The Pension File of Riley J. Collins, Union Soldier from Jones County, Mississippi
In keeping with my recent Renegade South posts about the Unionist Collins family of Mississippi and Texas, I am posting here information from the pension file (#120091) of Riley J. Collins. Riley was the ninth of Stacy and Sarah Collins’s 14 children. Born around 1825, he was their fourth son.
Riley, who publically opposed secession, was a founding member of the famous Knight Band of the “Free State of Jones” County, Mississippi. In the immediate aftermath of Confederate Col. Robert Lowry’s attack on the guerrilla band, he and several other members fled to New Orleans where they joined Co. E of the 1st New Orleans Regiment. Mustered into service on May 4, 1864, Riley died on August 31, 1864, less than three months later. Like so many soldiers, he died of disease rather than battle wounds.
Riley’s pension file is relatively short and uncomplicated since he had evaded rather than deserted Confederate service before joining the Union Army. What his file papers reveal most clearly are the personal tragedies that accompanied the Civil War for the Welch and Collins families of Jones County.
Several affidavits attest to the death of Riley’s wife, Desdemonia Welch, on September 25, 1862. Her fatal illness, which left him with four motherless children, ages 3 to 10, would surely have reinforced Riley’s decision to evade conscription. If not for Lowry’s raid on his neighborhood, he no doubt would have remained an outlier for the duration of the war. Instead, he died serving the Union Army, leaving his children orphans in the process. Older brother Vinson A. Collins was appointed their guardian, and applied for and received Riley’s pension.
Pension records are replete with stories of soldiers who, like Riley Collins, died in appalling numbers from disease. Reading Riley’s papers, one is struck by the senseless death of a 37-year-old widower with four children who felt his only choice was to fight for the Union against men of his own divided community rather than fight for the “Lost Cause” of secession that he so adamantly opposed.
As I noted in my last post, Riley’s brother, Simeon, equally Unionist in principle, made a different choice. Facing execution for desertion, he surrendered to Col Lowry, rejoined the Confederate Army, and ended up in a Yankee POW camp. The end result was the same. As that post noted, Simeon died from illness shortly after his release from prison in 1865.