Sam Colt's Dress Blues, A New Find, Sheds Light On Brief Chapter In Civil War
In May 1861, Samuel Colt was Hartford's richest, most famous citizen.

A charismatic, driven entrepreneur, Colt possessed inventive genius, boundless imagination and unsurpassed marketing prowess. He had built an internationally renowned business centered in a state-of-the art armory in Hartford's South Meadows that produced the revolving handguns bearing his name.

Instruments of "moral reform,'' Colt once sardonically called his artful, deadly devices. How they were used, and by whom, did not trouble him much.

His British customers accused him of selling guns to their Russian adversaries during the Crimean War. And his agents allegedly negotiated contracts with extremists on both sides in pre-Civil War fighting over slavery in Kansas, the disputes that came to be known as "Bleeding Kansas."

It was no secret that some of his best customers and closest friends were Southerners, and Republican-leaning newspapers charged Colt with treason for continuing his business dealings with Southern agents through the early weeks of 1861.

Fort Sumter changed that.

"Once the war began, he may have been outraged by Fort Sumter and by a few other things," said Bill Hosley, a former curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and author of "Colt: The Making of an American Legend. "He quickly got with the program.''

A Democrat, Colt had supported the presidential bid of his friend, Stephen Douglas, and while he personally opposed slavery, he was no friend of radical abolition.

But duty called, and after President Lincoln asked for volunteers to put down the rebellion, Colt contacted Connecticut's Republican Gov. William A. Buckingham with an offer to raise, train and equip a full regiment, each man armed with one of Colt's patented revolving rifles.

Colt, then 46, insisted upon leading the regiment himself, having found the pomp and ceremony of weekend military life appealing. He had been appointed a lieutenant colonel in the state militia in 1851 and later established the well-provisioned Colt Armory Guard. Along with other leading Hartford Democrats, he participated in the drills of the Putnam Phalanx, a colonial militia group.

Despite their political differences, Buckingham was in no position to reject Colt's offer of assistance. On May 10, 1861, enlistment began for the First Regiment of Colt's Revolving Rifles of Connecticut. Colt received his regimental commission on May 16 and two days later, companies of the now fully formed regiment bivouacked on the Colt Armory grounds.

It was to be the high-water mark of Colt's military career. A month later, his commission was revoked, the regiment disbanded and the men reassigned.

But the uniform he left behind has a fascinating story to tell.

Col. Colt's Dress Blues

"Dean you're not going to believe what I've discovered,'' Peter Tillou, a Litchfield art and antiques dealer, said as he approached his friend Dean Nelson, who was checking tickets at an antique gun show at the Hartford Expo in October 2008

Nelson, director of the Connecticut State Library's Museum of Connecticut History, is in charge of its extensive collection of Colt firearms and had worked with Tillou before, notably in 1995 when he acquired the gilded Rampant Colt statute that once topped the blue onion dome of the Colt armory.

Tillou knew Nelson's interest would be piqued by anything connected with the Colt name, and he'd recently stumbled upon a treasure trove.

At an awards dinner at his alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan University, Tillou was approached by a woman he had known slightly during his student days. She asked if he was still involved in collecting, and after he said he was, she dropped a bombshell: "You probably didn't know this, but I'm a direct descendant of Colt and I have tons of Colt material,'' Tillou said, recalling their conversation.

The woman, whom Tillou identified only as Jane at the family's request, and her two sisters lived outside of Connecticut but kept a lakeside summer cabin in Litchfield County. For 40 years, several trunks of Colt family material had sat undisturbed in the cabin's attic.