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Sam Colt's Dress Blues, A New Find, Sheds Light On Brief Chapter In Civil War

Gunmaker Had Troubled Role As Commander Of Connecticut Regiment

David Drury

May 14, 2011

In May 1861, Samuel Colt was Hartford's richest, most famous citizen.

A charismatic, driven entrepreneur, Colt possessed inventive genius, boundless imagination and unsurpassed marketing prowess. He had built an internationally renowned business centered in a state-of-the art armory in Hartford's South Meadows that produced the revolving handguns bearing his name.

Instruments of "moral reform,'' Colt once sardonically called his artful, deadly devices. How they were used, and by whom, did not trouble him much.

His British customers accused him of selling guns to their Russian adversaries during the Crimean War. And his agents allegedly negotiated contracts with extremists on both sides in pre-Civil War fighting over slavery in Kansas, the disputes that came to be known as "Bleeding Kansas."

It was no secret that some of his best customers and closest friends were Southerners, and Republican-leaning newspapers charged Colt with treason for continuing his business dealings with Southern agents through the early weeks of 1861.

Fort Sumter changed that.

"Once the war began, he may have been outraged by Fort Sumter and by a few other things," said Bill Hosley, a former curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and author of "Colt: The Making of an American Legend. "He quickly got with the program.''

A Democrat, Colt had supported the presidential bid of his friend, Stephen Douglas, and while he personally opposed slavery, he was no friend of radical abolition.

But duty called, and after President Lincoln asked for volunteers to put down the rebellion, Colt contacted Connecticut's Republican Gov. William A. Buckingham with an offer to raise, train and equip a full regiment, each man armed with one of Colt's patented revolving rifles.

Colt, then 46, insisted upon leading the regiment himself, having found the pomp and ceremony of weekend military life appealing. He had been appointed a lieutenant colonel in the state militia in 1851 and later established the well-provisioned Colt Armory Guard. Along with other leading Hartford Democrats, he participated in the drills of the Putnam Phalanx, a colonial militia group.

Despite their political differences, Buckingham was in no position to reject Colt's offer of assistance. On May 10, 1861, enlistment began for the First Regiment of Colt's Revolving Rifles of Connecticut. Colt received his regimental commission on May 16 and two days later, companies of the now fully formed regiment bivouacked on the Colt Armory grounds.

It was to be the high-water mark of Colt's military career. A month later, his commission was revoked, the regiment disbanded and the men reassigned.

But the uniform he left behind has a fascinating story to tell.

Col. Colt's Dress Blues

"Dean you're not going to believe what I've discovered,'' Peter Tillou, a Litchfield art and antiques dealer, said as he approached his friend Dean Nelson, who was checking tickets at an antique gun show at the Hartford Expo in October 2008

Nelson, director of the Connecticut State Library's Museum of Connecticut History, is in charge of its extensive collection of Colt firearms and had worked with Tillou before, notably in 1995 when he acquired the gilded Rampant Colt statute that once topped the blue onion dome of the Colt armory.

Tillou knew Nelson's interest would be piqued by anything connected with the Colt name, and he'd recently stumbled upon a treasure trove.

At an awards dinner at his alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan University, Tillou was approached by a woman he had known slightly during his student days. She asked if he was still involved in collecting, and after he said he was, she dropped a bombshell: "You probably didn't know this, but I'm a direct descendant of Colt and I have tons of Colt material,'' Tillou said, recalling their conversation.

The woman, whom Tillou identified only as Jane at the family's request, and her two sisters lived outside of Connecticut but kept a lakeside summer cabin in Litchfield County. For 40 years, several trunks of Colt family material had sat undisturbed in the cabin's attic.

Intrigued, Tillou who lived only 10 miles away, arranged for a visit. With all three sisters present, the trunks were brought downstairs and opened, and Tillou recorded the contents on video as they were lifted out, piece by piece.

Out came articles of clothing and personal effects, family scrapbooks and letters, newspapers and periodicals, a miniature ivory portrait of Sam Colt's maternal grandmother, Margaret Caldwell, large oval portraits of Colt's parents and a sewing box that his sister had given him when he was 15.

Among the clothes were a scarlet, oriental-style winter house coat and trousers, a gift to Colt from the Russian tsar; his summer and winter overcoats; items of formal wear; and an entire officer's uniform, consisting of a dark blue wool dress coat, with buttons and insignia intact; two pairs of trousers; a black fur felt officer's hat with black ostrich feather and rifle insignia; and officer's epaulettes and shoulder boards.

Stunned by the find, Tillou said he asked if he could take the items, catalog them and hold them for safe-keeping.

"I said, 'This should really stay in Connecticut. Do you want me to arrange a sale?'"

The family agreed, and Tillou sought out Nelson, who admitted he was skeptical at first.

"2008 was pretty late in the game for this to surface,'' he said, particularly in the aftermath of all the attention garnered by the Atheneum's successful exhibition of its Samuel and Elizabeth Colt holdings in 1996, and its less successful exhibit 10 years later of its decorative Colt firearms.

Nelson went to the Tillou home to view the items, which were laid out in a guest room. As soon as he saw the officer's hat and coat, Nelson said, he knew they were of authentic, Civil War-era vintage. Inscriptions on the trousers and the coat gave the name and address of the tailor, the purchase date and the customer's name. The coat had been tailored for someone 6-foot-1 Colt's height and the ink-inscribed stencil inside the collar lining read: "Coln. Samuel Colt, May 30, [18]56.''

Nelson determined that sometime before her death in 1905, Elizabeth Hart Colt had turned the clothing and other items over to Samuel Caldwell Colt, her husband's nephew, who was rumored to be his illegitimate son.

Negotiations between the museum and the family began in 2009. A $150,000 price for the entire collection was agreed upon much less, Tillou said, then the collection would have brought had it been broken up and sold piecemeal to private collectors.

The museum's acquisition account, funded through private donations, covered the purchase, which was approved by the museum trustees and authorized by the State Treasurer and the Department of Administrative Services in the fall of 2009.

Sam Colt's uniform will make its public debut when the museum's Civil War exhibition opens in September.

Demise of Colt's Regiment

In forming his regiment, Colt had insisted that recruits be at least 5-foot-7 and that he, alone, retained the authority to promote or demote officers.

His imperious manner quickly alienated some of his men.

The grumbling turned to near revolt when it became clear that Colt intended the regiment to become a full-fledged U.S. Army Infantry unit with a five-year term of enlistment. At that time, 90-day or three-year enlistments were the norm for Connecticut regiments.

Colt had armed his men with .56-caliber, five-shot revolving rifles and saw federal service as a means to prove their effectiveness, guaranteeing future military contracts.

But the gun had its problems. It "was very accurate, but they have been maligned over the years,'' said Herbert G. Houze, a firearms historian, author and curator. "You had to be careful with them. You held a revolving rifle differently than a standard gun.''

When held improperly, the gun's recoil presented a danger to the user. Many of his men wanted nothing to do with them, preferring the Sharps, a competitor.

Tired of all the chaos, Buckingham sacked Colt on June 20, 1861 and had the men reassigned.

For the remainder of 1861, Colt worked tirelessly to complete a new wing of the armory to produce rifles and muskets and arrange for the importation of firearms from Europe to meet the huge, growing demand.

The long hours and his well-documented fondness for good food, drink and heavy cigar-smoking took their toll. In January 1862, Colt died unexpectedly from a respiratory illness, his immune system weakened by what Houze says probably was a recurrence of malaria he contracted while visiting Cuba with Elizabeth in 1857. He was 47 years old.

Houze, who working on a Samuel Colt biography, said the gun-maker's contribution to the ultimate Union victory should not be underestimated.

Colt handguns were used extensively by Union cavalry as they conducted harassing raids and critical intelligence gathering, helping disrupt Southern operations, Houze said.

"My personal believe is if Colt hadn't been in business, particularly in supplying handguns in 1861 and 1862, the war might have turned out quite differently.''

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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