Collins Family - A series of letters regarding two confederate brothers held at Elmira Prison


There are six letters in the Collins' family series. Three of the letters were written by Robert B. and Richard W. Collins, two Confederate brothers, who were captured and who were being held at Elmira Prison. The two brothers were captured in an engagement near Drewry's Bluff, Virginia; their younger brother, George W. Collins was killed in the same battle. The other three letters were written by their mother, Frances T. Collins, with notations on these letters from their father John Wesley Collins.

Most of what we know about the Collins family has been deduced from census data, the content of the letters, and the little bit of information that can be gleaned from incomplete Confederate military records. It is known that the three brothers served in what has become known as the 44th Tennessee Consolidated Infantry, a unit which took its name from the fact that it was a consolidation of the 44th ,55th, and 25th Infantries, each of which had been reduced by the casualties of war (see the brief history of the 44th below). There is some evidence to suggest that the soldier named Frank, who was mentioned by Robert in the first letter as having been killed at Bean's Station may have been a cousin, but this is not known as fact. What is known is that the three brothers had at least three other female siblings. The 1910 Census finally confirms that the two girls mentioned in Frances' letters written in 1864, Lizzie and Avee (alternative spellings in the various censuses, Ada, Ava, and Ady) were in fact the brothers' two younger sisters. Additionally, there is a third girl in the letters that Frances' simply refers to as “sis.” This may or may not be the Frances (Fannie) E. Collins enumerated in the 1870, 1880, and 1900 Censuses. John Wesley Collins had a brother, James E. Collins as noted in the 1880 Census and it is also likely, but not known as fact, that he had a brother Daniel Collins. The reason for this inference is that Frances references the brothers' “Uncle Daniel” in her letter of 8 Sep 1864, and in 1870, Richard is living with a Daniel Collins.

The following is an excerpt from “Sumner County Tennessee in the Civil War,” by Edwin L. Ferguson:

“Organized at Camp Trousdale Dec. 16, 1861. Consolidated with the 55th (McKoin's) Tennessee Infantry April 18, 1862. Re-organized May 5, 1862. Field Consolidation with the 25th Tennessee Infantry in October 1863. Shortly after organization, the regiment left Camp Trousdale and moved to Camp Hardee at Bowling Green, Ky. Following the fall of Fort Donelson, Feb. 16, 1862, the regiment fell back through Nashville to Murfreesboro, reaching there Feb. 23, 1862. Then to Shiloh which they entered with 470 men. At roll call after the battle only 120 answered to their names. As a result, on April 18, 1862, the regiment was consolidated with the 55th (McKoin's) to form the 44th Consolidated Tennessee Infantry. The army fell back to Corinth, Miss. then on to Tupelo, on May 29th. Then on July 27th, retreated to Chattanooga. Then came Bragg's Invasion of Kentucky and the battle at Perryville Oct. 8, 1862. The regiment sustained 43 casualties in this battle. Then the long retreat back to Murfreesboro where out of 409 engaged losing 174 in killed, wounded and missing, including 19 out of 28 officers. After going into winter quarters at Tullahoma July 1863, saw another retreat to Chattanooga. Then into Chickamauga, Sept. 19 - 20, 1863, where with 294 engaged, casualties were 113. Here 44 men were sent to the rear, barefooted. Then came the battle at Knoxville, followed then to Rogersville and Bean's Station, Tennessee then into Virginia, fighting at Walthall Junction, Swift Creek and Drury's Bluff in May 1864. Then into the trenches at Petersburg, Va., June 15, 1864. At Drury's Bluff, 95 casualties out of 250 engaged. Then had already been consolidated with the 25th Infantry. The few remaining were paroled at Appamattox Court House, Virginia, April 9, 1865.

The 55th (McKoin's) Tennessee Infantry Regiment
Organized Jan. 30, 1862, at Camp Trousdale, Tennessee. Consolidated with the 44th Tennessee Infantry to form the 44th Consolidated Tennessee Infantry. McKoin's regiment never did receive a number from the Adjutant and Inspector's Office at Richmond. They seem to have it confused with Brown's 55th, but it was known in the field as the 55th Tennessee Infantry. This regiment had practically the same regimental history as the 44th Infantry. Both regiments suffered so severely at Shiloh that neither had the minimum number to maintain its organization. Richmond pronounced the consolidation as illegal, but was deemed inexpedient to annul it so the consolidated served as such to the end of the war. When the consolidated regiment left Tennessee for Virginia, about April 22, 1864, they left 104 men behind sick or deserters.” [1]

The following is a battle report written by Capt. James N. James about the engagement at Drewry's Bluff where the two brothers were captured and their younger brother was killed:

May 22, 1864.

I have the honor to make a report of the part taken by the Forty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Tennessee Regiments in the engagement of May 16 instant, near Drewry's Bluff.

About 3 a.m. skirmishers were sent out from this regiment, composed of First, Fourth, and a detachment of 10 men from second company. A brisk fire was opened upon the enemy's skirmishers, who were driven back to their intrenchments. In this skirmish we sustained a loss of 5 men wounded from first company and 1 man missing from fourth company. About 4 a.m. the regiment moved with the brigade by the left flank from our second line of intrenchments along the Richmond and Petersburg dirt road, where we came under fire of the enemy's batteries, and on reaching the cabins recently used as brigade (Johnson's) headquarters we formed line of battle by the movement of" forward into line" in double-quick time, and moved against the enemy, who were now occupying our first line of breast-works, and who were delivering upon us an extremely heavy and fatal fire of both musketry and artillery.

We were about 100 yards from the breast-works, or less, when Lieut. Col. J. L. McEwen received a severe wound in the right leg, disabling him from further command. He ordered Major McCarver to hold the position at the risk of the loss of every man. Major McCarver took command and pressed forward, and we engaged the enemy. We were now near our first line of breast-works, then occupied by the enemy in position on the east side. The left of the regiment got to the breast-works first, marching a little obliquely. The enemy met the left wing of the regiment with a well-directed fire of musketry and demanded a surrender. Capt. S. J. Johnson and his company (Twenty-fifth Tennessee) were here taken prisoners, with several other officers and men; in all, 1 captain, 4 lieutenants, and 45 men. Major McCarver had received a mortal wound and died on the field. Both of our field officers having been placed hors de combat, some confusion ensued.

Being the senior captain of the regiment, its command now devolved upon me. I found I had no support on my right. I rallied my regiment under heavy fire of the enemy and took shelter behind an arm of the breast-works which adjoined the main works, but it had no communication with the inner line, thus: I again ordered my men to fire upon the enemy. I here saw the enemy pressing forward his skirmishers on my extreme right, at right angles with my position, in an open space from the intrenchment which they held, and which extended down on my right about 300 yards distant, and meeting the line of intrenchments in my front, thus: I immediately sent a detachment of 20 men, under Lieut. J. A. Hatch, to engage them. A sharp skirmish ensued, and Lieutenant Hatch was mortally wounded, and fell dead. My skirmishers drove those of the enemy back, which was a very heavy line. The enemy abandoned our first line of intrenchments under a hot fire along our whole line. The brigade was then formed in line of battle, by the brigadier commanding, on the Richmond and Petersburg dirt road, moved forward, and occupied the first line of intrenchments, from which the enemy had been driven, where we, remained until late that evening, and then moved with Clingman's brigade to support Captain Martin's battery of artillery, which engaged the enemy the following day.

For list of casualties I refer you to annexed report, and remain, your obedient servant,

Captain, Comdg. 44th and 25th Tennessee Regts.” [2]

[1] Ferguson, Edwin L., “Sumner County Tennessee in the Civil War.”

[2] The after report written by Captain William N. James. Source:

John W. Collins, 41, is enumerated in the Census and living in District 8, Williamson County, Tennessee. Enumerated in his household are the following: Frances T. Collins, 29, Richard W. Collins, 13, Robert B. Collins, 10, George W. Collins, 8, and Avee E. Collins, 7 months.

The head of the household in the next residence next to John W Collins is William Collins, 68, Avee Collins, 64, Francis M. Collins, 8, Mary A. Collins, 6.

J. W. Collins, 50, is enumerated in the Census living in Eastern Subivision, Williamson County, Tennessee. In the household the following are enumerated: F. T. Collins, 39, (this is Frances); R. W. Collins, 22, (Richard); R. B. Collins (Robert), 21; G. W. Collins (George), 17, M. A. Collins, 16, (female), J. A. Henderson, 10, (male); L. M. Henderson, 9, (female); Saml Henderson, 7, S. G. Henderson, 5, (female); and John Hughes, 83.

Robert B. Collins, 30, is enumerated in the Census and living in Nashville, Davidson County, Tennessee. Enumerated in his household are the following: John W. Collins, 60, Francis T. Collins, 51, Ada E. Collins, 20, and Frances E. Collins, 19.

Richard Collins, 30, is enumerated as living in the household of Daniel Collins, 53, in District 15, Williamson County, Tennessee.

Wesley Collins, 71, is enumerated in the Census and living in District 8, Williamson County, Tennessee. Enumerated in the household are the following: Frances T. Collins, 59, (noted as wife); Robert B. Collins, 41, (noted as son); Ava E. Collins, 31, (noted as daughter); Frances E. Collins, 29, (noted as daughter); and James E. Collins, 50 (noted as brother).

Richard Collins, 42, is enumerated in the Census and living in District 8, Williamson County, Tennessee. Enumerated in his household are the following: Bettie Collins, 40, (noted as wife); Oscar Collins, 8, (noted as son); and Hugh, 7, (noted as son).

Robert B. Collins, 60, (noted as single and born June 1839) is enumerated in the Census living Williamson County, Tennessee. Enumerated in the same household are: Fannie T. Collins, 80, (noted as mother and born April 1820); Fannie E. Collins, 50, (noted as sister and born April 1850); and Avy E. Collins, 48, (noted as sister and born May 1852).

Robert B. Collins, 70, is enumerated in the Census and living in Civil District 10, Williamson County, Tennessee. Also enumerated in the household are: Ava Collins, 58, (noted as sister); and Lizzie Collins, 56, (noted as sister).

Avee Collins, 70, is enumerated in the Census and living in Civil District 15, Williamson County, Tennessee. Enumerated in her household is Lizzie Collins, 68 (noted as sister).