Yet Too Few Clues: The Alleged Civil War Death of James M. Colvin


James M. Colvin d. 1863 Index record card

James M. Colvin IRC Source: Fold3.com

James M. Colvin (1838-1863) was the son of Madison Colvin mentioned in a previous post, who allegedly died in the Civil War. Unfortunately, little of his war record survives, and of the few scraps there are in the form of late-19th century index record cards, (IRCs) little of  what they offer is consistent with other know records regarding regiments, officers, locations,  or other records against which one can compare them to use as a metric of consistency in order to verify his war record. Often, when one finds IRCs for a soldier, they often contain data than can be cross-referenced against extant rosters of military histories and verified. In James’ case, that has not proven to be true. Nothing of what’s on his cards are consistent with known records.

For example, one IRC  says he enlisted March 26, 1862 In “Memphis” (Scotland County) Missouri under “Captain” John B. Clark Company A., 3rd Battalion infantry. But Clark was not a Captain of Company A; he was the  Lt. Colonel  over the entire battalion. And nowhere does one find among the rosters a  James Colvin — or any Colvin  — among any of the 3rd’s several companies.

By July of that year,  according to another IRC in the same series, James is now a corporal, in Company “E” of the 3rd, in Erwin’s Battalion.That would be Lt. Colonel Eugene Erwin who was promoted to Colonel of the 6th Missouri after his daring do at the battle of Corinth and went on to become something of  a war hero, according to National Park Service records.  Again, wrong company. And no Colvin’s in the 6th, either.

Why such inconsistency? That requires a little explaining.

IRCs, first of all, are not original records but rather derivatives  created in the early 1890s by the Federal War Department as a way to determine which individuals making a war pension application were entitled to one. Also, owing to the way in which they were created, they can lead to confusion by modern-day researchers. The clerks who created them made a separate card every time a soldier was found on an  original roster, muster roll, pay lsts, etc, and with spelling of surnames often found different on original Civil War records, clerks typically created a separate series for each “spelling” This explain why, in James’ case, there’s one card for a James N. Colvin, and others for James M. Colvin although they were the same person. This clerical habit also explains why modern day researchers sometimes overlook individuals — because of those misspelled names. Even Civil War paymasters and captains writing out muster and lists got names wrong, an error that would be continued by IRC clerks who sometimes further corrupted them three decades later. Thus, IRCs should always be verified against original regimental histories, muster lists, etc.,  rather than taken at face value. Like Federal Census records, errors abound.  The good news is: they offer valuable clues about an ancestor’s war experience and are always a welcome find.

Here an article from the January 8, 1893 edition of the New York Times introducing American to the IRCs which were considered a marvel of War Department bureaucratic efficiency at a time when cast-iron typewriters were only beginning to appear on the office scene.  The majority of the thousands of IRCs, however, are hand written — clear evidence that the fountain pen and the inkwell were still the method of writing choice in large scale clerical operations.

For now, I’ve put James aside as a “verification pending” case since little of his extant war record seems to jibe with what’s known about the Civil War officers and the regiments they commanded. No doubt, more intensive digging will reveal James’ true wartime experience.

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About Alex Colvin

Senior, History, minoring in Anthropology, University of Houston. Charter President, Walter Prescott Webb Historical Society, (Webb UH Main 2014-2015) University of Houston. Additional credentials can be found in the CV / Services tab.
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