Robert M. Collins was born January 26, 1825, in New York State.
Robert left New York sometime around 1844, and moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he began work as a printer, working briefly for the Grand Rapids Enquirer. Apparently at one time he was a partner in the newspaper as well. He subsequently engaged in the steamboat business, working as captain of the steamer Olive Branch on the Grand River working from Grand Rapids downstream to where the river empties into Lake Michigan at Grand Haven. For a short while in 1852 commanded the steamer Empire below the rapids. In 1849 Robert joined the Alert Fire Company No. 1 in Grand Rapids. (Another member of the Alert Fire Company, Wright Coffinberry would eventually serve as Captain of Grand Rapids' first local militia company, the Valley City Guard, a company in which Robert, too, would serve.)
In 1850 Robert was living with Alfred X. Cary, a hotel-keeper in Grand Rapids, and by 1859 he had entered into the flour merchandising business with Cary. Alfred Cary was the father of Charles Cary, who would enlist in Company A.
Robert married Alfred Cary’s s daughter Elizabeth (b. 1836), probably in 1859 and presumably in Grand Rapids, and they had at least one child, Alfred (1860-1931).
Like his future father-in-law, Robert became active in the growing local militia movement and in June of 1856 he replaced Ezra Nelson as Second Lieutenant of the “Valley City Light Guards.” (At the same time Captain Wright Coffinberry resigned from command of the VCG and was replaced by Lieutenant Dan McConnell, a veteran of the war with Mexico. McConnell would serve as the first commanding officer of the Third Michigan Infantry.)
In 1859-60 Robert was reported working with A. X. Cary & Co., and boarding with the Cary family on the north side of Park between Bostwick and Ransom Streets. By 1860 Robert and Elizabeth were still residing with the Cary family in Grand Rapids’ Third Ward.
Robert was 36 years old when he originally enrolled in Company K in April of 1861, when the Third Michigan was first organized in Grand Rapids in response to Lincoln's call for troops, but was soon reassigned to the Field & Staff as Regimental Quartermaster.
Organizing a regiment almost from scratch and getting it prepared to enter federal service was a demanding task. On April 19, 1861, he wrote to Michigan Adjutant General John Robertson in Detroit informing the General that his superior, Colonel Daniel McConnell of the Second Regiment (soon to be renumbered the Third) then forming at Cantonment Anderson in Grand Rapids, instructed him “to inquire of you if we can have the privilege of getting up the uniforms for the 2d Regiment in this city; also what provisions are made for paying for the same; also what amount of clothing will be allowed to each man; also if we can get the quota of arms to equip the bal[ance] of the Regiment forward here. I am informed that this Regiment will be mustered into service as soon as ready which we hope to do in 30 days. By answering the above questions as soon as convenient you will confer a favor on the 2d Regiment.”
Some men in the Regiment had little respect for the Quartermaster, however. On July 12, 1861, just a week before the first major test of the Third Michigan in battle at First Bull Run, George Lemon of Company A, wrote home to his parents to describe camp life in the army. After discussing the various aspects of routine drill and the like, he turned his attention to the food, and to the Quartermaster responsible for their rations. “We have tea for supper with bread and meat. We have coffee for dinner and breakfast. We have rice or bean soup for dinner and pork or beef boiled. Our rations are small we have a pint of coffee with a third of a loaf of bread and a little piece of meat. You may think [it is] enough but our coffee is very weak and we get tired of one thing all the time. The boys of Co. A have got up a petition for to have our quartermaster removed and one put in that will give us something to eat but I don't think we can do it unless our officers have a hand with us.”
Robert remained with the Third Michigan Field and Staff through 1861 and on into the summer of 1862. By August of 1862, however, he had been detached from the Third Michigan and was serving as Acting Quartermaster for the Third Brigade, First Division, Third Corps. The following month he was on a leave of absence in Grand Rapids. He eventually returned to Virginia and by December he was on detached service as Acting Third Brigade Commissary from December 26, 1862, through August of 1863. Curiously, however, he was with the Regiment or at least a portion of it, on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. According to Dan Crotty of Company F, writing some years after the war, Collins had assisted several other men of the Third Michigan in taking confederate General Kemper off the field following the failure of “Pickett’s Charge” on July 3. (The Third had been engaged in the Peach Orchard the previous day.)
Robert was absent sick from September 10 until he was discharged on November 20 to accept promotion in the regular army as Captain and Commissary of Subsistence in the Department of the Cumberland. On November 28, 1863 he was promoted to Captain and Commissary of Subsistence in the Department of the Cumberland, and in early December he returned home on a furlough to Grand Rapids. He returned to duty and came home again in late June of 1864, and was mustered out of service on June 17, 1865, and was home in Grand Rapids by the second week of July.
After the war Robert resumed his various business enterprises in Grand Rapids. By 1867-68 he was back working with his father-in-law A. X. Cary and living on the west side of Ransom between Park and Fountain Streets. In 1868-69 the firm was renamed Cary, Moon & Collins, and was located at the Valley City Mills, at the corner of Bridge and Mill Streets. He may have been ill for a short time in early spring of 1870. That same year he was working as a flour manufacturer (with $20,000 worth of real estate and another $20,000 worth of personal property) and living with his wife and two children in Grand Rapids’ Third Ward.
His health aside, Collins’ business endeavors proved quite successful, and he was still living on the west side of Ransom Street on February 16, 1871, when the Grand Rapids Eagle reported that he possessed $29,000 in real estate and another $20,000 in personal property, an enormous sum in those days. He was a member of the Old Third Michigan Infantry Association and the Old Settlers’ Association.
Robert died of an ulceration of the stomach at 11:00 p.m. on Wednesday, April 18, 1872, at his home on Ransom Street in Grand Rapids. The funeral service was held at his home at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. “Mr. Collins,” wrote the Grand Rapids Democrat on April 20, “has been long and favorably known to all our citizens, and his death has made a gap in the ranks of the old settlers that cannot be filled. All who knew him respected and trusted him. Naturally of a frank, generous disposition, withal of a firm, compact nature, with deep and strong convictions, true and unwavering as a law, he was always a fast friend, a reliable business man and a trustworthy citizen. We knew him intimately and loved him as a brother.”
The high esteem [wrote the Eagle on April 22] and regard of the people of Grand Rapids for the late Capt. Robert M. Collins, was shown by their general participation in the last solemn honors over his remains yesterday. Although the day was very unpleasant, as a cold rain and snow was prevailing at the time of the funeral rites, one of the largest concourses of citizens, members of the F. & A. M. and many of his comrades in the late war, ever seen in this city, followed his remains to their resting place. The funeral was held at his late residence at half past 2 o'clock. After it De Molai Commandery of Knights Templar, of which he was an honored member, the 3 lodges, Grand River, Valley City and Humboldt of F. & A.M., the resident members of the Old Third Mich Inf. with many other members of other Regiments, the Valley City Band and a large number of citizens, formed in procession and proceeded to Fulton st. cem., where he was buried with a Knight Templar's honors by the Commandery. Eulogies are unnecessary. Those who knew him, deeply feel their loss, and words cannot express their grief. They will ever treasure his memory. Such will heartily endorse and mentally add much to the following resolutions which were adopted at a meeting of the Old Third Regt. of Mich. vol. inf., held at the County Treasurer's office on the 21st: “Whereas, it has pleased almighty God to remove from this to a better land our former comrade and fellow soldier, Capt. Robert M. Collins, “Resolved, that while we bow in submission to his will and deplore the loss of one who has shared with us the dangers and privations, the hopes and fears, the dark days and crowning victories of our army life, we will ever cherish the remembrance of his manly virtues and soldierly qualities evinced by a steady devotion to principle, a warm-hearted friendship and Christian patriotism, his coolness and bravery on the field of battle, his sympathy with the sick, the wounded and the dying, and his self-denying efforts to promote the comfort and mitigate the sufferings of his comrades. “That to the bereaved family and relatives of the deceased, and to the honored fraternity of which he was a member, we tender our heartfelt sympathy and condolence. “That a copy of these resolutions be sent to the family of the deceased; that they be entered upon the records of the Association, and published in the several papers of this city.”
Robert was buried in Fulton cemetery, Grand Rapids: section 7 lot no. 10, on the same lot with his brother-in-law Charles Cary who died during the war.
In 1908 his widow applied for and received a pension (no. 684736).
Robert M. Collins was born January 26, 1825, in New York State.