In 1860 the Collins family lived in LaSalle, Illinois. The head of the house, Jeremiah, was a blacksmith, and he and his wife Ellen had done well for themselves. This was despite the fact that they had moved to their new home relatively late in life- the couple and their four adult sons had all been born in Ireland. The youngest, 20-year old James, was a wagon-maker, while 22-year old John exhibited the family’s new-found prosperity by becoming a law student. 25-year old Jeremiah junior and the eldest, 27-year old Lawrence, had followed their father into the blacksmith trade. At 66, Jeremiah must have been pleased that as he entered the winter of his life, all his children seemed set to better themselves. Any such comforts were shattered less than a year later, when the American Civil War erupted, changing the course of the Collins’s lives forever. (1)
Jeremiah’s oldest son Lawrence Collins decided that he was not going to sit back and let others fight the war for him. Instead he decided to organise a company of men from LaSalle, whom he hoped to lead. The now 28-year old Irishman must have cut a striking figure as he sought out recruits, as at 6′ 1” he was extremely tall for his time. Described as having light hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion, the blacksmith turned soldier succeeded in getting enough men together to form the 58th Illinois Infantry’s Company H, which officially mustered in on 7th February 1862. The now Captain Lawrence Collins and his men would not have to wait long for their first engagement- they were immediately hurried south to participate in what would become one of the key battles of the war, at Fort Donelson, Tennessee. Lawrence had a front row seat for this momentous event, and he wrote about his experiences to his brother on 19th February, four days after the fort fell to Ulysses Grant.(2)
Fort Henry, Tenn., Feb. 19, 1862
It is a week ago yesterday that we left Chicago. I will pass over our trip to Cairo. We were pushed on a steamer at that place and up the Ohio and Cumberland rivers, and landed about two miles below Fort Donelson. It was early morning when we turned out, and every man was presented with a rusty old musket of about 18 lbs weight, and other things which follow. The 58th was formed, the word “Forward,” given. We marched over some very rough country, until we met thousands of Union soldiers, who told me that the day before a battle commenced. Some we met were wounded, and other things indicated the beginnings of a great battle. We moved up to our position carefully until we came within rifle distance of Fort Donelson. In ten minutes the signal gun was fired by one of the gunboats: the fort answered instantly. I left the regiment and went up within shotgun distance to listen. The gunboats played away, fort answering about one shot to their two. It was splendid music, mixed with the sharp sound of thousands of pickets firing on both sides. The fort was entirely surrounded, and the 58th was one link in the chain drawn around the enemy. That night it was awful cold watching the enemy and walking to one’s knees in snow. It was the hardest night I ever watched. Six men were called on to guard and watch our line ext to the fort. James Kennedy*, of La Salle, volunteered to go on that duty, the most dangerous. For some reason he strayed too near the enemy, and in coming back one of the men challenged him, and being far off the sentinel shot him. I went to him as soon as possible, and spoke to him, but he could not answer by words, but gave me his hand, which was cold as death. He was taken to the hospital, and since then it has been impossible to see him; but from good authority I learn he is dead. Poor fellow! He was one of the best and bravest men I had, and one that I am very sorry to lose.
*[James Kennedy was listed as 'Killday' in the muster rolls. The 26 year-old Irish laborer had been enlisted by Captain Collins at La Salle on 8th October 1861. He was 5' 7'' in height, unmarried, and had sandy hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion. He died on 15th February as a result of his wound.]
Too much praise cannot be given to the La Salle men. Lieutenant Carey behaved most gallantly, as did the other men of my command. There was so much confusion that I did not notice the aim taken at my company. The enemy’s hidden guns got the exact range of my command, and played on us a shower of shell, grape and balls. One shell burst within five or six paces of where I stood; some pieces flew past me and took half of one of my men’s bayonet, and some others were touched in many places. Two men of the 58th were killed and severel wounded. There was none of mine wounded.
Some of the hardest fighting that was ever done on this or any other continent was done in this battle by our glorious Union boys. Two whole regiments I saw go into the battle and come out with all their ammunition used up, and about two hundred left of each of them. One regiment, the 11th Illinois, was terribly cut up. The rebels were trying to escape by cutting their way through our forces, some of them preferring death rather than be taken prisoners. They tried every point to see if they could escape, but they were every time driven back with great loss. All of those forty or fifty regiments stood back waiting orders, the 58th in the number. Who can tell my feelings, when I stood there idle, looking at most of the battle, and could not help those brave fellows who were fighting, very often, ten to one, and the enemy having entrenchments and every advantage.
The reason that we were not more in the fight was not our fault. At one time were called on to go to the other side of the hill, where the fight was going on. We started on a double quick, but when we got there the rebels were driven back. We watched awhile to see if they would rally. While watching, word came that they had attacked our old position, but when we got back again they were driven back, and only the guard that we left to take care of our things had the honor of helping to do it.
The best regiment, in my opinion, were the 11th Indiana and 8th Missouri. To look at the Indian regiment in the battle, they made the best turn out that was made, I think.
I met Capt. Carter, Co. K., 11th Illinois, after the battle, and his La Salle company was cut up so that only ten or twelve returned, but, of course, they are not all killed, but wounded and missing. The slaughter on both sides was awful. I saw fifteen Union soldiers in one place together, nearly all shot in the forehead, and many hundred scattered on the field, Union and rebel on the same ground. Heaps of men and horses mixed together, and some awfully torn. Sunday morning we formed, and after blessing myself, I went to the Colonel and told him if he should get any delicate jobs to try me for it. About 8 o’clock news came that the fort had surrendered unconditionally, and never, in the memory of any living person, in my opinion, was heard such cheering, as went up from the fifty thousand Union soldiers! We passed into the fort, one that could be held by one hundred men against a thousand. I saw one whole regiment of rebel Irishmen, who were glad to see me*. They told me they would never again fight for the South. The name of the regiment is the “United Sons of Erin.” Fort Donelson is by far the strongest in this section. It has cost millions to build these two forts- Donelson and Henry- which are only twelve miles apart.
*[The 10th Tennessee 'Irish' Regiment, recruited from amongst the Irish community in Nashville]
Since I landed in Tennessee I have not seen a head of a family at home, or any family, except one or part of one.
L. Collins. (3)
This was Lawrence Collins first taste of action, and the first time he had lost one of his men under fire. He would continue to serve throughout the bloody conflict, surviving the war to be finally discharged after the conflict’s conclusion over three years later.
(1) 1860 Census; (2) Eddy 1866:250; (3) Irish-American 29th March 1862
References & Further Reading
Eddy, T.M. 1866. The Patriotism of Illinois. Volume 2
Irish-American 29th March 1862: The Fight at Fort Donelson