Connellsville's last Civil War veteran on duty at Lincoln's assassination
On the heels of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, it is fitting on July 4 to recall the sacrifices of all veterans — including Connellsville's last Civil War veteran, Clark Collins, who was serving in Washington, D.C., with the Union Army on April 15, 1865, the night that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
Collins passed away on June 4, 1937, at age 92, having lived a life of distinction beyond the battlefield. His great-granddaughter, Elda Thompson of Connellsville, is 91 years old and still clearly remembers her great-grandfather.
“He used to visit Connellsville's schools to tell them about the Civil War,” she said.
Information about Collins, from his Daily Courier obituary, was provided by Connellsville native Dr. David Geary, a retired Air Force officer, educator and history buff extraordinaire. He expanded on Collins and Civil War veterans in general recently from his home in New Mexico, where he has lived since 1995.
Collins was born in Connellsville on April 20, 1845. His father was killed during the Mexican-American War between 1846 and 1848. He enlisted with the 7th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry Company K in 1861, when he was only 16 years old. In 1863, he was mustered out of service and re-enlisted with a heavy artillery regiment, with which he served until June 1865 — two months after the war had ended.
“Although Collins was never wounded, he had two horses shot out from under him,” said Geary.
In interviews later in life, Collins recounted serving with the Army during President Lincoln's assassination.
“I was in Washington the night Lincoln was shot,” Collins said in one interview.
He and his fellow soldiers were instructed to patrol the entrance and exit roads in Washington, D.C. “We were told to shoot to kill,” he said.
After the war, Collins lived on East Patterson Avenue in Connellsville and worked for the railroad, including being foreman of the railroad shops. He was an engineer from 1871 until 1898, and was the first to pilot the Baldwin No. 12 locomotive — considered to be the state-of-the-art train engine of the day.
In 1898, Collins was appointed Connellsville postmaster by President William McKinley, who was the last U.S. president to have served in the Civil War. Collins served for three terms — 12 years — at the post office, which was then located along South Pittsburgh Street across from where Carnegie Free Library now stands. (Collins' son, Clark Jr., a World War I veteran, later served as the city's postmaster.) The elder Collins also served as a Connellsville city councilman for a number of years.
Civil War veterans took Memorial Day seriously; it had been founded as Decoration Day shortly after the Civil War ended.
“It was almost like a religion to them,” said Geary.
On Memorial Day, veterans would arise early and head to the local cemeteries — especially Hill Grove and Chestnut Hill cemeteries, where many of their comrades lay — and would place flags upon the graves. Marching to the tune of Chopin's “Funeral March,” they would proceed to Chestnut Hill Cemetery for a ceremony.
“The elementary school kids would gather on the lawn of Carnegie Free Library and wave to the veterans, and they would wave back,” said Geary, whose father attended similar Memorial Day ceremonies with Civil War veterans at Hill Grove Cemetery.
Clark Collins had been living with his daughter in Poplar Grove when he passed away in 1937. His body lay in state there until his funeral.
“According to his obituary, his hearse stopped near where Geibel High School now is, where it was met by a parade of military bands, Spanish-American War and World War I veterans and the Pennsylvania National Guard. From there, he was taken to Hill Grove Cemetery for burial,” said Geary.
All in all, it was great fanfare for Connellsville's last surviving member of the Grand Army of the Republic, the veterans organization that ended in Connellsville when Collins passed away. Upon Collins' death, Connellsville's GAR flag was presented to the Milton L. Bishop American Legion Post 301. No one knows where it is today, Geary said.
The national GAR was formally disbanded in 1956 when Albert Henry Woolsen, a Union drummer boy from Minnesota, passed away; he was between 107 and 109 years old, according to various sources.
Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.