John D. Colvin – Breaking Code to Preserve the Union

Colvin, John D.

John Dorrance Colvin, circa 1864 (public domain).

The grandson of an American Patriot who used his brawn to defend Rhode Island from British troops during the Revolutionary War and forge a new nation, John Dorrance Colvin displayed a similarly steely resolve less than a century later while exercising his mind rather than body to save his family’s beloved homeland as its Union was once again under siege.

Born in Abington Township, Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania on 25 June 1835, John Dorrance Colvin was a grandson of Rhode Island native Philip Colvin (1755-1832) and Sarah (Berry) Colvin (1757-1847), and a son of Cyrus Colvin (1799 – 1879) and Phebe (Northrup) Colvin (1801-1835). His grandfather, Philip, who had fought with the Rhode Island Militia during the American Revolution as a Private under Captain Thomas Parker and Colonel Creary and with Rhode Island forces led by Captain Edmund Johnson and Colonel Varnum, had relocated his family to Factoryville, Pennsylvania sometime around 1820.

Formative Years

John D. Colvin’s early days were uneasy ones filled with hardship and tragedy. Less than six months after he opened his eyes for the first time in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, his mother passed away at the Colvin family home on 14 November 1835. A motherless infant, he spent his first Christmas in the loving, but grief-stricken company of his father and siblings Artless (1823-1906), who later went on to engineer J. W. Sheerer; Augustus (1824-1907); Deborah N. (1827-1902), who later went on to wed Emanuel Dersheimer; and George Perry (1833-1909), who grew up to become an engineer on steamers in Brazil, Mexico, Texas, and along the Mississippi River.

Unable to bear the burden of child rearing alone, John Colvin’s father soon remarried and took as his bride Abington Township native Anna Mariah Dean (1807-1877). Additional siblings then arrived at the Colvin’s Lackawanna County home, including Cyrus (1844-1904) and Albert Colvin (1846-1911).

In 1850, the Colvin clan continued to reside in Abington Township, where family patriarch Cyrus Colvin supported his large brood as a farmer. Still at home at this time were children Augustus and Philip (aged 26 and 21, respectively), Perry and John (aged 18 and 15), and Cyrus and Albert (aged 6 and 4).

But by 1860, as strife was increasing between America’s North and South, John D. Colvin had moved on, taking up the farming trade like his father before him, but choosing to make his home with the family of Abington Township resident Charles McConnell.

Civil War Military Service

A 25-year-old farmer residing in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania at the dawn of America’s Civil War, John D. Colvin enrolled for military service on 12 September 1861 at Sunbury, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, and officially mustered in for duty that same day at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg, Dauphin County as a Private with Company C of the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

* Note: Known more commonly as the “Sunbury Guards” because its membership was largely drawn from the Northumberland County militia of that same name, Company C had been raised and was commanded by Captain John Peter Shindel Gobin, who would later go on to become Lieutenant Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. As war loomed on the horizon, Gobin traveled to Harrisburg to meet with Governor Andrew Curtin and offer the services of the Sunbury Guards, which became the first of the county’s militia units to respond to President Abraham Lincoln’s call on 15 April 1861 for 75,000 volunteers “to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union.” The color-bearer unit of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Company C was charged with carrying and defending the nation’s flag and regimental colors.

Military records at the time of Company C’s muster in described Private John D. Colvin as 5’10” tall with dark hair, gray eyes and a dark complexion.

Camp Curtin (Harpers Weekly, 1861; public domain).

Camp Curtin (Harper’s Weekly, 1861, public domain).

Following a brief training period in light infantry tactics during which time they were housed at Camp Curtin No. 2 (located on the field next to the main camp), the men of Company C were then sent by train with their fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers to Washington, D.C. where, beginning 21 September 1861, they were stationed roughly two miles from the White House at “Camp Kalorama” on Kalorama Heights near Georgetown.

“It is a very fine location for a camp,” wrote Captain Gobin. “Good water is handy, while Rock Creek, which skirts one side of us, affords an excellent place for washing and bathing.”

Henry Wharton, a musician from C Company penned the following update for the Sunbury American on 22 September:

After a tedious ride we have, at last, safely arrived at the City of ‘magnificent distances.’ We left Harrisburg on Friday last at 1 o’clock A.M. and reached this camp yesterday (Saturday) at 4 P.M., as tired and worn out a sett [sic] of mortals as can possibly exist. On arriving at Washington we were marched to the ‘Soldiers Retreat,’ a building purposely erected for the benefit of the soldier, where every comfort is extended to him and the wants of the ‘inner man’ supplied.

After partaking of refreshments we were ordered into line and marched, about three miles, to this camp. So tired were the men, that on marching out, some gave out, and had to leave the ranks, but J. Boulton Young, our ‘little Zouave,’ stood it bravely, and acted like a veteran. So small a drummer is scarcely seen in the army, and on the march through Washington he was twice the recipient of three cheers.

We were reviewed by Gen. McClellan yesterday [21 September 1861] without our knowing it. All along the march we noticed a considerable number of officers, both mounted and on foot; the horse of one of the officers was so beautiful that he was noticed by the whole regiment, in fact, so wrapt [sic] up were they in the horse, the rider wasn’t noticed, and the boys were considerably mortified this morning on dis-covering they had missed the sight of, and the neglect of not saluting the soldier next in command to Gen. Scott.

Col. Good, who has command of our regiment, is an excellent men and a splendid soldier. He is a man of very few words, and is continually attending to his duties and the wants of the Regiment.

I am happy to inform you that our young townsman, Mr. William Hendricks, has received the appointment of Sergeant Major to our Regiment. He made his first appearance at guard mounting this morning; he looked well, done up his duties admirably, and, in time, will make an excellent officer. Our Regiment will now be put to hard work; such as drilling and the usual business of camp life, and the boys expect and hope an occasional ‘pop’ at the enemy.

Private John D. Colvin and his fellow 47th Pennsylvanian Volunteers were formally mustered into the U.S. Army on 24 September in a ceremony filled with pomp and celebration. That same day, James VanDyke, Northumberland County’s ex-sheriff, was promoted from the ranks of Company C to serve with the regiment’s central command as Regimental Quartermaster.

On 27 September, the 47th Pennsylvanians were assigned to Brigadier-General Isaac Stevens’ 3rd Brigade, which also included the 33rd, 49th and 79th New York regiments. By that afternoon, the 47th was on the move again. Ordered onward by Brigadier-General Silas Casey, the Mississippi rifle-armed 47th Pennsylvania infantrymen marched behind their regimental band until reaching Camp Lyon, Maryland on the Potomac River’s eastern shore. At 5 p.m., they joined the 46th Pennsylvania in moving double-quick (165 steps per minute using 33-inch steps) across the “Chain Bridge” marked on federal maps, and continued on for roughly another mile before being ordered to make camp.

The next morning, they broke camp and moved again. Marching toward Falls Church, Virginia, they arrived at Camp Advance around dusk. There, about two miles from the bridge they had crossed a day earlier, they re-pitched their tents in a deep ravine near a new federal fort under construction (Fort Ethan Allen). They had completed a roughly eight-mile trek, were situated fairly close to General W. F. Smith’s headquarters, and were now part of the massive Army of the Potomac. Under Smith’s leadership, their regiment and brigade would help to defend the nation’s capital from the time of their September arrival through late January when the men of the 47th Pennsylvania would be shipped south.

Once again, Company C Musician Henry Wharton recapped the regiment’s activities, noting, via his 29 September letter home to the Sunbury American, that the 47th had changed camps three times in three days:

On Friday last we left Camp Kalorama, and the same night encamped about one mile from the Chain Bridge on the opposite side of the Potomac from Washington. The next morning, Saturday, we were ordered to this Camp [Camp Advance near Fort Ethan Allen, Virginia], one and a half miles from the one we occupied the night previous. I should have mentioned that we halted on a high hill (on our march here) at the Chain Bridge, called Camp Lyon, but were immediately ordered on this side of the river. On the route from Kalorama we were for two hours exposed to the hardest rain I ever experienced. Whew, it was a whopper; but the fellows stood it well – not a murmur – and they waited in their wet clothes until nine o’clock at night for their supper. Our Camp adjoins that of the N.Y. 79th (Highlanders.)….

We had not been in this Camp more than six hours before our boys were supplied with twenty rounds of ball and cartridge, and ordered to march and meet the enemy; they were out all night and got back to Camp at nine o’clock this morning, without having a fight. They are now in their tents taking a snooze preparatory to another march this morning…. I don’t know how long the boys will be gone, but the orders are to cook two days’ rations and take it with them in their haversacks….

There was a nice little affair came off at Lavensville [sic], a few miles from here on Wednesday last; our troops surprised a party of rebels (much larger than our own.) killing ten, took a Major prisoner, and captured a large number of horses, sheep and cattle, besides a large quantity of corn and potatoes, and about ninety six tons of hay. A very nice day’s work. The boys are well, in fact, there is no sickness of any consequence at all in our Regiment….

Sometime during this phase of duty, as part of the 3rd Brigade, the 47th Pennsylvanians were moved to a site they initially christened “Camp Big Chestnut” for the large chestnut tree located within their lodging’s boundaries. The site would eventually become known to the Keystone Staters as “Camp Griffin,” and was located roughly 10 miles from Washington, D.C.

On October 11, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers marched in the Grand Review at Bailey’s Cross Roads. In a letter home in mid-October, Captain Gobin reported that the right wing of the 47th Pennsylvania (companies A, C, D, F and I) was ordered to picket duty after the left wing’s companies (B, G, K, E, and H) were forced to return to camp by Confederate  troops:

I was ordered to take my company to Stewart’s house, drive the Rebels from it, and hold it at all hazards. It was about 3 o’clock in the morning, so waiting until it was just getting day, I marched 80 men up; but the Rebels had left after driving Capt. Kacy’s company [H] into the woods. I took possession of it, and stationed my men, and there we were for 24 hours with our hands on our rifles, and without closing an eye. I took ten men, and went out scouting within half a mile of the Rebels, but could not get a prisoner, and we did not dare fire on them first. Do not think I was rash, I merely obeyed orders, and had ten men with me who could whip a hundred; Brosius, Piers [sic], Harp and McEwen were among the number. Every man in the company wanted to go. The Rebels did not attack us, and if they had they would have met with a warm reception, as I had my men posted in such a manner that I could have whipped a regiment. My men were all ready and anxious for a “fight.”

In his own letter of this period (on 13 October to the Sunbury American), Henry Wharton described the typical duties of the 47th Pennsylvanians, as well as their new home:

The location of our camp is fine and the scenery would be splendid if the view was not obstructed by heavy thickets of pine and innumerable chesnut [sic] trees. The country around us is excellent for the Rebel scouts to display their bravery; that is, to lurk in the dense woods and pick off one of our unsuspecting pickets. Last night, however, they (the Rebels) calculated wide of their mark; some of the New York 33d boys were out on picket; some fourteen or fifteen shots were exchanged, when our side succeeded in bringing to the dust, (or rather mud,) an officer and two privates of the enemy’s mounted pickets. The officer was shot by a Lieutenant in Company H [?], of the 33d.

Our own boys have seen hard service since we have been on the ‘sacred soil.’ One day and night on picket, next day working on entrenchments at the Fort, (Ethan Allen.) another on guard, next on march and so on continually, but the hardest was on picket from last Thursday morning ‘till Saturday morning – all the time four miles from camp, and both of the nights the rain poured in torrents, so much so that their clothes were completely saturated with the rain. They stood it nobly – not one complaining; but from the size of their haversacks on their return, it is no wonder that they were satisfied and are so eager to go again tomorrow. I heard one of them say ‘there was such nice cabbage, sweet and Irish potatoes, turnips, &c., out where their duty called them, and then there was a likelihood of a Rebel sheep or young porker advancing over our lines and then he could take them as ‘contraband’ and have them for his own use.’ When they were out they saw about a dozen of the Rebel cavalry and would have had a bout with them, had it not been for…unlucky circumstance – one of the men caught the hammer of his rifle in the strap of his knapsack and caused his gun to fire; the Rebels heard the report and scampered in quick time….

A Sad, Unwanted Distinction

On 17 October 1861, death claimed the first member of the entire 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry – the regiment’s little drummer boy, John Boulton Young. The pain of his loss was deeply and widely felt; “Boltie” had become a favorite not just among the men of his own C Company, but of the entire 47th. After contracting Variola (smallpox), he was initially treated in camp, but was shipped back to the Kalorama eruptive fever hospital in Georgetown when it became evident that he needed more intensive care than could be provided at the 47th’s regimental hospital in Virginia.

In letters home later that month, Captain Gobin asked Sunbury residents to donate blankets for the Sunbury Guards:

The government has supplied them with one blanket apiece, which, as the cold weather approaches, is not sufficient…. Some of my men have none, two of them, Theodore Kiehl and Robert McNeal, having given theirs to our lamented drummer boy when he was taken sick… Each can give at least one blanket, (no matter what color, although we would prefer dark,) and never miss it, while it would add to the comfort of the soldiers tenfold. Very frequently while on picket duty their overcoats and blankets are both saturated by the rain. They must then wait until they can dry them by the fire before they can take their rest.

On Friday morning, 22 October 1861, the 47th participated in a Divisional Review, described by historian Lewis Schmidt as massing “about 10,000 infantry, 1000 cavalry, and twenty pieces of artillery all in one big open field.”

Half of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, including Company C, were next ordered to join parts of the 33rd Maine and 46th New York in extending the reach of their division’s picket lines, which they did successfully to “a half mile beyond Lewinsville,” according to Captain Gobin. In another letter home on 17 November, Henry Wharton revealed more details about life at Camp Griffin:

This morning our brigade was out for inspection; arms, accoutrements [sic], clothing, knapsacks, etc, all were out through a thorough examination, and if I must say it myself, our company stood best, A No. 1, for cleanliness. We have a new commander to our Brigade, Brigadier General Brannen [sic], of the U.S. Army, and if looks are any criterion, I think he is a strict disciplinarian and one who will be as able to get his men out of danger as he is willing to lead them to battle….

The boys have plenty of work to do, such as piquet [sic] duty, standing guard, wood-chopping, police duty and day drill; but then they have the most substantial food; our rations consist of fresh beef (three times a week) pickled pork, pickled beef, smoked pork, fresh bread, daily, which is baked by our own bakers, the Quartermaster having procured portable ovens for that purpose, potatoes, split peas, beans, occasionally molasses and plenty of good coffee, so you see Uncle Sam supplies us plentifully….

A few nights ago our Company was out on piquet [sic]; it was a terrible night, raining very hard the whole night, and what made it worse, the boys had to stand well to their work and dare not leave to look for shelter. Some of them consider they are well paid for their exposure, as they captured two ancient muskets belonging to Secessia. One of them is of English manufacture, and the other has the Virginia militia mark on it. They are both in a dilapidated condition, but the boys hold them in high estimation as they are trophies from the enemy, and besides they were taken from the house of Mrs. Stewart, sister to the rebel Jackson who assassinated the lamented Ellsworth at Alexandria. The honorable lady, Mrs. Stewart, is now a prisoner at Washington and her house is the headquarters of the command of the piquets [sic]….

Since the success of the secret expedition, we have all kinds of rumors in camp. One is that our Brigade will be sent to the relief of Gen. Sherman, in South Carolina. The boys all desire it and the news in the ‘Press’ is correct, that a large force is to be sent there, I think their wish will be gratified….

Springfield rifle, 1861 model (public domain).

Springfield rifle, 1861 model (public domain).

Then, on 21 November, the 47th participated in a morning divisional headquarters review by Colonel Tilghman H. Good, followed by brigade and division drills all afternoon. According to historian Schmidt, “each man was supplied with ten blank cartridges…. After the reviews and inspections, Gen. Smith requested Gen. Brannan to inform Col. Good that the 47th was the best regiment in the whole division.”

As a reward for the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers’ outstanding performance during this review and in preparation for the even bigger adventures yet to come, Brigadier-General John Milton Brannan directed his staff to ensure that new Springfield rifles were obtained and distributed to every member of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers.

Standard Civil War Union Army Signal Corps Kit (U.S. Army Historical Collection, public domain).

Standard Civil War Union Army Signal Corps Kit (U.S. Army Historical Collection, public domain).

In a letter written sometime around Christmas 1861, Captain Gobin reported that John D. Colvin had been detailed to special duty with the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps in Washington, D.C.

* Note: Private John D. Colvin became affiliated with the U.S. Army Signal Corps at a heady time. Major Albert J. Myer, the Union Army surgeon heralded by modern day historians as the “father of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps,” had invented wig-wag signaling during the 1850s, had recently been appointed as the U.S. Army’s first signal officer, and was actively recruiting soldiers from regular army and volunteer forces to participate in his training programs at Fortress Monroe in Hampton, Virginia and Red Hill in Georgetown, District of Columbia. Also known as aerial telegraphy, wig-wag provided Union commanders with a simpler, lighter communications system capable of conveying messages composed of alphabetical letters and numbers – “transmitted” from one military unit to another via the movement by a signal officer of a single flag.

1862

Having been ordered to move from their Virginia encampment back to Maryland, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers left Camp Griffin at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, 22 January 1862, marching through deep mud with their equipment for three miles in order to reach the railroad station at Falls Church. Sent by rail to Alexandria, they then sailed the Potomac via the steamship City of Richmond to the Washington Arsenal, where they were reequipped before they were marched off for dinner and rest at the Soldiers’ Retreat in Washington, D.C.

The next afternoon, the 47th Pennsylvanians hopped cars on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and headed for Annapolis, Maryland. Arriving around 10 p.m., they were assigned quarters in barracks at the Naval Academy. They then spent that Friday through Monday (24-27 January 1862) loading their equipment and other supplies onto the steamship Oriental.

On Monday afternoon, 27 January 1862, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were ferried to the big steamship by smaller steamers with the officers boarding last. Per the directive of Brigadier-General Brannan, they steamed away for the Deep South on the Oriental, departing at 4 p.m. They were headed for Florida which, despite its secession from the Union, remained strategically important to the Union due to the presence of Forts Taylor and Jefferson in Key West and the Dry Tortugas.

Rendering of Fort Taylor, Key West, Florida, Harper's Weekly, 1864 (public domain).

Rendering of Fort Taylor, Key West, Florida (Harper’s Weekly, 1864, public domain).

They arrived at Key West, Florida in early February. Assigned to garrison duty there at Fort Taylor, they drilled daily in military strategy, including heavy artillery tactics. During the weekend of Friday, 14 February, the 47th Pennsylvanians introduced their presence to Key West residents as the regiment paraded through the streets of the city. That Sunday, a number of the men mingled with locals while attending local church services.

The next several months were largely spent in manual labor, felling trees, building roads, and strengthening the federal installation’s fortifications. The work was made more difficult by the harsh climate and poor quality of drinking water, as well as dysentery, fevers and tropical diseases.

Next ordered to Hilton Head, South Carolina from mid-June through July, they camped near Fort Walker and then quartered in the Beaufort District, Department of the South. Frequently on hazardous picket detail north of their main camp, the soldiers of the 47th Pennsylvania became known for their “attention to duty, discipline and soldierly bearing,” and “received the highest commendation from Generals Hunter and Brannan,” according to historian Samuel P. Bates. Throughout this period, men from the 47th Pennsylvania also advanced in rank, including Private John D. Colvin, who was promoted to Corporal on 22 August 1862.

Illustration of the Union Navy's base of operations, Mayport Mills, circa 1862 (public domain).

Illustration of the Union Navy’s base of operations, Mayport Mills, circa 1862 (public domain).

On 30 September 1862, Corporal John D. Colvin and his fellow 47th Pennsylvanians were sent back to Florida where they participated with other Union forces in the assault on and capture of Saint John’s Bluff from 1 to 3 October. Under the command of Brigadier-General Brannan, the 1,500-plus Union force left their gunboat-escorted troop carriers at Mayport Mills and Mount Pleasant Creek. With the 47th Pennsylvania on point and braving alligators, snakes and Rebel troops, the men pushed through 25 dense miles of forests and swampland in order to capture the bluff and pave the way for the Union’s occupation of Jacksonville, Florida.

Union Army map of the Pocotaligo-Coosawhatchie Expedition, 21-23 October 1862 (public domain).

Union Army Map: Pocotaligo-Coosawhatchie Expedition, 21-23 October 1862 (public domain).

From 21-23 October, Company C and the 47th engaged Confederate forces in the Battle of Pocotaligo, South Carolina. Landing at Mackey’s Point under the brigade command of 47th Pennsylvania founder, Colonel Tilghman H. Good, and regimental command of Lieutenant Colonel George W. Alexander, the 47th led the way once again. This time, however, the Union’s luck ran out. Bedeviled by snipers, the brigade faced massive resistance from an entrenched Confederate battery, as well as withering fire upon entering a cotton field. Those headed for the Frampton Plantation’s higher ground were pounded by Rebel artillery and infantry from the surrounding forests.

Undaunted, the Union forces charged into the fire, and forced the Rebels into a four-mile retreat to the Pocotaligo Bridge. At this juncture, the 47th relieved the 7th Connecticut but, after two hours of exchanging fire while attempting to take the ravine and bridge, the 47th ran low on ammunition, and withdrew to Mackey’s Point. Two officers and 18 enlisted men from the 47th were killed during the expedition, including Private Seth Deibert; two officers and 114 enlisted were wounded, including Privates Jeremiah Haas, Conrad Holman, Michael Larkins, Charles Leffer, Thomas Lothard, Timothy Matthias Snyder, and Peter Wolf.

Private George Horner survived his wounds and made it back to Fort Taylor only to die in the regimental hospital there on 21 October.

On 23 October 1862, the 47th Pennsylvania returned to Hilton Head, where it served as the funeral Honor Guard for the commander of the U.S. Army’s 10th Corps and Department of the South, General Ormsby McKnight Mitchel, who had succumbed to yellow fever 30 October. Mitchelville, the first Freedmen’s town created after the Civil War, was later named for him. The men of the 47th Pennsylvania were the soldiers given the high honor of firing the salute over his grave.

The talents of signal corps-trained personnel played key roles at both Saint John’s Bluff and Pocotaligo, as evidenced by a report filed on 1 November 1862 by 1st Lieutenant George H. Hill, a member of the 55th Pennsylvania Volunteers who had served as the Acting Signal Officer during both engagements.

On the same day that 1st Lieutenant Hill filed that report (1 November 1862), Corporal John D. Colvin asked to be reduced to the rank of Private. His request was granted.

1863

Woodcut depicting the harsh climate at Fort Taylor in Key West, Florida during the Civil War. (Public domain, U.S. Library of Congress.)

Woodcut depicting the harsh climate at Fort Taylor in Key West, Florida during the Civil War (public domain, U.S. Library of Congress).

Having been ordered back to Key West on 15 November 1862, much of 1863 for the men of the 47th Pennsylvania was spent garrisoning federal installations in Florida as part of the U.S. Army’s 10th Corps, Department of the South. Captain Gobin and his C Company men joined with Companies A, B, E, G, and I in duties at Key West’s Fort Taylor while the soldiers from Companies D, F, H, and K garrisoned Fort Jefferson, the Union’s remote outpost in the Dry Tortugas off the coast of Florida.

It was a noteworthy year both for the number of men lost to disease – and because most of the soldiers from the 47th Pennsylvania chose to re-enlist when their original three-year terms of service expired. But on 13 October 1863, Private John D. Colvin chose another path, opting instead to transfer to the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps. At some point after his transfer, a spyglass taken by Union troops during the 1863 capture of the Confederate blockade runner Stonewall Jackson in the waters off South Carolina, was presented to and then used by 2nd Lieutenant John D. Colvin of the U.S. Signal Corp to decipher seven cipher and other Confederate signal codes.

1864

Civil War Union Cipher Disk (U.S. Army illustration, c. 1863, public domain).

Civil War Union Cipher Disk (U.S. Army illustration, c. 1863, public domain).

While his former regiment, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, was off making history as the only Pennsylvania regiment to fight in the Union’s 1864 Red River Campaign across Louisiana, Private John D. Colvin was stationed on the East Coast of the southern United States with the U.S. Signal Corps as part of the U.S. Department of the South. On 13 March 1864, he re-enlisted with the U.S. Signal Corps at Folly Island, South Carolina. He continued to employ wig-wag signaling methods to convey the messages of Union leaders from unit to unit, was also involved in Union attempts to intercept and decipher the coded communications of Confederate forces. On 22 May 1864, he was recognized for his efforts with a promotion to the rank of Sergeant at Long Island, South Carolina.

Stationed at Fort Strong on Morris Island, South Carolina around the beginning of June, Sergeant John D. Colvin was tasked with a stepped up effort to break the signal codes used by Confederate troops. It took him roughly two weeks to make headway, but when he did, he succeeded in deciphering transmissions related to Beach Inlet, Battery Bee, and Fort Johnson. He was commended for these successes by General J. G. Foster, the new commander of the U.S. Department of the South, who sent a letter to General Halleck on 13 May 1864 urging that [Sergeant Colvin] “be rewarded by promotion to lieutenant in the Signal Corps, or by a brevet or medal of honor.”

As he continued to pile on code breaking success after success throughout June 1864, Sergeant Colvin unraveled even more new Confederate ciphers, resulting in another nudge from General Foster to his superiors to promote Colvin.

1865

Beardslee Telegraph (c. 1865, public domain).

Beardslee Telegraph (c. 1865, public domain).

In January 1865, the communication lines at Braddock’s Point which conveyed Union signals from Hilton Head, South Carolina to Savannah, Georgia were in constant use, transmitting a staggering 276 messages. In addition to their heavy workload, Sergeant John D. Colvin and his fellow U.S. Signal Corps members wrestled with the Army’s conversion to the electric telegraph which initially had periodic operating and repair problems. Colvin also was placed in charge of the Corps’ northern district in South Carolina while his superior officer, Lieutenant Roberts, was attending to duties at Fort Pulaski.

In early February, Sergeant John Colvin was assigned to an expedition led by General Potter which was conducted in concert with the U.S. Navy in and around Bull’s Bay. Assigned to intercept messages from Confederate troops, Colvin was once again so adept at his code breaking that he was able to give ample advance notification to his superiors of a planned retreat from Charleston by Confederate forces, which enabled Union troops to occupy that city. Once again, Colvin was commended by his superiors, including Captain Merrill, who urged that he be awarded a medal for his efforts.

Announcement of the death of John Wilkes Booth (U.S. Military Telegraph from F. A. Parker to Sr. Naval Officer, Pt. Lookout, 29 April 1865, Missouri Historical Society, public domain).

Announcement of the death of John Wilkes Booth (U.S. Military Telegraph from F. A. Parker to Sr. Naval Officer, Pt. Lookout, 29 April 1865, Missouri Historical Society, public domain).

That Spring, America’s long nightmare began to wane when Robert E. Lee, Commanding General of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, surrendered to Union Ulysses S. Grant, Commanding General of the U.S. Army, on 9 April 1865 at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. Then, on 7 July 1865, Mary Surratt, George Atzerodt, David Herold, and Lewis Powell were executed for their involvement as the key co-conspirators in the Good Friday assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Among the many messages dispatched by civilian and military communications personnel that terrible day in April 1865 and beyond were the telegraph communications transmitted by Washington Navy Yard telegrapher Henry Harrison Atwater:

War Dept. Apr. 14 (186)5. Comd Parker. An attempt has been made this P.M. to assassinate the President & Secy of State – The parties may escape or attempt to escept [sic] down the Potomac [unclear] J.H. Taylor, Chf Staff

War Dept. Washington. Apr 15th (186)5. 1.05 a.m. Brig Gen. Barnes Pt. Lookout. Stop all vessels going down the river & hold all persons on them till further orders and [sic] attempt has been made tonigh [sic] to assassinate the President & secy of state hold all persons leaving Washington H.W. Halleck Maj Gen Chf Staff  

Navy Yard Washington Apr 15th (186)5 1.15 a.m. Comdr Parker. An attempt has this evening been made to assinate [sic] the President and Sec’y Seward The President was shot through the head and Secy seward [sic] had his throat cut in his own house Both are in a very dangerous condition. No further particulars There is great excitement here T.H. Eastman Lt Comdr U.S. Pot. Flotilla

War Dept Apr 15 (186)5 8 a.m. H.H. Atwater President died at seven twenty two (7.22) this a.m. Maynard Operator 

War Dept April 15th 2.20 p.m. (186)5. Comd J.B. Montgomery Navy Yard If the military authorities arrest the murderer of the President and take him to the yard put him on a monitor & anchor her in the stream with strong guard on vessel – wharf – and in yard Call upon Comdt Marine Corps for guard – Have vessel immediately prepared ready to receive him at any hour day or night with necessary instructions he will be heavily ironed and so guarded as to prevent escape or injury to himself Gideon Welles Secy Navy

In addition, Secretary of War Edward Stanton sent this telegram:

War Department, April 15, 1865 – 1:30 a.m.
Major-General Dix,
New York:

Last evening, about 10:30 p.m., at Ford’s Theater, the President, while sitting in his private box with Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Harris, and Major Rathbone, was shot by an assassin . . . The pistol-ball entered the back of the President’s head, and penetrated nearly through the head. The wound is mortal. The President has been insensible ever since it was inflicted, and is now dying.

 Stanton also transmitted an alert at 2:35 a.m. advising that the:

Investigation strongly indicates J. Wilkes Booth as the assassin of the President,

and then conveyed the simple, but heartbreaking news roughly five hours later that:

Abraham Lincoln died this morning at 22 minutes after 7 o’clock.

As war operations continued to wind down and Reconstruction efforts ramped up, Sergeant John D. Colvin was finally commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant with the U.S. Signal Corps on 21 May 1865. It had taken roughly a year for senior Union officers to make good on the promotion recommended by General J. G. Foster in May 1864, but the advancement recommendation and pay boost eventually did take effect. He remained in this position until formally mustering out from military service on 21 August 1865.

Return to Civilian Life

Following his honorable discharge from the military, John D. Colvin turned his engineering abilities toward employment in the private sector, assisting the Pacific Railroad in extending its service from Atchison, Kansas to Fort Kearney in Nebraska. Present as an eyewitness on the day that the railroad’s first locomotive made its initial run, he then returned home to Pennsylvania.

Mineral Springs Colliery, Parsons, Pennsylvania (c. 1900s, public domain).

Mineral Springs Colliery, Parsons, Pennsylvania (c. 1900s, public domain).

On 18 April 1867, he wed Providence, Pennsylvania native Olive Sophia Reichard (1845-1933) in Scranton, Lackawanna County. Together, the couple made their home initially in Olyphant, Pennsylvania, and then in Carbondale before taking up residency in 1870 in Parsons, Luzerne County – the town where John D. Colvin would make his home for the remainder of his life and the place where he would become not only an active civic leader, but one of the community’s most prominent citizens.

Together, John and Sophia Colvin welcomed to the world three children during the decade of the 1870s: Harry C. (1871-1900), who went on to become the assistant postmaster at Parsons; Anna (1875-1920), who was born in Parsons and later went on to become a teacher at the age of 16 and then wed the Rev. Edward A. Loux, pastor of the Plymouth Presbyterian Church; and John Frederick (1878-1929), who went on to become a bookkeeper with People’s Bank in Wilkes-Barre. Daughters Alice (1881-1973) and Lena (1885-1974) made their appearance at the Colvin’s home in Parsons during the next decade. Alice went on to attend Syracuse University while Lena became a graduate of the Wyoming Seminary.

The 1870s were also major years of civic engagement for John Colvin, who during his 12-year tenure as a member of the Parsons school board, helped to acquire property where a new school could be built. In 1876, he worked with his fellow Parson residents to obtain a charter for their city, and then worked with his fellow school board members to raise the funds to erect a new school building in 1877. As a result, he was later twice rewarded for this civic mindedness with election to the post of burgess.

By 1880, he was supporting his family on the wages of a machinist. Professionally, he would advance to become the district superintendent of the Delaware & Hudson Coal company, and then continued his upward mobility by taking a similar post with the Lehigh Valley Coal Company, which conferred the responsibility of operations oversight at that firm’s Mineral Spring and Henry collieries.

In February 1882, he also re-enlisted in the military, joining the Ninth Regiment of the Pennsylvania National Guard’s artillery, and serving as the Captain of that regiment’s E Company until his health-related resignation roughly four years later. An active member of the Patriotic Order Sons of American (P.O.S. of A.) and the Union Veteran Legion No. 135, he also ultimately became a commander of the Grand Army of the Republic’s Conyngham Post (No. 97).

Postmaster of Parsons during the early 1890s as a member of President William Henry Harrison’s administration, he had also become a stockholder in the Parson’s Electric Light Company.

But like many Civil War soldiers, he was plagued by health problems throughout his life, including failing eyesight caused by cataracts which prompted him to apply for his U.S. Civil War Pension on 5 July 1890 and then forced him to resign from the Lehigh Valley Coal Company in order to take a more suitable job as the superintendent of the Algonquin Coal Company in Parsons. On 26 January 1896, The Sunday Leader in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania reported the following disturbing news:

John D. Colvin, Superintendent of the Algonquin Coal Company and Thomas Govier, outside foreman at Laurel Run colliery, operated by the Algonquin Coal Company were attacked and badly beaten by one John O’Donnell, breaker boss at the aforesaid Laurel Run colliery. It was reported at first that both men were severely and one of them perhaps fatally injured. But the men will recover though both are in a badly bruised condition.

 O’Donnell had reportedly lodged workplace abuse allegations against the colliery, a fact which seems to be confirmed in the same newspaper article, which described the use of children as mule drivers and slate pickers, as well as other cost-cutting measures implemented by company managers, and noted:

Mr. Govier had not been long engaged at his new position before ho began a system of weeding. – He knew how much a man or boy could do if put to the test He was a mighty fine worker himself in his time…. Here is the way he did the saving: Anthony Timlin was on the plates and was sent cleaning snow off the cars until the snow was gone, when he was told to pick slate at 80 cents or go home. He went home. Old Mr. Gray, who cut props, was told to pick slate or go home. He couldn’t afford to be Idle, and is picking slate. Paddy McGowan … is an outcast looking for work…. So here it is seen that while the company is protecting Its stock by retaining the required number of mules it outs the men, making one do the work of two. The driver on the head house, from the slope to the dump, is laid off…. Arthur Brown, who worked outside, is now picking slate. Eight Hungarian men who [went] home to spend Hungarian Christmas were given their walking papers next day. The breaker’s slate picking force is reduced one-third and this is beginning to show…. Andrew Frltzki, the blacksmith, was not so easily bandied m the rest of the men. Andrew is a painstaking and competent blacksmith. One day Mr. Govier told him that when work was a bit slack be should clean the coal on the condemned care. Andrew [refused]. He had a stock of pick handles he put In for the miners. He was told to get them out of his shop, as a punishment for [dereliction], pomposity and Swedish insolence. Ed. Gustin, who was outside foreman, is clerking…

Better years followed at Algonquin, and as a result, John Colvin continued in his role there, making improvements as a manager there at least through the federal census of 1900. However, strife descended once again – this time resulting in a prolonged strike. After toughing it out through yet another painful time, John D. Colvin finally had had enough, and resigned his position with the Algonquin Coal Company after the strike ended.

Death and Interment

In declining health in his final year, John D. Colvin succumbed to complications from heart disease at 8:30 in the morning on Friday, 15 March 1901. His obituary in the Wilkes-Barre Times reported his passing later that same day:

John D. Colvin, one of the most prominent residents of Parsons died this morning at 8:30 from heart failure. Mr. Colvin’s health had not been of the best for some time but his immediate family nor physician did not think he was in a dangerous condition, and his sudden death was not only a shock to them but also to every resident of the town in which he lived. Mr. Colvin had been a resident of Parsons for more than thirty years and during that time he manifested an enthusiastic interest in the progress of the place and all of its affairs. He was especially interested in the schools and in the position of school director, which he filled several terms he devoted much of his time in building up and strengthening the school system of the place. For many years he was a district superintendent for the Delaware & Hudson Coal company, leaving that corporation to accept a similar position for the Lehigh Valley Coal company at its Mineral Spring and Henry collieries, a position which he was compelled to resign on account of impaired eyesight. Deceased subsequently accepted the superintendency of the Algonquin Coal company at Parsons, which position he held until the end of the late prolonged strike. During President Harrison’s administration, Mr. Colvin was made postmaster of Parsons, a position he filled with credit to himself and to the satisfaction of every patron of the office.

Mr. Colvin was a stockholder in the Parson’s Electric Light Company. He served during the entire war from ’61 to ’65, and performed valiant service. Later he became a member of the Ninth Regiment, National Guard artillery when that body was reorganized and company E was enlisted at Parsons. Mr. Colvin was made its captain. That was in February 1882 and he was an enthusiastic member of the regiment until 1886 when he was forced to resign by reason of impaired heath. Deceased was a past commander of Conyngham Post No 97, G.A.R. Union Veteran Legion No 135 and of the POS of A. He is survived by his wife, one son Fred and three daughters, Miss Anna who is a school teacher at Parsons, Miss Alice, a student at Wyoming Seminary, and Miss Lena. The funeral will be on Monday afternoon at 2 o’clock from the residence at Parsons, and will be attended by members of belonged.

In Mr. Colvin’s death, Parsons has lost one of its best citizens. He was especially noted for his kindness and consideration to all with whom he came in contact, notably to those less fortunate than himself and many friends not only at his old home but throughout the valley will learn with sincere regret that he has passed away.

The old code breaker who helped the Union Army trip up Confederate forces time and again during America’s Civil War had found true peace at last and, as winter waned in Pennsylvania, was finally laid to rest at the Hollenback Cemetery in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County.

 

 

Sources:

1. Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5. Harrisburg: 1869.

2. Brown, J. Willard, A.M. The Signal Corps, U.S.A. in the War of the Rebellion. Boston: U.S. Veteran Signal Corps Association, 1896.

3. Colvin, John D., in Civil War Veterans’ Card File, 1861-1865. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania State Archives.

4. Colvin, John D., in Civil War Muster Rolls, in Records of the Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs (Record Group 19, Series 19.11). Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

5. Colvin, John D., in Register of Enlistments in the U.S. Army (Microfilm M233), in Records of the Adjutant General’s Office (Record Group 94). Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives, 1864.

6. Hayden, M.A., Rev. Horace Edwin, Hon. Alfred Hand, M.A., et. al. Genealogical and Family History of the Wyoming and Lackawanna Valleys, Vol. I. New York: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1906.

7. History of Luzerne, Lackawanna, and Wyoming Counties, Pa. New York: W. W. Munsell & Co., 1880.

8. John D. Colvin, in The Sunday Leader. Wilkes-Barre: 26 January 1896.

9. Johnson, F. C., ed. The Historical Record: A Quarterly Publication Devoted Principally to the Early History of Wyoming Valley and Contiguous Territory with Notes and Queries Biographical, Antiquarian, Genealogical. Wilkes-Barre: Press of The Wilkes-Barre Record, 1888.

10. Mrs. Anna Colvin Loux, in NSDAR Lineage Book, Volume 093. Washington, D.C.: National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, 1912.

11. Schmidt, Lewis. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown: Self-published, 1986.

12. U.S. Census. Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania: 1850, 1860, 1880, 1900.

 

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