Out of Time: William Collins and the Andersonville Raiders

Words: Ashley Carter
Wednesday 28 September 2022
reading time: min, words

Considered one of the darkest chapters of the American Civil War, the Andersonville Raiders were an organised mob of thieves and murders who preyed on their fellow prisoners at Andersonville prisoner of war Camp. Led by William Collins, a former knitter born in Nottingham, they created a reign of terror amidst the already miserable conditions, and paid the ultimate price…


As the cloth sack slipped over his face, closing his eyes to the crowd of dishevelled, emaciated faces eagerly baying for his blood, you have to wonder whether William Collins’ mind drifted back to the streets of Nottingham he’d grown up on. Just how had this Notts-born former knitter found himself as chief villain in one of the American Civil War’s darkest stories? There wasn’t a single sympathetic face amongst the 26,000 onlookers, packed into a filthy and overcrowded stockade, as the noose was placed around Collins’ neck in what remains the most witnessed execution in US history. Starving and despairing, they were glad to see the demise of a man who had heaped misery on their already pitiful lives inside Andersonville prisoner of war camp. But the extraordinary story of William Collins had another twist yet. 

The American Civil War was fought in a thousand places for a thousand reasons. Friendships, unions and even families were torn asunder by fundamentally opposing viewpoints: centralised government versus the rights of the state, the wealth disparity between the North and the South and, most vitally, the desire to bring an end to slavery. Sitting almost exactly at the midway point between the Battle of Waterloo and the beginning of the First World War, it acted as something of a bridge between the old world and the new, marking a decisive end to the gallant cavalry charges and romanticised notions of warfare from the former, ushering in the era of artillery-fuelled carnage seen on a much larger scale in the latter. It was the first conflict in which weaponry rapidly outgrew tactics, enabling carnage on a scale previously thought unimaginable. 

Fought by the grandsons of the men who had battled Britain for independence less than a century before, it was a desperate, pitiless fight for the soul of a young country taking place over four blood-soaked years – every day of which saw a battle of some scale – between 1861 and 1865. It remains the deadliest war in American history, with the human cost higher than the losses suffered in World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. The town of Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley changed hands 72 times during the conflict, generals on either side were frequently friends and former comrades of one-another and Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate forces (those Southern states fighting to secede from the Union, maintain slavery and break the financial domination of the Northern states) had originally been offered command of the opposing Union army by President Abraham Lincoln. The American Civil was as ugly and frenzied as it was intimate.

Despite being confined to one country, the war had distinctly international undertones. Over a quarter of the two million soldiers that fought in President Abraham Lincoln’s Union army were born outside of the US, including a large percentage of recent immigrants from Britain. While the majority of them fought for the North, some did take up arms for the Southern Confederate cause, leading to bizarre examples of entirely Irish regiments squaring off against each other for a cause that wasn’t their own, shattering companionships and rekindling old rivalries on battlefields thousands of miles away from home. The story of the war is deeply and irrevocably intertwined with the story of Britain: no sooner were men from all corners of the Isles arriving on the shores of America in search of a better life than rifles and uniforms were being thrust into their hands.

Although boasting impressive size and stature, William Collins was the furthest thing from an ideal soldier. Born in Nottingham at some time around 1835, his childhood was spent learning the knitting trade before, aged just thirteen, sailing to New York Harbour aboard a ship, aptly named the America, with his eleven-year-old sister Charlotte and a woman named Louisa Smallwood, who was possibly their grandmother. By the time the Civil War had begun, Louisa Smallwood was dead, his sister Charlotte was lost to history and William had been living in Philadelphia for as many years as he’d lived in Nottingham. Considering the many blotches that would later appear in his service record, it’s something of a surprise that he voluntarily joined the 88th Pennsylvania Infantry less than six months after the war’s commencement. Perhaps, given that the last US census in which Collins’ appears lists him as having no known profession, the appeal of regular meals and pay was worth the risk of being killed in action. 

At the time of his enrolment, the 88th was still in the process of being outfitted, and Collins soon found himself being bounced from company to company, including being moved twice in the same day in 1862, suggesting he was seen as problematic from the outset. Ending up in Company D, a unit notorious for its discipline problems and the natural landing place for trouble-makers, regimental muster rolls show him as being absent without leave for two of his first four months in uniform. Later records show Collins as having run up a sizeable debt to the regiment, presumably for lost or damaged uniform and arms.

Collins’ first taste of action came at a time when Lincoln’s Union army was firmly on the backfoot, and he found himself being wounded in the thigh and captured by Confederate soldiers on the final day of the Second Battle of Bull Run in August, 1862. Paroled back as part of a prisoner exchange three days later, he was sent to hospital where he remained, missing two of the war’s most iconic battles at Antietam and Fredericksburg. The relative comfort of hospital life was infinitely preferable to endless days spent marching, training and fighting as, by the time he was expected to rejoin his unit in January of the following year, Collins had disappeared. His freedom was short-lived, however, as recounted by assistant surgeon DeWitt Peters in sent a letter to the provost marshal’s office in Baltimore:

“Private Wm Collins… was down on the list to go to his regiment, but escaped and went into the city. I saw him on the street today and caused him to be arrested and brought to our Guard House. He had an old wound of the thigh, which causes him to limp when under inspection but today I saw him walking as well as any person could. He is a hard drinker… can you not take him under charge and send him to his regiment by the first opportunity?… This man is better off in the field than confined here, where he is a source of annoyance.”

At this point in the war, the vastly outnumbered Confederate Army under the leadership of Robert E. Lee was performing miracles in the field, out-manoeuvring, out-flanking and outfighting the better equipped, better paid and numerically superior Union forces. Collins re-joined his unit just in time to take part in the Battle of Chancellorsville, a major six-day battle that ended in yet another defeat for the Union forces. However, two months later saw what many believe was the defining turning point in the entire war: Gettysburg. Fought over three days in early July 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg is ascribed mythological status in the annals of US history. The subject of countless books, films and podcasts, it served as the moment in which the tides of fortune finally turned in favour of the Union side, delivering President Abraham Lincoln the victory he so desperately needed. It was no drubbing - the casualties were relatively equal on both sides (23,000 Union and 23-28,000 Confederate) - but while the Union army could afford to lose men, the Confederates simply could not, and the perceived invincibility of Lee’s army had been permanently shattered. After Gettysburg “it was no longer possible for the Confederacy to win the war”, wrote historian Bruce Catton. “The North might still lose it, to be sure… but outright defeat was no longer in the cards.” 

The battle seems to have been as much of a personal turning point for Collins as it was the Union. The soldier, whose history until that point was little more than a list of unauthorised absences, faked injuries, drunkenness and debt, was part of Baxter’s Brigade, fighting fiercely on Oak Ridge on the Union’s right flank. Ferociously defending the hill from three Confederate brigades, the 88th charged over a stone wall to capture two regimental colours, as well as the survivors of the 23rd North Carolina’s they’d just decimated, inflicting a staggering 80% casualties. The records show that Collins and his fellow trouble-makers in Company D were first over the wall and, despite his chequered past, Collins performed well enough to receive a battlefield promotion to corporal. To this day, his name remains engraved on the plaque dedicated to the exploits of the 88th on the Pennsylvania Monument at Gettysburg. 

Gettysburg was to be an anomaly in Collins’ military experience. Three months later, the 88th were undertaking a series of night manoeuvres deep in the heart of Confederate Northern Virginia when Collins used the cover of a moonless night to slip away from his unit, deserting for (at least) the second time. Unfortunately for Collins, it wouldn’t be a mildly irritated Union surgeon that caught him this time, but Confederate soldiers. Prisoner of war records show him arriving at Belle Isle Prison Camp in Richmond, Virginia, just 24 hours later. It was here that William Collins, the infamous villain from US folklore, was born. 

As the six men were led up the gallows steps, none who had suffered at their hands missed the opportunity to witness their execution

Adopting the nickname ‘Mosby’ (after a Confederate general that led small, quick and unexpected raids against the enemy), the tall, physically intimidating Collins abandoned any notion of fraternal togetherness by forming and leading a gang of thugs and thieves to prey on his fellow prisoners. At this point in the war the South was being blockaded on all sides, and rations were in short supply for the Confederate army. Historian Larry J. Daniel writes that the desperate Confederates were forced to “beg, borrow and steal” food from wherever they could find it, and often dedicated as much time in the search for provisions as they did preparing for battle. With no flour, sugar or coffee, men relied on their own coffee concoction made from chicory roots, acorns, sweet potatoes and peanuts, and ate hard, spoiled cornbread which they crudely roasted over fires upon their own bayonets. If this is how the soldiers – the most precious commodity the South had – were treated, you can only imagine how little was available for the Union prisoners under their watch. 

For Collins, it was a Darwinian decision and, if it was to be survival of the fittest, he was going to do whatever he could to make sure he survived. But his behaviour didn’t go unnoticed as, on 4 March 1864, he was transferred to Camp Sumpter, more commonly known as Andersonville Prison.  

In a war already littered with unimagined horrors, it’s hard to describe Andersonville without falling into hyperbole. Robert H. Kellogg, who was sent there as a prisoner in May, 1864, wrote:

As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. "Can this be hell?" "God protect us!"… In the center of the whole was a swamp, occupying about three or four acres of the narrowed limits, and a part of this marshy place had been used by the prisoners as a sink, and excrement covered the ground, the scent arising from which was suffocating… how we were to live through the warm summer weather in the midst of such fearful surroundings, was more than we cared to think of just then.”

Built over ten acres and roughly 1,000ft by 800ft in size, Andersonville was originally intended to hold around 9,000 Union prisoners of war. At its most crowded, it was packed with almost 45,000. With little to no food, barely any clean water supply and hellish sanitary conditions, death stalked the camp on a daily basis, claiming over 13,000 of the prisoners kept there. At its worst, the death rate was over 100 per day. While scurvy, diarrhoea, dysentery and starvation were the chief causes, more than a few men’s lives were violently ended at the hands of their fellow prisoners. 

The move into Andersonville did little to curb Collins’ behaviour. If anything, the more extreme conditions fuelled increasingly extreme behaviour. His gang grew larger, becoming known as both ‘Mosby’s Raiders’ and ‘Collins’ Raiders’, and the attacks grew more carefully choreographed. With so many people packed into such a small space, an ecosystem of bartering, shops and alliances naturally evolved and, as with any such rudimentary system, strength of force was the only true currency. New arrivals at the camp would be lured into a tent with the promise of a welcoming meal or warm cup of coffee, only to be severely beaten – sometimes fatally – and their clothes, possessions, food and valuables stripped away. At some point, Collins moved from being the thief to the thief conductor, as several surviving diaries record him as being absent from the events themselves, but well-known as the chief orchestrator – a Fagan-type figure pulling the strings of his desperate, nefarious band of degenerates. He was preying on men who had given everything for a cause they believed in, and now found themselves at their lowest ebb. Prisoner exchanges had become too complicated to function, and their hopes of freedom from the notorious camp lay only with the conclusion of a war, which was still over a year away. “It was a terrible time,” says a Sunday Mercury newspaper article from August 1865. “But what appeared to be every man’s business was nobody’s business; and no man dared grapple with this inhumane organisation… A reign of terror had spread itself over the prison, as men lay down in the miserable tens at night in terror and they woke in the morning unrefreshed, the terrors of the banditti still haunting them.” It was a truly desperate situation of which Collins was taking full advantage. 

‘Collins’ Raiders’ were far from the only group operating in such a way. At least five other bands ran similar schemes of separating and attacking weaker prisoners, often working in unison with one another. Whether because of his physical size, his bright red hair or his ruthless, violent reputation, Collins is the most written about of them all. Because the gangs moved fast and in shows of strength, there was little the victims could do to avoid being attacked, but this was to change with the arrival of the Plymouth Pilgrims, a group of 2,364 Union soldiers who had been captured at North Carolina. As part of their terms of surrender, the Plymouth captives had been allowed to keep their cash and property which, as it happened, included three months’ worth of back pay, as well as enlistment and reenlistment bounties. This influx of cash into the camp – which would have been the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars in modern currency – would change life at Andersonville completely. The increase of wealth brought a sharp rise in crime, as prisoner diaries recount attacks becoming more and more violent and brazen. 

But as the attacks rose, so did the effort to combat them. Wanting to protect the cash they’d been allowed to keep, the new influx of wealthy prisoners developed a system of screaming “Plymouth!” at the first sign of an attack, bringing their comrades streaming out to their defence. Bands of informal ‘regulators’ began to form, tasked with acting as an ad-hoc police force of sorts. Sometimes these methods were enough to deter the attempted robberies and beatings, and sometimes the raiders simply bided their time and waited for a more opportune moment. With some semblance of law established, punishments started to be meted out for those caught in the act of attempting to steal from a fellow prisoner. Eugene Forbes, a prisoner at Andersonville who kept a meticulous diary during his time there, recounted several such incidents:

Thursday, May 26 - “Some of the dirtiest men were sucked and scrubbed today, and some of the “raiders” bucked and gagged, and their heads shaved”

Friday, May 27 – “A “raider” was caught last night, and kept prisoner until daylight, when he was bucked and gagged, his head shaved and afterwards marched around the camp"

Thursday, June 22 – “Our own men are worse to each other than the rebels are to us…. Heard a chase after a raider after we had turned in; don’t think they caught him”

Wednesday, June 20 – “The raiders were hunted from one end of the camp to the other… about 50 were taken outside and their issuing of rations stopped… Large quantities of clothing, blankets and currency were found in some raiders’ tents”

Thursday, June 30 – “The crusader against the raiders continues, and several were taken today”

Collins and his ilk lived as slum kings while his former brothers-in-arms were subjected to treatment of the very worst kind

At some point during these back-and-forth skirmishes, the brother of a man known as ‘Limber Jim’ was killed by the raiders, possibly by Collins himself or, at the least, at his order. The camp's commandant, a Swiss-American named Captain Henry Wirz (who would later be hanged for war crimes due to the brutal conditions at Andersonville), finally decided to intercede. Collins and five of the other ringleaders - Charles Curtis, John Sarsfield, Patrick Delaney, Teri Sullivan and Alvin T. Munn - were hunted down and arrested. The raiders’ reign of terror was finally over. 

Such was the outpouring of vengeance against the raiders that Hirz had a job on his hands to prevent them being lynched there and then. An impromptu trial followed, during which the majority of the arrested men - who numbered somewhere between fifty and 75 - were given punishments ranging from having their heads shaved to being forced to ‘run the gauntlet’ – the process of being led between two lines of their victims who, having been armed with bats and clubs, were permitted to beat them as they passed. Several were thrashed with such fury that they later died from their injuries. But for Collins and the five other gang leaders, there could only be one penalty and, as the sun set over the hastily-assembled gallows in Andersonville prison, William Collins knew his luck had finally run out. 

The surviving court transcript paints a despicable picture, describing how Collins and his ilk lived as slum kings while his former brothers-in-arms were subjected to treatment of the very worst kind. Against the already hellish landscape of Andersonville, their already slim chances of survival were reduced further by the selfish barbarism of the raiders. As the six men were led up the gallows steps, none who had suffered at their hands missed the opportunity to witness their execution.

The waters of history are muddy at the best of times, and the conditions in which Andersonville diaries were kept were far from the best of times. While details from different records often contradict one-another, all those who wrote about what happened at the execution of William Collins agree with what occurred next. “The six prisoners seemed stunned,” writes historian Gary Morgan. “Several witnesses would later write that they had the impression that the six had not actually believed that they were about to die until that moment.” But their arrest, trial and sentence was no elaborate ploy to bring them into line. One of the six attempted to flee through the prisoners’ latrine just as he came to the gallows steps, but was quickly brought to heel. Cloth meal sacks were placed over the condemned men’s heads and nooses fixed around their throats. At the signal given by their executioner, the prop holding up the platform on which they stood was knocked away, plummeting the six men into the abyss. 

Spluttering and coughing, a bemused William Collins opened his eyes to see a crowd of faces staring down at him. Was this the afterlife? It looked just as grim and dismal as the prison camp in which he’d just shuffled off his mortal coil. Looking around as he slowly came to his senses, he saw the dangling corpses of his five former associates swinging behind him. This was no paradise - his rope had just snapped, sending him crashing to the mud and knocking him unconscious. Surely this was a sign from God, and the Almighty had seen fit to spare him punishment for his wicked crimes? At least this was the claim he made to the unsatisfied mob, as he piteously pleaded for his life. But his pleas fell on deaf ears as ‘Limber Jim’, the man whose brother Collins had reportedly murdered, lifted the large-framed man over his shoulder “as if he was a baby” and carried him back onto the scaffold to be hanged for a second time. This time, the rope held just fine. 

Collins and the five other raid leaders were not permitted to be buried with the other fallen prisoners, and their names were not counted amongst the honoured dead – a sentiment that continues to this day. When the thousands of graves at Andersonville National Cemetery are decorated with American flags each Memorial Day, the six graves of Collins and the other leaders sit to the side, yards away from the rest, unflagged, unhonoured and forgotten. 

The American Civil War was a conflict that made gods and monsters of mortal men, deifying the likes of Lincoln and, despite being on the losing side, Robert E. Lee, while men like Collins were ignominiously lambasted as being felons of the very worst kind. This feature is often used to celebrate the men and women from Nottingham who made a positive impact on the past. The inventors, soldiers, politicians and philanthropists that, having once walked the same streets we walk every day, went on to witness and shape some of the biggest turning points in world history for the better. But it’s equally important to remember the villains Nottingham has produced and, in one of the darkest stories in an already cruel chapter of world history, there were few more villainous than William Collins. 

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