our arrival at Todd's Tavern after midnight the 5th Corps halted, and I sought a place to lie down in the yard ­the house and its porch being occupied by Grant's and Meade's staffs. In the darkness I trod on a figure lying just inside the gate.

"Can't you see where you're going?" It was (Ranald) Mackenzie of my class, and I replied, "Hello, is that you, Mack?" He offered a place beside him on his blanket, and pretty soon he asked me if I wanted to see Collins, who had been killed, Colonel of the 15th Virginia Cavalry, that afternoon. He told me that he was then lying dead in the garden.

Before he was buried, McConnell of Pittsburg(h) and of the regular artillery, who knew him and his family well, removed a lock of his light hair for his mother. His grave was marked by his old West Point friends.....".

Almost a year later as the war was nearing its end, his old West Point classmate, Morris Schaff walked the old battlefield where Collins had died and shared with us this memory:

"Out of a tender memory of Collins's fate, - he had been our tall, light-haired, modest, pink-cheeked adjutant at West Point, - while my horses were crunching their dinner of corn on the ear, I walked over the ground last May where he fell. It had lately been raggedly ploughed; and catching sight of a couple of daisies in bloom, I went to them. .. I'll say that as I stood over the daisies, a gentle wind came along, they waved softly, and with a heart full of auld lang syne, I said, 'For the sake of my West Point fellow-cadet, and for the sake of days to come, and for the Southern sweetheart he married, wave and bloom on, Daisies!'"

At some unknown time, Charles Read Collins' body was removed from the garden at Todd's Tavern and relocated to the St. John's Church Cemetery in King County, Virginia. He rests there today next to his wife and son, far away from his old New Brighton home.


"Recollections of a Virginian in the Mexican, Indian and Civil Wars", by General Dabney Herndon Maury, New York: Scribners Sons, 1894.

"Report of Maj. C.R. Collins, Fifteenth Virginia Cavalry", October 27, 1863, The War of the Rebellion Papers, Series I Vol. XXXIX.

"The Spirit of Old West Point 1858 to 1862", by Morris Schaff, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1907.

"15th Virginia Cavalry" by John Fortier, H.E. Howard, 1993.

"Survey Report, St. John's Church and cemetery", by Julia Marie Heflin 1937.

"If it Takes All Summer: The Battle of Spotsylvania" by William D. Matter, University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

"Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy Vol. II" by George Washington Cullum, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1891

West Point enrollment papers and letters of recommendation along with other family research done by Edgar Hart and kindly supplied by his son, Richard Hart.

"History of New Brighton, 1838-1938" by New Brighton Centennial Historical Commission, Eagle Printery.

"Thomas Collins", The Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography, Vol. 13.

"The Battle of the Wilderness", by Morris Schaff, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1910.