Holt Collier – Confederate Soldier (Part 3) by Bill Vallante
The story of Holt Collier can be found in the pages of many Black American History books. The focus, most times however, will be on his career as a prolific hunter and guide, which occurred long after the conclusion of the WBTS and Reconstruction.
What is not usually dwelt on is the fact that he was, despite being a slave, a bonafide, gun-totin’, mustered-in Confederate soldier. His skills as a marksman impressed many who saw him, including, apparently, General Forrest, and I cannot help wonder if Daniel Woodrel and Ang Lee were thinking of him when they created the character “Holt” in the movie “Ride With the Devil”?
The following is one of several biographical accounts of his life in the Slave Narratives. Lengthy details about his post war career as a prolific hunter and guide have been deleted in the interests of brevity, as to publish everything that was written about him in the Slave Narratives would take up 14 type written pages! The interviewer seems to have jumped from one time period to another, making the chronology a bit confusing and frustrating. It is a fascinating story nonetheless.
Holt Collier, Mississippi (from the Slave Narratives)
Was born in Greenville in 1848, died in Greenville August 1st, 1936, and he was through almost his entire life a remarkable colored citizen of Washington county. He was an ex-slave and a Confederate soldier. He did a great deal for the uplift of his race. He achieved great distinction as a hunter of big game, killing bear all over the country, some on grounds where Greenville homes and public buildings now stand. He gained notice by being in the hunting party of President Theodore Roosevelt, when he came to Washington county in quest of this sport. Holt Collier in relating this colorful incident in his life said: "The President of the United States was anxious to see a live bear the first day of the hunt. I told him he would see that bear if I had to tie it and bring it to him." Collier made good his word. Before the day ended the President had seen the gay old bruin. Upon his return to Washington, Mr. Roosevelt sent to Holt a rifle duplicating the one he had used on the hunt, and which Holt had so admired.
Too feeble to rise unaided from his stout oak rocking chair, Holt Collier, nonegenarian, ex-slave and Washington county’s most colorful citizen, sits in his own little home on North Broadway.
For many years Holt’s erect and sturdy figure was a familiar sight on Greenville streets. A stranger would have noticed his bearing, his dark face with iron gray mustache and vandyke beard and the broad-brimmed felt hat he always wore. Now, the wide hat, similar to those worn by officers in the Confederate army, shades his failing eyes when he sits on the little porch of his home watching the passersby.
Holt Collier was born in Jefferson county in 1848; he lived there only a short while, however, because he was brought by his master, Howell Hinds, son of General Hinds, to Washington county when he was only a small boy. Holt’s master, to whom he was devoted, traveled back and forth to the old home in Jefferson county; to New Orleans, to Louisville and to Cincinnatti and Holt always accompanied him in the capacity of juvenile valet. Traveling at that time was done mostly by boat, and Holt recalls quite a number of the boats that plied the river in the halcyon days of the steamboat.
At the age of twelve, Holt was sent with his master’s sons to Bardstown, Kentucky. All the boys were expected to attend school, but Holt’s love of hunting caused him to "play hookey" while the others studied. He often hid his gun in the spring house, returned for it later and slipped away to the fields and forest to hunt instead of going to the school room. Though Mr. Hinds never succeeded in having the boy educated in books, he, however, trained Holt to be honorable, truthful and trustworthy, and this training was evident throughout his life.
Holt tells us that at the time when the Civil War began, he was living on Plum Ridge, the Hind’s plantation, south of the present city of Greenville. Mr. Howell Hinds, later Colonel Hinds and always spoken of by Holt as "The Old Colonel", and his son, Tom, were making ready to join the Confederate forces. When Holt Collier, then only fourteen years of age, learned of his master’s preparations for departing, he asked to go with them. To Holt’s great disappointment, however, his master and Tom agreed that the little colored boy was too young to enter the army. "I begged like a dog, but they stuck to it — ‘You are too young’", Holt relates.
In front of Old Greenville, seven steamboats were waiting to transport the volunteers from the surrounding country to Memphis; from there they were to be sent to training camps. During the afternoon the "Old Colonel" and Tom left for Old Greenville, prepared to join the men already gathered on the river bank. Night came; the dense forest and the cypress brakes between Plum Ridge and the little town of Greenville became v ery dark. Through this darkness, the young colored boy made his way toward the river and its flotilla of steamboats. Arriving at the village, he loitered at the store of a Jewish merchant, Mr. Rose, and at a propitious moment, he slipped aboard the "Vernon", climbing up the back of the boat to the kitchen where he hid himself. While Holt was in hiding, a man entered the kitchen and beckoning him to come near, Holt won the man’s sympathy and aid in carrying out his plan to follow his master to the army. Arrangements were made for Holt to occupy a small room adjoining the kitchen and the cook, whom Holt had seen on the "Vicksburg", proved friendly. "He hid me during the trip and told me when to get off at Memphis," Holt tells. The soldiers from the boat having gone ashore, the cook thought that the time was ripe for Holt to make his appearance. Leaving the shelter of the "Cook-house", he climbed up the high banks at the Memphis landing to find his master standing with a group of officers, among whom were General Bedford Forrest and General Breckenridge. No more was said of Holt’s youth and he went into training at Camp Boone; it was in Tennessee. He served as a soldier and did not go as a body-servant to Colonel Hinds.
After drilling for a time at Camp Boone, he was sent with his company into Kentucky. His first taste of war came in a fight at a bridge over Green River and there he met his "Old Colonel" again. During the four years conflict, he served with the Texas Cowboys, Ross’ Brigade and was under Colonel Dudley Jones at the close of the struggle. After the surrender, he returned to Washington county with his master and Tom Hinds.
About that time he began to achieve distinction as a hunter. He killed bear all over the county, some of which were killed where Greenville homes and public buildings now stand. Quail matches were the fashion then and at various times Colonel Hinds pitted his man, Holt, against such sportsmen as Major Keep of Mayersville, Mississippi, Jeff Brown and Major Lawrence of Louisville. In a noted match with Mr. Lomax Anderson of Lake Village, Arkansas, Holt won for Colonel Hinds a purse of one thousand dollars in gold.
When the Carpetbagger regime was in full swing, Holt was involved in serious trouble connected with the killing of a Yankee soldier. He was arrested on suspicion and but for the persistent efforts of Colonel W. A. Percy, would most like have paid the supreme penalty.
To this day he has never told who killed the Union soldier, but those who are informed about those troublous times, have their own opinion, which they never put into words. The trouble arose over a difficulty between the soldier and Colonel Hinds. During the dispute, the Colonel, though a much older man, knocked the youngster down several time, each time following the aggression of the younger man. Finally the thoroughly angered young man drew a knife on his unarmed opponent, but a by-stander prevented his using it. Such conduct, especially when the aggressor was a much younger man, was considered an insult and Holt regarded it as such.
Holt tells that on one occasion, during Reconstruction days, he, the only negro among 500 white men, marched up Washington Avenue under fire, as a protest against the insults to the white men and women of Greenville. Several times he was taken to court because of his participation in acts of this kind.
After the tragic death of his beloved master, Holt traveled for some time with a race-horse stable and later worked on the race-horse farm of Captain James Brown near Fort Worth, Texas. There he met Frank James brother of the celebrated Jessee James. Thence he traveled into old Mexico and later hunted "little bear" in Alaska. Seeing the world did not wean Holt from his old home in the Mississippi Delta and after a few years of wandering, he returned to Greenville.
…Since Holt’s death about ten days ago the following material has been given me by Mrs. T. A. Holcombe, who felt an interest in Holt and from time to time saw him. From her various conversations she had gathered considerable information on which she had planned to base a sketch of his life. She talked with him when he was stronger and better able to give details of his early life than when I saw him recently. Mrs. Holcombe visited him in the hospital where he spent the last week or ten days of his life, and was able at times to minister to his comfort and happiness. Having long been interested in him, he naturally told her more than he would have told in one interview, especially when one considers how feeble he was when I saw him last.
In the interview I am sending in I have incorporated some material which I remember from tales I heard him tell several years ago and prior to my undertaking the collecting of historical data. The last interview was not nearly so full as might have been desired so to make it of much interest. Therefore I had to add to it from other sources.
When I last talked with him he was very feeble and was easily overcome by emotion, especially when talking of his Old Colonel and some very lovely white lady who lived at Bardstown, Ky in whose charge he was placed when as a boy he was sent there to go to school.
Enclosed you will find account of his death as published in the local paper. The Commercial Appeal also carried a notice of his death last week which was published again in the Sunday edition.
During troublous times after Civil War, on one occasion Col. Hinds and a party of white men were riding about 12 miles north of Greenville when they realized that they had run into an ambush. Setting spur to their horses they dashed for safety. Col. Hinds horse stumbled, pitching him off. Holt riding ahead, looked back and Col. Hinds signalled him to ride on, but he wheeled and dashed back to his old master’s rescue. Col. Hinds was running with his arms elevated above his head when Holt came abreast of him and without stopping his horse, reached down and jerked Col. Hinds up onto the horse with him, thus saving his life.
During the war Holt was in the company with Mr. J. C. Burrus of Bolivar county and on one occasion the two were in a cane-brake riding toward a slough when suddenly they realized that they were surrounded by the enemy. Mr. Burrus felt that all hope of escape was gone, but Holt was more optimistic. Hastily he revealed his plan of escape and the two made a wild dash through the slough firing two pistols each and shouting with all their might the "Rebel yell". So swiftly did they pass through the line and so completely did they deceive the enemy that they made good their escape.
"I am black, but my associations with my Old Col. gave me many advantages. I was freer then than I have ever been since and I loved him better than anybody else in the world. I would have given my life for
"When my Old Col. left to join the army, he left me sitting on the fence crying and begging him to let me go with him. He said, ‘No, you might get killed. I said I’ve got as good a chance as you. He left me sitting there watching him go across the fields to Old Greenville to catch the boat. That night I ran away and went to Greenville where I saw the artillery being loaded on a boat. After dark I slipped aboard. At Memphis when we were about half unloaded I marched across the gang-plank to shore. Mr. Thomas (Hinds) saw me and turned and called, ‘Father look yonder.’ My Old Colonel looked at me and took off his hat and smoothed his hair back with his hand and said, ‘Thomas, if we both go to the devil that boy will have to go along!’ I said, ‘I got as good a chance as you.’ It seemed to me that all the soldiers in the world were there. There were General Breckenridge, old Gen. Clark from Jefferson county, Gen. Bragg, General Wirt Adams and General Bedford Forrest. We were sent to Camp Boone in Tennessee and from there to Ky.
One moon-light night we were ordered double quick to Mulger Hill, to beat Col. Rousseau of the Northern army to that place. When we reached Bowling Green my folks shot down the Union flag flying at the top of a hill and Lieut. Marschalk climbed the pole and cut down the staff. We started on, but the Unions had torn up the railroad track and we had to stop and fix it before we could go on. That is why Col. Rousseau beat us to Mulger Hill. We reached Green River Bridge and entrenched on a mountain and had a skirmish with Col. Rousseau who fell back and we returned to Bowling Green where we went into winter quarters. The weather was the coldest I ever felt.
Because of my being an expert with a gun and a horse and my knowledge of the woods, Gen. Forrest talked with Capt. Evans to whose company I had been assigned when we left Camp Boone, about my enlisting as a soldier. They asked permission of my Old Colonel and he called me to him and told me to choose for myself. I said ‘I will go with Capt. Evans’ cavalry.’ I loved horses and felt at home in the saddle. I was in Gen. Ross’ Brigade, Col. Dudley Jones Regiment and Capt. Perry Evans co. 9th Texas Regt. My Old Col. gave me a horse — one of three fine race horses he had brought from Plum Ridge. He was a beauty, iron-gray and named Medock. After leaving Bowling Green it was a long time until I saw my Old Colonel again.
In the spring the union forces drove us back to Iuka and from there to Chattanooga where we went into battle. We retreated through Tennessee into Alabama fighting every step of the way.
News that my Old Colonel had been wounded came through the lines to Mr. Thomas (Lieut. Thomas Hinds). He came to me and said, ‘Holt can you go to my father? I can’t go.’ I got a pass from Capt. Evans and left that night. Riding night and day I reached the home of a relative of the Colonel’s. I hid my horse in a cane-brake nearby and slipped up to the house after dark. Miss Eliza, the Colonel’s cousin let me in and showed me where he lay. I went in and when he saw me he waved his hand for everyone to leave the room. I went over and knelt down by his bed and put my arms around him and hugged him close. He began to cry and said, ‘Holt, I am badly hurt, but I believe I will pull through.’ I said, ‘You must; I can’t live if you die.’ After awhile the family came in and we talked until day-break. I was treated like a royal guest by Miss Eliza and the others. She made me a couch beside the Colonel’s bed and I slept there during my stay. I never left the house and the family were on guard all the time I was there. The Federals were thick as hops and I began to get uneasy. On the fourth night I told my Old Colonel good-bye.
My horse, hearing me coming, nickered which frightened me, but I reached the lines in safety. I did not see my Old Colonel again until we met on the battle-field of Shiloh. He said ‘Holt, I have worried a heap about you.’ I said, ‘Yes sir, I got as good a chance as you.’ The soldiers were falling thick and fast, but I was never hit once. General Albert Sidney Johnston, in command of the Confederate troops was riding a big white horse when a bullet struck him in the thigh, severing an artery. I was only a few yards away at the time. Six soldiers carried him to the shade of a tree where he died in a short while. We retreated to Corinth (to protect an important connection with the Trans-Mississippi Division) and Capt. Evans Company was detailed for scout duty along the Mississippi River and up near Old Greenville. We did a heap of good too; saved our folks property and ran the Unions out. During that time I did a great deal of scout duty. The whole country was a wilderness and if our boys got lost I could always find the way out. I had been raised in this part of the country and had hunted in the woods all my life.
"Well Mam, when the war was over we went to Vicksburg and were mustered out under General Kirby Smith of Texas."After I came home I had a heap of trouble. The Federals were garrisoned at Greenville (the new town of that name) and they arrested me four times. At that time the country was under military rule and I had to go to Vicksburg for trial. Col. Percy, my Old Colonel, Judge Trigg and Mr. William L.Nugent stood by me through thick and thin. I will never forget them, my old white friends – they are all gone now. Col. Percy and Col. Hinds went with me to Vicksburg for the trial. Col. Percy told them if they put me in jail he wanted a cot put beside mine for he was going to jail with me.
Holt Collier from SOURCE MATERIAL FOR MISSISSIPPI HISTORY, Washington County
Copyright © 2003-2010, GeorgiaHeritageCouncil.org