Dozens of men packed the sanctuary of Oberlin College’s First Church on Saturday night, April 20, 1861. All students or faculty of the college, they were responding to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteer soldiers in the wake of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter just over a week earlier. They jockeyed for positions in line and took pens in hand to sign up for duty in the United States Army.
“By Monday morning the allotment of one hundred was overflowing, while some cried because there was no room for them. A few days later this band of students became Company C of the Seventh O.V.I.”
— Sgt. Edgar Condit, Seventh O.V.I.
On a clear Monday morning in May, crowds gathered on Cleveland, Ohio’s Public Square and along Superior Avenue to cheer on and send off the marching members of the Seventh Regiment.
The parade report was published in the Cleveland Morning Leader:
“At about 8 ½ [8:30 a.m.] the sound of music was heard up Euclid Street, and they were seen approaching, headed by Leland’s Band. Both sides of the street were lined with people, and the number grew larger momentarily, while yards, doorways and windows were filled with spectators, a large proportion of them women, and waving handkerchiefs or tearful eyes bore witness to the sympathy which was felt for those young men who were going forth to do battle in behalf of that which is equally dear to all of us.”
One of the Oberlin student soldiers marching through the cheers and tears was Joseph Wright Collins, 22 years old, from Upstate New York. Collins had enrolled at the college’s preparatory school that previous fall. Alongside his studies, he worked as a farm hand. Using his paychecks only for clothes when necessary, he sent the rest of his earnings to his mother Elizabeth, back in Saratoga County, New York.
Joseph’s father, Josiah Collins, died in 1847, when the lad was just nine years old. As soon as he was old enough, he began working to help his family. Joseph had provided at least half of his mother’s monetary support after her husband, his stepfather, deserted her.
In 1860 he was pursuing an education that would increase his earning power. More importantly, though, Joseph attended a college where his religious and moral values were championed. Seventh Regiment biographer Theodore Wilder wrote of the Oberlin founding doctrine of the Higher Law:
“The History of Company C is properly connected with the history of Oberlin College, the Alma Mater of its organization. The majority of its members were proud to be known as the exponents of the generous, Christian principles, there so fearlessly uttered and so zealously inculcated. Patriotism and the doctrine of Anti-Slavery very naturally found a place in the category of their principles. “
“The peculiar views held by Oberlin people with regard to their relations and duties to the government were but the natural outgrowth of Christian benevolence. They saw slavery to be a great crime, and they were bold to take a stand against it, as one of their Christian duties.”
And so, armed with rifles and a zeal for human equality, the members of Company C marched through the streets of Cleveland toward the railroad depot—and what they saw as their greater purpose.
Joseph and his comrades arrived at southern Ohio’s Camp Dennison two days later and unpacked their carpet sacks in their new quarters. The Oberlin group organized daily prayer meetings, which were usually held in the street between the barracks. They received a bit of ribbing from other troops for being the “praying company,” but they continued undeterred.
They would need to pray and ponder an important decision weeks later. On the morning of May 23rd, the soldiers who had signed up at First Church for three months’ duty were marched up a grassy hill east of Camp Dennison. General Jacob Dolson Cox addressed the group. Then their Captain ordered all who wished to re-enlist, this time for three years, to step forward eight paces. Collins was one of those who stepped up.
Finally, on June 25th, the orders came in. Rations were cooked and knapsacks packed. The Seventh was headed to western Virginia. They loaded into boxcars. Their train arrived in Clarksburg on the morning of the 28th.
“The [Virginia] State troops are constantly coming in, bringing arms, and we are anxiously looking forward for help from Ohio, to drive them off; and I hope they will come soon.”
–letter from a pro- Union western Virginian published in the Fremont (OH) Journal
Two of Private Collins’ letters to his mother have survived since that summer, the first written in late July.
Brackston [sic] Co.
Salt Lick Bridge, Va July 27th, ‘61
Mrs. Elizabeth A Hanson
I, now amidst bustle and confusion in my tent in a camp of 3,000 soldiers, take my pen in hand to inform you that I as usual am enjoying health a blessing much to be valued. Our regiment the 7th Ohio has now been in this state Virginia a month. As yet no engagements have occurred between us and the enemy, but it has undergone a few forced marches severe in the extreme in order to rescue Union men in Western Va. from destruction by the secessionists. A corporal by the name of Adams of Company C to which I belong was last Sabbath while away from camp at Glenville was shot in back by a secessionist but not mortally wounded. On the following day our Captain’s horse was shot from under him a few rods from the place that the corporal was shot. About 20 of our company, myself with the rest, endeavored to find the rebel but it was all in vain.
An hour or two ago we had, while I was writing this letter, a heavy thunderstorm and the camp ground inside and out of the was deluged and you may judge in what a situation were in standing with our feet in water, clinging to our blankets and knapsacks, out soldiering in it too. Saint of Columbia continues to hover over us as she was wont during the struggle of 76, will be doubly able to fight our own battles. When I look upon the people living in towns through which we pass, some talented others not so much so, who might be ornaments in society were the opportunities of education to them accessible. I feel if necessary my life is going as a sacrifice to this cause. But, Mother, I think before a year shall have passed away this conflict will be ended. Then, if it is God’s will, I will return to you. I hope a Christian with a character unsullied by the contaminating influences of camp life. You know not, neither can you imagine how great is flood of temptation and wickedness that we frail mortals are here subject to. Remember us in your prayers, write soon let me know your trials and troubles if you have any, that I may sympathise with you remembering from whom our blessings flow. Dear Mother I long to see you and if am never predestined to see you here, may see you in heaven.
Friday, Aug. 16th, Nicholas Co. Va
I now have my pen in hand to inform that I, with the exception of a bad cold, am well as usual and my reg’t as yet have been in no engagement with the enemy but, at present, there is fair prospect of our being in one before the war terminates. Much of the time all that appears necessary to conflict my happiness is prospect of an immediate engagement with the enemy. When I say thus, I am not to convey the idea that I am blood-thirsty from revenge, far be it from that. Indeed not once to my knowlidge (sic) since engaging in this struggle has anger toward our southern Brethren wrankled (sic) within my breast. On the contrary, I at times pity them when I think of their condition, the powers of both heaven and earth are against them. They cannot stand. They must fall and if they continue in their obstinacy for years as people are more predicting they will do, it seems as if their war destruction must come. I believe that the South has never thought she could bring the North into subjection since she knew the North to be a unit. Without doubt, her only idea has been from that time, hence, if possible, to effect a compromise with us satisfactory to themselves.
But this, without doubt, will never be allowed them by Divine Providence because they know not what is necessary for their welfare. In fact, this war, if the South is conquered by it, will be far more beneficial to the South than it is to the North or will be to the North because it will strike a death blow at the root of the accursed institution of slavery. Mark my words, if it does not at best cripple slavery very much, another war will follow. Then will the yoke of bondage be lifted not only from Blacks but also from Whites. The time is coming when the profound ignorance and enormous degradation in which our Brethren are so deeply plunged will no longer stalk abroad with such gigantic strides. The time is coming when those inmost recesses of ignorance will be opened to light and knowledge. It makes me indignant to look upon the People of the South. Some appear scarcely intelligent while others appear to be talented and might be, were the opportunities of education offered them, as ornaments to society. Should an opportunity of fighting my southern brethren ever be to me accessible, it seems as though I would fight most desperately courageously.
If I perish, all will be well if my peace is only made with my Savior. If I perish, I perish in God’s service and the service of my country. When I say this I mean not to convey the idea that I desire to die in this conflict. Although this world is rife with innumerable troubles and vexations for us to encounter and temptatious wiles of Satan for us to resist, yet if it be God’s will I wish to live a few more days which is all any of us can live, but not for my own gratification is my desire to live, for my sisters who are untutored and uncared for except by those of this world that are unable with primary means to care for them and for you. But if I am soon taken to my long home I think I can go without regret and with perfect confidence that our Heavenly Father who has, since the death of my father, watched over us with care will still, if you trust in his power, hover with the same watchful care and provide for your children in manner that will be for their welfare.
What happened in the days to come was recorded in Private Leroy Warren’s diary. He was a fellow soldier in Company C.
Floyd’s camp near Cross Lanes, Tuesday, Aug. 27, 1861
The events of yesterday and today make an important era in the lives of most of the men of our regiment—and in the history of the regiment.
Little did I know Sunday night what the morrow was to bring forth.
We got up about daylight and began to shake and warm ourselves. We fell upon four beeves which the Confederates had slaughtered the day before for their own use. Two or three wagons of our train came up with hard bread and we procured green corn from the fields.
While we were still breakfasting we heard rapid firing to the south. We seized our muskets and formed Company. The Colonel [Erastus B. Tyler] was among us. He ordered our Company and Company A to occupy a hill to the southwest of the corners. We double-quicked a few rods down to the south road and then turned to the right over the fence.
But before we left the road, we were fired upon in front—and in flank by a line of men—who suddenly appeared on the brow of a hill east of the road and within good musket range. We still had two fields to cross—a fence and a hill to climb—before we could get to the position we had been ordered to occupy. We ran like a flock of frightened deer across the fields over the fence and up the hill—subject all this while to two fires which we could not return.
The bullets whistled all around us. They fell like thickest hail. It seems strange that no more of our men were wounded at this time—but we were very much scattered and running with all our might—so that it must been difficult to take aim at us. Three or four of our Company there were wounded—one perhaps fatally.
The one fatally wounded and left on the battlefield to die was Private Joseph W. Collins.
We know from these words to his mother that he was not eager to die, but he was prepared.
“If I perish, all will be well if my peace is only made with my Savior. If I perish, I perish in God’s service and the service of my country.”
“Dear Mother I long to see you and if am never predestined to see you here, may see you in heaven.”
In Part Two of this story, I will explain how Joseph kept his promise to his mother to look after her and his sisters, even after dying in his first and only battle of the Civil War.