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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

Crusty Ben Colvin, One Part Character, Another Part Union Spy and Scout

Updated: Mar 6, 2022

by Gordon Thorsby


He was described as old irreconcilable, a crank of the crankiest kind, a blackguard, and a murderer but he was much more complex than the descriptions provide.


It is difficult to understand much of the lives of many spies and scouts during the Civil War except for the famous few. It was because of the role of serving in the shadows and often because of some deeds they performed. In the case of Ben Colvin, he was one of the rougher men of the trade. If someone were to know the Ben Colvin, one would say, “of course, his being a spy and scout was only natural.” Colvin was a tough in the western theater where toughs were required, and a rascal in peace.

Benjamin F. Colvin was born on August 3, 1827 in Cato, New York. His father had married three times and Ben had ten half siblings. He was the only child of wife #3 when his father died almost one year to the day after first birthday. Troubles immediately began. His mother was unable to care for him in the circumstances so the courts bound him out at seven in an unpaid apprenticeship until 18. He either was sold from there or he ran away at 14, and was documented at work digging the Erie canal for $6 a month. He was also teaching himself to read and write because he hated being poor and was determined to rid himself of the condition.


In 1849, he was documented in Salt Lake City. He had worked his way back and forth on the Oregon Trail in a wagon train capacity as a guide assistant and/or hunter. That part of the country was young and Ben became adapted to the rough environment. He was also seeking to improve his condition. He married in 1850, did some farming and working on the railroad in Ohio and in 1853, he had a cabin in the wilderness of Michigan fifteen miles from the nearest neighbor. The settlement of Chesaning formed by 1854 and was made up of about 100 settlers from New York and Canada and about 100 Anishinaabe Indians. By the outbreak of the war he had separated from his first wife and taken son Charles, now eleven against his will to Kentucky.


Ben seated at left, Charles standing.


Ben’s first involvement in the war in 1862 was as a sutler for the Union army mostly in the Mississippi region. His work expanded when he took on procuring supplies for the army. One mission was obtaining a contract for army mules out of St. Louis. His work complete, he expanded into spying with Charles assisting in performing tasks of identifying bridges and fords, troop concentrations, and bearing dispatches. Important in performing duties was courage, daring, knowing the people and the country and together they worked Missouri, Arkansas and the Northern Louisiana.


Dates are unverified but in the middle of 1863, Ben and Charles ran into Confederate Guerillas during a scouting mission. Attempting to elude their pursuers, young Charles was captured. Fearing what were often done with spies, Charles now 14, attempted to escape, was shot and killed. Within a few brief weeks of Charles death, Ben enlisted July 7, 1863 at Princeton, KY with the 48th Kentucky Infantry and was almost immediately detached performing scouting work for the army. Sometimes in uniform and sometimes plain clothes., he was listed as a scout and as a U.S. detective. In 1864, Ben was the guide for Maj Gen. Frederick Steele and a force of 7,000 headed south to join Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks. The Camden Expedition failed to unite with Banks and the red River Expedition was a disaster.


scouts and spies

HDQRS. MILITARY DIVISION OF THE MISSISSIPPI, Nashville, April 3, 1864.

Major General F. STEELE, Louisiana:

DEAR GENERAL: …I am clear of opinion that all Arkansas can be better defended in a military sense on the line of Red River than any other, and therefore I approve highly the joint movement on Shreveport. General Banks has 17,000 troops engaged in that plan, and I understand you have 7,000…

With great respect,

W. T. SHERMAN,

General, Commanding.


HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF ARKANSAS, & Camp C., Little Rock, April 3, 1864.

Major General F. STEELE, Commanding Department of Arkansas:

GENERAL: Supposing that my efforts to communicate with you since the 27th ultimo have failed, and having received nothing from you since the escort of Lieutenant Litherland left you, on consultation with General Kimball I send Mr. Colvin, whom Captain Carr recommends as a reliable scout and one who will go through to you.

The following dispatch was received at 12 m. To-day:

W. T. Sherman


WASHINGTON, April 1, 1864-11 a. m.

Major-General STEELE:

Lieutenant General U. S. Grant directs me to telegraph to you that when your forces reach Red River you will, in conjunction with the naval forces, occupy and hold the line of that river, so as to cover the Indian Territory, Arkansas, and Northern Louisiana.

H. W. HALLECK,

Chief of Staff.


With the completion of the assignment, Ben returned to the 48th Kentucky. The regiment remained on railroad guard duty until the conclusion of Hood’s Tennessee Campaign and was mustered out 12/19/1864.


Ben continued spying until the end of the war and he popped up in Arkansas having been caught with another man’s wife. Ben, always willing to entice a fight or accept one, did so in a duel and killed the husband. Ben, 38, moved back to Brant in May, 1865, and with the younger, now widowed Louisa at and three months pregnant. Their marriage was on May 22, and they moved across the road from ex-wife #1. Not content with number two, Ben cheated again and married wife #3 in 1876, a 30 year old from County Mayo, Ireland.




He was elected to the State legislature from the 3rd District in 1896 and 1898 and in short order was investigated for extorting veteran funds and almost impeached for foul language on the floor. Ben probably got a laugh regarding the latter incident. He managed to anger friends and foe on the senate floor and politics was never dull when Ben Colvin was around. One of last well known accomplishments was the securing the parole for Charles T. Wright, a man rightly convicted of murder. At 4 in the morning he breathed his last on 1/23/1901 at 74, with his third wife, (Adella), next to him. He is buried next to Adella in St. Charles, MI.


Sources:

Thanks for the assistance, Jeff Coke contributor and descendant.


Susannah J. Ural 7/2/2019 History.net/the-war-in-their-words-memoirs-of-a-scout-who-spied-for-sherman/


Espionage in the Civil War, by Mark C. Hageman

Records of the Provost Marshal General’s Bureau (Civil War), RG 110; National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC.


St Charles Independent, 1899.

Lexus Nexis 2009 , Kristen Taynor.

Official Records of the Rebellion, Vol. LXVI.

Cheboygan, Democrat Sept 30, 1886

Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol 38, No. 4, July 1974.

Hamilton B. Bee and the Red River Campaign of 1864. By Ferdericke Meiners

Espionage, by Burrus M. Carnahan, https://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/espionage.html






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