Irish Pennsylvania Patriot, Charles H.T. Collis and his Brave Battlefield Wife, Septima, led an unusual life during the Civil War. Few women wanted or were allowed to accompany their husbands into harms way, but Septima had the grit and fortitude to endure the hardships that were commonplace in the often brutal and deadly environs of the camps and headquarters near the front lines. Collis, who was born in Ireland, married a Southern Belle, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, whose sympathies were with the South, but became a Union woman by marrying an Irish Pennsylvania Patriot, from Philadelphia, on December 9, 1861.
Charles Henry Tucker Collis was born, February 4, 1838, he and his father immigrated from Ireland when Charles was 15 in 1853, settling in Philadelphia. Collis an abolitionist, was a politically connected lawyer by the age of 25, his use of political allies demonstrates a factionalism within the Army of the Potomac and the importance of political connections to ensure survival and promotion. At the start of the Civil War he joined the 18th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment as a sergeant major. At the end of his three-month enlistment he was authorized by the Secretary of War to raise a company of Irish men for special duty in the Shenandoah Valley. In August 1861, Collis returned to Philadelphia to form and become the captain of the Zouaves D’ Afrique, modeled after the elite Algerian troops of the French Army. Many of the men were veterans of European service and much of the material for the uniforms came from the French military.
The company was praised by General Banks for its action at Middletown,
“the quiet, steady coolness displayed by the men was admirable. I only regret that you had not a regiment of such brave fellows, when the foe would have had little to congratulate himself upon.”
This resulted in Collis being instructed to raise an entire regiment, and within five weeks the additional nine companies were recruited. The regiment became the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry, known as Collis’ Zouaves.
The Zouaves participated in the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Petersburg. Collis fought at Fredericksburg and later received the Medal of Honor for his conduct there. He was wounded at Chancellorsville and missed Gettysburg due to his wound and a bout of typhoid fever. When Collis rejoined the regiment in August he was given command of the brigade in General Birney’s Division, which included the 57th, 68th, 105th, 114th and the 141st, Pennsylvania Infantry Regiments.
On December 12, 1864, Lincoln nominated Collis for appointment to the brevet grade of brigadier general of volunteers to rank from October 28, 1864 and the U.S. Senate confirmed the appointment on February 14, 1865. Collis was given command of an independent brigade of five regiments of infantry and cavalry reporting direct to army headquarters. The brigade served through the campaign from the Rappahannock to Petersburg, rendering special service in driving off an attack by Fitz Lee’s cavalry on army headquarters.
During the fighting around Petersburg on April 2nd, 1865, Collis’ brigade went to the relief of the Ninth Corps after they had been driven back from the line of works they had captured. Collis personally led the charge of the 68th and 114th Pennsylvania and 61st Massachusetts regiments, retaking the lost ground. For this he was breveted Major General, at the special request of General Grant.
While at City Point, days before the fall of Richmond, Charles H.T. Hollis relates in his own words a visit by President Lincoln entitled,
“During the few eventful days which immediately preceded the fall of Richmond, Abraham Lincoln tarried at City Point, Va., awaiting the news from Grant, Meade, and Sheridan, who were pulverizing Lee’s right wing, while Sherman was hurrying his victorious column toward Savannah. Time hung wearily with the President, and as he walked through the hospitals or rode amid the tents, his rueful countenance bore sad evidence of the anxiety and anguish which possessed him. Presently, however, squads, and then hundreds, and later thousands of prisoners, of high and low degree, came from the front, and we all began to realize, from what we saw of their condition, and what the prisoners themselves told us, that the Confederacy was crumbling to pieces.
Among the captured were Generals Ewell, Custis Lee, and Barringer, who became the guests of myself and wife, I being at the time Commandant of the Post, and right well did they enjoy the only good square meal that had gladdened their eyes and their palates for many a long day. General Barringer, of North Carolina, was the first to arrive. He was a polished, scholarly, and urbane gentleman, scrupulously regarding the parole I had exacted from him, and deeply sensible and appreciative of my poor efforts to make him comfortable. Hearing that Mr. Lincoln was at City Point, the General one day begged me to give him an opportunity to see him as he walked or rode through the camp, and happening to spend that evening with the President in the tent of Colonel Bowers, Grant’s Adjutant-General, who had remained behind to keep up communication with the armies operating across the James River, I incidentally referred to the request of General Barringer. Mr. Lincoln immediately asked me to present his compliments to the General, and to say he would like very much to see him, whispering to me in his quaint and jocose way: “Do you know I have never seen a live rebel general in full uniform.”
At once communicating the President’s wish to General Barringer, I found that officer much embarrassed. He feared I had overstepped the bounds of propriety in mentioning his curiosity to see the Northern President, and that Mr. Lincoln would think him a very impertinent fellow, besides which he was muddy, and tattered, and torn, and not at all presentable. Reassuring him as best I could, he at last sought those embellishments which a whisk, a blacking-brush, and a comb provided, and we walked over to headquarters, where we found the President in high feather, listening to the cheerful messages from Grant at the front.
I formally presented General Barringer, of North Carolina, to the President of the United States, and Mr. Lincoln extended his hand, warmly welcomed him, and bade him be seated. There was, however, only one chair vacant when the President arose, and this the Southerner very politely declined to take. This left the two men facing each other in the centre of the tent, the tall form of Mr. Lincoln almost reaching the ridge- pole. He slowly removed his eyeglasses, looked the General over from head to foot, and then in a slow, meditative, and puzzled manner inquired:
“Barringer? Barringer? from North Carolina? Barringer of North Carolina? General, were you ever in Congress?”
“No, Mr. Lincoln, I never was,” replied the General.
“Well, I thought not; I thought my memory could n’t be so much at fault. But there was a Barringer in Congress with me, and from your State too!”
“That was my brother, sir,” said Barringer.
Up to this moment the hard face of the President had that thoughtful, troubled expression with which those of us who knew him were only too familiar, but now the lines melted away, and the eyes and the tongue both laughed. I cannot describe the change, though I still see it and shall never forget it. It was like a great sudden burst of sunshine in a rain storm. “Well! well!” exclaimed the great and good man, burying for the moment all thought of war, its cares, its asperities, and the frightful labor it had imposed upon him; his heart welling up only to the joyous reminiscence which the meeting brought to him.
“Well! well!” said he; “do you know that brother of yours was my chum in Congress. Yes, sir, we sat at the same desk and ate at the same table. He was a Whig and so was I. He was my chum, and I was very fond of him. And you are his brother, eh? Well! well! shake again.” And once more in the pressure of his great big hand his heart went out to this man in arms against the government, simply because his brother had been his chum and was a good fellow.
A couple more chairs by this time had been added to the scant furniture of the Adjutant-General’s tent, and the conversation drifted from Mr. Lincoln’s anecdotes of the pleasant hours he and Barringer had spent together, to the war, thence to the merits of military and civil leaders, North and South; illustrated here and there by some appropriate story, entirely new, full of humor and sometimes of pathos.
Several times the General made a movement to depart, fearing he was availing himself too lavishly of Mr Lincoln’s affability, but each time was ordered to keep his seat, the President remarking that they were both prisoners, and he hoped the General would take some pity upon him and help him to talk about the times when they were both their own masters, and had n’t everybody criticising and abusing them.
Finally, however, General Barringer arose, and was bowing himself out, when Mr. Lincoln once more took him by the hand almost affectionately, placed another hand upon his shoulder, and inquired quite seriously:
“Do you think I can be of any service to you?”
Not until we had all finished a hearty laugh at this quaint remark did the President realize the innocent simplicity of his inquiry, and when General Barringer was able to reply that “If anybody can be of service to a poor devil in my situation, I presume you are the man,” Mr. Lincoln drew a blank card from his vest pocket, adjusted his glasses, turned up the wick of the lamp, and sat down at General Bowers’ desk with all the serious earnestness with which you would suppose he had attached his name to the emancipation proclamation.
This was, however, all assumed. He was equipping himself and preparing us for one of his little jokes. While writing he kept up a running conversation with General Barringer (who was still standing and wondering) to this effect:
“I suppose they will send you to Washington, and there I have no doubt they will put you in the old Capitol prison. I am told it is n’t a nice sort of a place, and I am afraid you won’t find it a very comfortable tavern; but I have a powerful friend in Washington – he’s the biggest man in the country, – and I believe I have some influence with him when I don’t ask too much. Now I want you to send this card of introduction to him, and if he takes the notion he may put you on your parole, or let up on you that way or some other way. Anyhow, it’s worth while trying.”
And then very deliberately drying the card with the blotter, he held it up to the light and read it to us in about the following words:
“This is General Barringer, of the Southern army. He is the brother of a very dear friend of mine. Can you do any thing to make his detention in Washington as comfortable as possible under the circumstances?
“To HON. EDWIN M. STANTON,” “Secretary of War.”
Barringer never uttered a word. I think he made an effort to say “Thank you,” or “God bless you,” or something of that kind, but he was speechless. We both wheeled about and left the tent. After walking a few yards, not hearing any footsteps near me, and fearing Barringer had lost his way, I turned back and found this gallant leader of brave men, who had won his stars in a score of battles, “like Niobe, all tears,” audibly sobbing and terribly overcome. He took my arm, and as we walked slowly home he gave voice to as hearty expressions of love for the great Lincoln as have been since uttered by his most devoted and life- long friends.
A few years afterwards I met the General socially in Philadelphia, and we went over this episode in his life, as I have narrated it, and then, for the third time, his eyes filled as he told me how he had wept and wept at “the deep damnation of his taking off.”
Septima Levy Collis was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1842. She married Charles H. T. Collis of Philadelphia in 1861. Despite her southern sympathies, Collis supported her husband and accompanied him throughout the war. Her memoir, “A Woman’s War Record”, recounts her experiences at the front lines as well as social life away from camp, her struggles to reconcile being the sister of a Confederate soldier and the wife of a Union officer were extremely difficult. She wrote:
“My brother, David Cardoza Levy . . . was about this time killed at the battle of Murfreesborough . . .This was the horrible episode of the civil war to me, and although I had many relatives and hosts of friends serving under the Confederate flag all the time, I never fully realized the fratricidal character of the conflict until I lost my idolized brother Dave of the Southern army one day, and was nursing my Northern husband back to life the next.”
In June 1865 Collis was mustered out of service and returned to his law practice in Philadelphia. On January 13, 1866, President Johnson nominated Collis for appointment to the brevet grade of major-general of volunteers to rank from March 13, 1865, and the U.S. Senate confirmed the appointment on March 12, 1866. Later in 1866, he became Assistant City Solicitor, and in 1868 he was recommended by the bench and the bar of Philadelphia as United States District Attorney. He declined the position of Deputy Attorney-General of Pennsylvania, but in 1871 he was nominated for the office of City Solicitor by the Republican Convention.
Charles H.T. Collis Medal of Honor Citation states,
Rank and organization: Colonel, 114th Pennsylvania Infantry. Place and date: At
Fredericksburg, Va., 13 December 1862. Entered service at: Philadelphia, Pa.
Born: 4 February 1838, Ireland. Date of issue: 10 March 1893. Citation:
Gallantly led his regiment in battle at a critical moment.
Collis built a summer home in Gettysburg on Seminary Ridge. The cottage, named “Red Patch” after the 3rd Corps symbol, had bedrooms named after Union generals. Charles Henry Tucker Collis died at Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania on May 11, 1902, and was buried at Gettysburg National Cemetery, where a monument and bust commemorate his memory.
Irish Pennsylvania Patriot, Charles H.T. Collis and his Brave Battlefield Wife, Septima, were both symbolic of American Heroes of the Civil War. Their tale of companionship and mutual support is a dynamic example of how people survive and prosper, despite overwhelming civil strife or personal calamities.