INSCRIBED LOW-NUMBER FLUTED COLT ARMY OF CONFEDERATE LT. JOHN ALLAN, ADJUTANT 6th VIRGINIA CAVALRY, KILLED IN ACTION AT GETTYSBURG

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Until recently the battle at Fairfield was numbered among the “forgotten” cavalry engagements of Gettysburg, overshadowed by the clash on July 3 two miles east of the town behind the Union center. At the same time, however, an equally vicious cavalry engagement took place about eight miles west of the town, near Fairfield, behind the Confederate right. This inscribed pistol was carried Adjutant John Allan of the 6th Virginia Cavalry, killed in action in a fight that virtually annihilated the 6th US Cavalry.

As a trooper in the Virginia “Governor’s Mounted Guard,” Allan had likely been given the pistol in April 1861. Serial numbered 190, this classic, very early, fluted Colt 1860 Army is recorded as among five hundred pistols shipped by Colt on April 15, 1861, to the Richmond and Lynchburg firm of Williams, Peters & Co. (Sometimes cited as Peters, Williams & Co, and sometimes mistakenly as “Peter Williams & Co.”) Whether that firm intended to sell them individually or was acting as agent for another entity is unclear, but Governor Letcher of Virginia seized the shipment for the state, compensating the firm for the cost. Another pistol from the shipment, was presented “by the state of Virginia,” to one of the principals of the firm, D.T. Williams, on April 22, the same day the state legislature confirmed the legality of the seizure and authorized payment. (The presentation likely took some of the sting out of the process, as did the fact that the firm had not actually paid for the guns, as far as can be ascertained.)

Letcher seems to have used the opportunity as well to distribute some of the pistols to the members of his “Governor’s Mounted Guard,” who were taken into state service on April 17 and officially mustered in on May 8, numbering 65 men. A pistol was recorded in the Museum of the Confederacy in 1898 as belonging to another member of the guard and was said to have been given to him, “by the state of Virginia,” the same wording used in the presentation to Williams. Allan’s presence in the unit is confirmed by mention of him as a trooper in reference to the Guard in a May 1861 issue of the Richmond Daily Dispatch. Allan’s pistol does not bear a presentation inscription, but his own name is very nicely inscribed in similar period script on the bottom of the buttstrap: “John Allan.”

The Governor’s Mounted Guard seems to have been accepted into state service on April 17, 1861, and Williams was presented his pistol on April 22, it is likely the guard received theirs sometime around that date. They initially served as an independent company, but by June were combined with another cavalry troop as a battalion for scouting duty under Maj. Julian Harrison, operating with General Ewell at First Manassas. In September the troop was re-designated Co. I of the 4th Va. Cavalry, but by that time Allan was on detached duty and awaiting a commission, which he received in October as Adjutant of the 6th Virginia cavalry.

As Adjutant, Allan would have constantly been at the side of the regiment’s commander or carrying out his orders. The outfit remained under Ewell until June 1862, when they were assigned to Ashby’s old brigade of cavalry, then under Robertson and soon after under William E. “Grumble” Jones. The regiment was extremely active and in scores of small fights as well as larger engagements. CWdata lists some 173 instances during Allan’s time with the regiment when they suffered casualties of some sort. Allan’s 1863 obituary specifically mentions that he lead charges of the regiment at Annandale, Cedar Run, and Catlett’s Station, and his participation in Stuart’s ride around McClellan, and fights at Fairmount, Brandy Station, Kelly’s Ford, and Snicker’s Gap.

At Gettysburg, the regiment, with two others of the brigade, along with its battery of horse artillery, was sent to Fairfield, behind the Confederate right, to keep open one of the routes to the South Mountain passes. There they were attacked by the 6th US Cavalry, sent by Wesley Merritt to capture a reported Confederate wagon train. The Federal troopers charged what they thought was merely a guard for the train and succeeded in driving back the 7th Virginia cavalry, but soon realized they had bitten off more than they could chew and fell back to make a stand along a ridge. Disappointed with the performance of the 7th Virginia, Jones ordered the 6th Virginia to lead the way as his horse artillery opened up. Other elements joined the charge, which became a hand-to-hand saber duel amid cannon and gun fire as the two forces collided, resulting in the rout and virtual annihilation of the 6th US, who lost more than half the men they took into action.

Allan’s obituary in the Richmond Whig on July 31 indicated that the 6th Virginia had “faltered,” but had been rallied by Allan, “His regiment on that occasion having faltered, he exerted himself to rally it, succeeded in doing so, and the charge then made by it is said to have been one of the most brilliant and successful of the war. When he received his death wound he was some thirty or forty yards in advance of the regiment. The ball entered a little below the left eye, passed through the brain, and came out at the back of the head. Two devoted friends place his body in an ambulance and sent it to the rear. They afterward buried it, wrapped in a blanket, on the margin of the battlefield.” In fact, the “faltering” may have referred to the initial performance of the 7th Virginia, which enraged Jones and caused him to order the 6th into action. Private John N. Opie of the 6th Va. added a detail apparently unknown to the writer of the obituary.  Allan had had a premonition of his death the night before the battle and wrote a note promising a reward of $500 to anyone delivering his body to family in Baltimore. Opie and another soldier, “delivered his body, together with the note, to a citizen, and afterwards learned that he had carried out the request and received the money.”

The story is apparently true. Allan had married Henrietta Hoffman of Baltimore in 1860. One version specifies his note mentioned his “father,” but was thus likely his father-in-law, who may have had him interred there until he could be moved again. He is recorded as having been buried in Richmond’s Shockoe Hill Cemetery April 15, 1866. He had left behind his wife and two daughters.

Even without the history this would be a rare and desirable pistol. It rates very good for condition. All serial numbers match, even the wedge: #190. The barrel is the correct 7-½ inches for this early version of the army. The barrel address is the correct one-line Hartford address and the frame is correct four-screw style with cut-outs for a shoulder stock. The cylinder is the early fluted style, that was part of Colt’s effort to create a lighter .44 caliber revolver, but was soon replaced by the more robust smooth cylinder rebated at the rear.

The barrel is a smooth, even plum brown with a crisp barrel address. The loading assembly matches in color but also shows some bluish case on the rammer near the cylinder. The fluted cylinder is smooth and brown as well, but like the barrel shows a crisp patent stamping and also shows no battering of the nipples. The action of the pistol is good. The frame is smooth metal as well and shows the mottled gray and faded blue of case color. The brass shows strong remnants of silver wash, perhaps 15-20%, and the remainder has an undisturbed mellow age patina. The iron backstrap shows some crustiness. The silver is in place at the top around the hammer and upper strap, about an inch, but shows freckling and the remainder of the iron is slightly crusty, bearing remnants of the silver. The bottom of the butt strap shows more silver, some muted and mixed with tarnished or flaked spots, but the serial number is crisp and the engraved name “John Allan” is sharp and unmistakable. The grips are good, but dark and show some slight battering on the bottom, slight rounding at the heel, and some narrow age gaps along the backstrap, none of which is unexpected on a pistol actually used in the field.

This is a seldom-offered chance at an identified and inscribed Confederate cavalry officer’s revolver, and one carried by an officer slain in the war’s most famous campaign. [sr]

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