Southern Illinois History Page

The Grave of Private Collins


In 1910, Alton's Sam Davis Chapter #803 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected an impressive stone gate at the Confederate Cemetery in North Alton. It is a handsome structure that tastefully complements the 40-foot stone obelisk that was constructed in 1909 to honor the 1,354 Confederate POWs who perished while in captivity at the Alton Military Prison.

There is a brief epitaph on one of the gate's pillars whose timelessness makes it hauntingly relevant for all of our nation's war dead. It reads:

Soldier, rest, thy warfare o'er,
Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking;
Dream of battlefield no more,
Days of Danger, Nights of Waking.

Many remarkable stories surround the Confederate Cemetery: some probably apocryphal, others at least feasible. For instance, it is rumored that two women lie buried there who had enlisted in the Confederate Army as men, were captured on the battlefield, and died while incarcerated in Alton.

A few Altonians claim to remember one Samuel Breckinridge of Murphreesboro, Tennessee, who supposedly visited Alton in the 1930s and revealed his daring escape from Union custody during the Civil War. Breckinridge maintained that, in 1863, he had hidden in a coffin taken from the Alton prison to the cemetery and then broke out of the coffin when he heard the wagon leave! The aged veteran allegedly returned to Alton to secure a stone from the notorious prison's ruins for use as his tombstone, a peculiar wish that was purportedly shared by a number of former POWs who returned to the site for the same purpose.

Visitors to the cemetery, located on Rozier Street, are often struck by the sight of a solitary tombstone that rests some distance from the obelisk, a tombstone made all the more conspicuous by the fact that it is the only individual gravestone in the three-acre cemetery.

Why, many wonder, are the 1353 other Confederate POWs who died in the Alton prison and the makeshift smallpox hospital located on what was then known as Sunflower Island honored en masse by the obelisk while Moses A. Collins is commemorated by a personal tombstone? The story provides yet another fascinating chapter in the old cemetery's history.

Moses Albert Collins was born near New Albany, Mississippi, on April 3, 1831, the son of General Benjamin Collins and Lucinda Collins. The family later settled in Drew County, Arkansas. In 1852, Collins married 16-year-old Narcissa Rowland, who bore him five children. Although his father was a military figure of some repute who served our nation during the Mexican-American War, young Moses felt a call to preach and became a Methodist minister.

Collins' life prior to the Civil War was rewarding, if uneventful. When tension between the North and South finally erupted into armed conflict in 1861, Collins hesitated before setting aside his Bible and hymnal for a rifle and bayonet; still, loyalty to the embattled South ultimately prevailed, and he enlisted in Company B of the 2nd Arkansas Cavalry in 1863.

Old records indicate that Collins was wounded and captured during the assault on Jefferson City, Missouri, on October 18, 1864, and taken to the U. S. Post and Prison Hospital in Alton on December 16. The records also grimly reveal that Moses Albert Collins, idealistic clergyman who left family and pulpit for a cause that was already lost, died on Christmas Eve 1864, from an undetermined illness and, possibly, from complications arising from his wound. He was interred in what is now the Confederate Cemetery in North Alton.

Collins' grief-stricken father was adamant that his brave son should not rest in ignominious anonymity and visited Alton in 1867 to commission Z. B. Job, an accomplished Alton stonecutter, to make a tombstone for the young minister-warrior. And so Moses A. Collins became the only POW who died in the Alton prison to have an individual grave marker.

Job performed his task well. The tombstone he created for Collins endured 104 years until it was finally defaced by time and the elements. A new marker was carved in 1971, at government expense, to comply with an old law that provides for suitable gravestones for Confederate dead who are buried in Northern cemeteries.

Although, to the best of my knowledge, the old cemetery is no longer furbished with flowers by the descendants of the POWs buried there, countless clusters of tiny white wildflowers bloom in profusion throughout the cemetery each spring, almost as though

Nature herself has resolved to decorate the graves of the Confederate soldiers who rest there.

Since this article's original publication in the May-June issue of the now-defunct Illinois Magazine, there have been at least two interesting developments. In the first place, shortly after the article appeared, I was informed that another area resident had become intrigued by that sole grave marker in the Confederate Cemetery and had engaged in precisely the kind of research I conducted to learn just how Moses A. Collins had come to acquire an individual tombstone.

The story that detailed his findings appeared sometime in the early 1970s in the long-defunct Wood River Journal, according to my informant. In other words, gentle readers, all I had to do in order to learn about the mystery tombstone was to go to the library and check its old newspaper files; instead, I experienced the joy of doing all that research by myself. Ah, the sheer ecstasy of reinventing the wheel!

Actually, I didn't reinvent the wheel so much as add spokes to it. I first learned of Collins and his tombstone during a series of interviews dealing with southern Illinois history and lore that I conducted in the mid-1970s with my great-uncle, the late Joe Dromgoole of the Alton Telegraph. A decade later, I conducted some independent research to corroborate Uncle Joe's material on Collins and then published my article in Illinois Magazine.

Was Uncle Joe familiar with that feature in the Wood River Journal about Collins' grave marker? He never mentioned it during the course of our conversation and, from his remarks; I ascertained that he had researched the Methodist minister's odyssey quite some years before the Wood River Journal article's publication. Uncle Joe had a natural-born newspaperman's inquisitiveness about the world and always enjoyed learning new things by ferreting out facts. Plagiarism simply was not in the man's blood.

The second development arising from this feature's Illinois publication back in 1988 is truly fascinating. About a year or two after "The Grave of Private Collins" was published, to and behold, a second individual grave marker appeared in the cemetery! The new tombstone, located next to Collins' marker, reads:

In memory of
3rd Serg
Joseph Pearson Julian
Co E
January 6, 1828
January 27, 1863
When I discovered this new grave marker, my first assumption was that someone whose ancestor had died while a POW in the Alton prison had read my Illinois Magazine article and decided that his/her fallen rebel deserved an individual tombstone, too. A plausible theory, all right, but here's the rub: this Julian's name does not appear on the bronze plaques at the base of the obelisk that list all the Confederate POWs who are buried in the cemetery or on the now mostly-vanished Sunflower Island in the Mississippi. Was Julian incarcerated in the Alton prison? If not, then why was his grave marker erected in Alton's Confederate Cemetery?

A perplexing mystery indeed, but I haven't the time to pursue it now. And, if you need still more food for thought, I'll leave you with this question. Springhouse has a much wider readership than its circulation figures would indicate: our fine magazine reaches a good cross-segment of the public, both across the United States and even in a few foreign countries. Do you think there's any possibility that, sometime after this article's publication, yet another tombstone will suddenly appear in that old cemetery?

[Reprinted by permission. Original source: John J. Dunphy. June 1996. "The Grave of Private Collins." Springhouse. 13:3. 31-33.]

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Created October 9, 2003 by Jon Musgrave © 2003