This is a unique little Colt Pocket Percussion Revolver. It was made right at the outbreak of the Civil War. The serial number is in the 178,000 range which puts it right there in one of the most tumultuous moments in American history...between late 1860 - April 1861. The vast majority of Colt revolvers produced during this time-frame were purchased by men heading off to war, with many guns made prior to April 1861 purchased by the South. What makes this one unique is that it bears the names of two soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Otherwise, it's a standard model with 4" octagon barrel, .31 caliber with 5-shot cylinder. 100% all matching numbers throughout including the barrel wedge and walnut grips. It also has a desirable Hartford marked barrel address. As the winds of war began to stir in the months leading up to the Civil War...Sam Colt was shipping many of his guns to the South. Around this time Colt is believed to have changed the Company address on his guns from "New York City" where its sales office was headquartered...to the factory address in Hartford, CT in an effort to appease his Southern pro-slavery customers. The reason, as we understand it, was that many Southerners viewed NYC as the epicenter to the abolitionist Movement. After Lincoln's election in November 1860, Southern purchases seem to have intensified right up to the outbreak of the war in April the following spring. However, once the war began and the South officially became the enemy, Colt quickly changed his barrel addresses back to New York City. Love or hate him, Colt certainly understood the sentiments of his customers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line and he worked hard to fulfill their needs.
One of the greatest challenges that a manufacturing company can face is finding a way to meet demand when it exceeds your production capacity. Often the solution is expansion, but as new equipment and employees are rushed into service to help meet those demands, skill levels become diluted and the quality of the product is usually what suffers the most. Back in 1860-61, Colt Mfg was in a similar situation and having difficulty keeping up. The following is an excerpt from the 1957 printing of William Edward's book, The Story of Colt's Revolver, concerning the problems Colt and its customers were encountering at the outbreak of the Civil War in the spring of 1861. Note: Pay particular attention to the serial numbers mentioned here and how close they are in proximity to this particular Colt in the 178,000 range. "The work speedup at the factory was beginning to tell, and sloppy inspection was inevitable. From Frog Level, South Carolina, came the plaintive croak of Mr. D. Mower, on April 4, 1861, writing a request for a new nipple for his 5-inch .31 caliber Pocket Pistol, #177621, as it had one tube too short to bust a cap. It is not possible that this gun was fired a full round in inspection...On another similar gun, #174558, owned by John Mangen or Morgan of "Janesville," a nipple was too long and had broken." These are clearly references to Model 1849 Pocket Revolvers as Colt had not produced any other models to reach that serial range in 1861. In the years prior to the Civil War, Colt produced about 10,000 Model 1849 pocket revolvers per year. When tensions started to flare, we find Colt production for the '49 pocket increased to 24,000 units in 1860 and 13,000 for 1861. While we'd expect to see production go up in 1861, it appears that Colt's attention was turned towards production of the larger Models 1851 Navy and 1860 Army revolvers. The times also took a toll on Sam Colt as it was not long afterwards that he fell ill and passed away...many saying he over-worked himself following the loss of his ten month old daughter the previous year.
To get a better idea of when and where this revolver shipped, we placed a call to the Colt Archives in Hartford, CT. Unfortunately, we learned that records do not exist for this particular serial number, which did not come as a surprise as production info is rather sketchy through much of Model 1849 production.
That leaves us with the names that are on this gun. The first and most prominent name is clearly stamped in the right side of the grip "HS Nourse"...as well as the initial "HSN" on the bottom portion of the gripstrap...which appears to be from the same stamp. There were three soldiers who fought in the Civil War with a first name starting with "H", the middle name with "S", and surname recorded as "Nourse."
One was Herbert S. Nourse and/or "Nurse" who was a Fifer in 100 day unit from Wisconsin in 1864. Then there was a Henry S. Nourse who was a private of the 72nd Indiana...This regiment formed in the late summer of 1862. The third and most likely candidate/former owner of the this Colt was Captain Henry Stedman Nourse of the 55th Illinois Infantry. Muster roles also specifically mention him as "H.S. Nourse" which is exactly how the name is stamped on the grips. The records for the other two soldiers do not list their names by "H.S. Nourse". Furthermore, being an officer, Nourse would have seemed the more ideal to have had access or owned a set of stamps to place his name on his personal property. After all, officers traveled with foot lockers full of personal items that were often stamped or stenciled with their names. In contrast, enlisted men had to carry their few meager possessions on their backs. They rarely had the means to purchase personal stamps nor did they (unlike officers) possess enough access baggage requiring ID's to warrant such a possession. That said, we felt the most likely owner of this Colt was Henry Stedman Nourse of the 55th IL.
Henry Stedman Nourse had a very colorful life with an amazing range of professions. We have copies of his muster roles coming soon but from what is published about him on the net, he appears to have fit the persona of a true 19th century renaissance man! Born in 1831 in Lancaster, Massachusetts, he graduated from Harvard in 1853. From there, he taught ancient languages at Phillips Exeter Academy for 2 years before deciding to study civil engineering. When the Civil War began in April 1861, he left Massachusetts for Illinois where he enlisted as a private in the 55th Illinois in October 1861 and finished the war as captain. The 55th was under the command of General Tecumseh Sherman for nearly the entire war. During this time, it fought in 40 battles and skirmishes including Shiloh, siege of Corinth, Vicksburg, Champions Hill, Chattanooga, the Georgia Campaign, capture of Atlanta, March to the Sea and the Carolinas campaign. During this time, Nourse was promoted through the ranks and served in various roles from drillmaster, adjutant, and the Commissary of Musters for the 17th Corps. He was wounded at Shiloh but finished the War in Goldsborough, NC in 1865 with the surrender of the last Confederate Army under Joseph Johnston. Following the war, Nourse became the superintendent of the Bessemer Steel Company in Steelton, PA from 1866-1874. Suffering from failing health, he was forced to retire. Following a trip to Europe, his health regained, he began new careers in writing, historical preservation, and Mass. state politics. Until his death in 1903, Nourse wrote no fewer than eight books, many pertaining to his early Puritan ancestry and military history in and around Lancaster, Mass. His roots seem to go way back to some of the first European colonists to reach the New World. It appears that one of his distant grandmothers was branded a witch and executed in Salem, MA during the 1690's. Nourse also co-authored the history of the 55th Regiment which was published in 1887. He also served as a representative for his district in the state legislature and as a state senator. In addition to various committees he served in locally, his profuse knowledge of Massachusetts history earned him the title "Historian of the Nashua Valley".
The other name on this gun is located on the back strap. The name was scratched in with a sharp utensil of some sort and by all appearances, looks like the name "Joseph Garch". According to the research we have coming, there was a Joseph Garch who served in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry...who is listed as a private in Company F. He's also listed with the last name of Gasch and Gusch. The 2nd Ohio Cavalry formed around Aug-October 1861 in Cleveland, Ohio. Early in the war, they initially fought in campaigns along the Mississippi river as did Nourse's 55th IL infantry...before moving to the Eastern theatre. However, before that happened, Garch suffered a hernia injury and was discharged from service around February 1862 while the unit was stationed back in Ohio during winter quarters.
While these two men (Nourse and Garch) were never far apart...we are still not sure how they would have met...or if there were intermediate owners of this pistol. Could it have been captured from a Confederate soldier by Nourse or Garch/Gasch? Who had it first....or were they others before, after, or in between these two soldiers who carried this Colt? A Colt archive letter could have possibly shed some light on at least where it shipped but as we noted earlier, but unfortunately, the records for 1849 models are incomplete. Still, there are avenues that can be pursued and one possibility would be to see if Nourse kept a diary. Since he wrote several chapters in the history of the 55th IL, it seems he must have had at least some type of journal to draw from. Given his strong ties to Harvard University and Massachusetts state libraries (yes, he wrote a book about public libraries), these would be on the top of my list of places to search. Unfortunately, time doesn't permit so hopefully the new owner of this wonderful gun will be able to pick up from where we left off.
Overall Condition Grades to NRA Antique Fine. The frame still retains 60% original mottled case colors that are mixing/swirling through areas of gray and light brown patina. The colors are quite vibrant with nice blues and burgundy colored hues. The loading lever shows 25% bright case colors while the barrel is mostly gray with around 15-20% original blue that's streaked across the flats and quite strong in more protected areas. The brass trigger guard and backstrap have 90%+ original silver with the yellow brass showing through mostly along the sharper edges...quite impressive for an 1861 era Colt. Trigger has 50-60% original nitre blue remaining. Very Good screws throughout...with many showing significant portions of their original fire blue. Hartford barrel address is crisp and clear. "Colt's Patent" marking is located on left side of frame. The cylinder retains 90% strong cylinder scene depicting stagecoach robbery scene...it would be 100% except for a small patch of light pitting just below the serial number. Even with the pitting, the scene is so strong that it's visible within this spot. Safety pins on back of the cylinder are no longer round but more of a pinched shape. Nonetheless, all five are present and standing all or nearly all of their original full height. Grips are in excellent condition with 95% original varnish...with the aforementioned "HS Nourse" stamped on the right panel. No chips, cracks, or repairs. Wood-to-metal fit is perfect. Nice working action with cylinder indexing perfectly and locks up tight. The barrel-to-frame fit is also good and tight with the wedge still performing its role as there is no wiggle or play in the barrel juncture. A very nice little Colt that is well-above-average for a Civil War used weapon.
All in all, just a nice little 1849 pocket revolver that has seen modest wear. The circa-April 1861 manufacture date, Hartford barrel address, and ID to two soldiers...Colts just don't get much better than this.