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picture of Corporal Charles Hopkins  

The Biography of

Corporal Charles Hopkins
"He Never Lost Hope or His Sense of Duty"


Charles Hopkins would probably be one of the last persons to call himself a hero. But this modest man who was generous and forgiving demonstrated genuine acts of bravery while undergoing the direst trials during the war. From his selfless act of rescuing his sergeant on the battlefield though he himself was twice wounded, to his hopeful spirit he maintained while imprisoned at Andersonville, Hopkins revealed the true hero within himself through his positive thoughts, words, and deeds. To his comrades, family, friends, and community—to whom he was deeply loyal and devoted—he would be remembered as a kindly soul who always had "the best interests of his country and of humanity at heart."

A Dutiful and Determined Son

Charles Fern Hopkins was born on May 16, 1842 in a rural and "quaint old Moravian (central Czechoslovakian) village" in Hope, New Jersey. The fifth of six children born to Nathan and Ann (Wilson) Hopkins, Charles spent his early days in Hope, and the rest of his boyhood years growing up in the country town of Drakesville (now Ledgewood) where the family moved in 1848. Living the usual life of a boy his age in that time and place, Charles attended school for four months a year for seven years. At the age of 12, he began to learn about the harness-making trade under the supervision of his father.

His father was not only a fine harness-maker and a diligent worker, but also a successful businessman. Strongly abhorring slavery, he raised his children in a household that spoke and read about the abolition of slavery nearly as much as the family Bible. Their home was a station on the Underground Railroad that assisted many slaves in their passage to freedom. As instructed by his father, Charles spent many dark and dreary nights driving his silent passengers to the next station along their destination. Experiencing two close calls in the pursuit of this activity, young Charles did not fear the thought of being caught or arrested, but dreaded to think of the disgrace of failure that would be brought upon him.

In 1855, his mother passed away, and in the following year his father married the widow Ellen Reilly King and moved the family to Powerville. Charles continued learning about the harness-making trade, and completed his education at a large, harness manufacturer in Newark. By 1860, he had established his own harness-making business in Boonton that thrived due to his excellent craftsmanship and fine business acumen. But his dedication to both business and customers was not as strong as his loyalty to country and fellow man. After the firing upon Fort Sumter, the boyish but spirited Charles Hopkins was filled with patriotic dreams about joining the fight. Despite tearful protestations by his stepmother and two of his stepsisters, Charles left home on May 3, 1861 without his father's knowledge or consent. Though at 18 years old he was underage for a soldier, Hopkins answered the call to arms, enlisting in the Union army as a private with Company I of the 1st New Jersey Volunteer Infantry.

A Young Private in the Ranks

While at camp in Trenton, the amiable young Hopkins easily found friends in the regiment. But his patriotic ardor soon began to wane with the dull and monotonous routine of daily camp life and endless drilling. Being young, unskilled and undisciplined, Hopkins and his comrades passed their long hours by making mischief and merriment. The regiment finally left camp for Washington, D.C. on June 28, 1861 and on July 16 received orders to march to Vienna. When the men discovered that their provisions did not follow them to their new camp, against orders by headquarters Hopkins and a few of his comrade participated in foraging quests to assuage their hunger. They enjoyed a good laugh during an escapade in which they helped themselves to blackberries from abundant bushes and were fired upon by hidden figures in a nearby barn. As they returned to camp with scratched hands and faces and uniforms stained with berry juice, it seemed as though they had engaged in a bloody skirmish instead of a tangle in the briars.

Less than a week later, the 1st New Jersey was held in reserve on the final day of the Battle of Manassas (Bull Run), July 21, but would not yet experience their baptism of fire. Hopkins and his comrades would not become true soldiers until the following month when flamboyant career soldier General Philip Kearny was appointed to command the Brigade of Jersey Blues—comprised of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th New Jersey Regiments.

Hopkins was impressed by the way Kearny was able to transform the regiment into well-ordered and well-trained soldiers throughout the end of summer, and the long autumn and winter in which they remained in the defense of Washington. Kearny earned the respect and admiration of his men for his decisiveness in action, for being a strict disciplinarian, and for his care of those in his command. The general generously paid from his own pocket to clothe his brigade from head to foot, arming them with Springfield rifles—the best available—as supplies were slow to arrive. When ordered to command General Edwin Sumner's division, Kearny refused the promotion to major general since he could not bring his 1st New Jersey Brigade with him. This instilled even greater loyalty in his men. But by spring 1862, after the 1st New Jersey's advance on Manassas in March and on Alexandria in April, and following the Siege of Yorktown that ended at the opening of May, they would have to bid their bold leader farewell. Though his troops understood that he could not refuse an order to command General Charles S. Hamilton's division on the front line and under fire, Kearny's parting was still a regrettable one by him and those he had trained. However, he had shaped his men into soldiers who were now prepared to meet the enemy in battle in the Peninsula Campaign, and no one would be more grateful for this than Charles Hopkins.

A Test of Strength and Merit

By June 1, 1862, the 1st New Jersey was placed under the command of Brigadier General George W. Taylor in the 1st Brigade, 1st Division, Sixth Corps. That month the regiment advanced to Mechanicsville, just seven miles from Richmond, where the first of the Seven Days' Battles was fought on June 26. The following day, the 1st New Jersey met the enemy in a hot contest at Gaines's Mill.

While engaged in combat at Gaines's Mill, Hopkins suffered two flesh wounds. Falling back from the front line on the order to retire, he found Sergeant Richard A. Donnelly of his company badly wounded with a shattered leg. The sergeant asked Hopkins if he would assist him off the battlefield and as a friend he obliged, though this would not be a simple matter, for Donnelly was taller than six feet while Hopkins stood five-foot-nine. But however great the task, the wounded private managed to carry his officer upon his back for 1200 yards, all the while dashing and darting through the hellish crossfire, until both miraculously arrived among comrades. As a result of this courageous act, Hopkins suffered from temporary blindness and exhaustion, but would not allow himself a moment's rest and returned to continue the fight. Soon after, he was shot in the left side of the head and collapsed. Though his comrades believed him to be dead, and Hopkins saw his life flash before him, somehow he remained conscious and slowly struggled to his feet. He was taken to the field hospital where a miniť ball and two buckshot were removed from his head and neck several hours later.

Hopkins rejoined his regiment early the next morning and was on the move with them again when the Federals began to retreat for nearby Chickahominy Bridge. But their escape route was destroyed when the bridge was blown up before them, leaving hundreds of men prisoners. Because he was wounded, Hopkins was soon released. However, as the Federals were on their continued retreat, they were not able to take in new patients at their field hospitals, and all walking, wounded soldiers had to follow them south to Malvern Hill where the last of the Seven Days' Battles was fought on July 1. Soon after, these injured men boarded a northbound steamer. Having waited very patiently, Hopkins and other patients finally had their wounds dressed for the first time in five days.

Arriving at their destination in Maryland, Hopkins suffered from a temporary loss of memory. Following surgery and therapy at Camden Street Hospital in Baltimore, he gradually became more coherent as time passed. Soon after, he demanded to return to his company, but as his doctor would not allow him to leave, he wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton for permission to do so. His request having been granted, Hopkins was released after having been hospitalized for 16 months. Upon his return to camp in November 1863 he was met with amazement, for his comrades had believed him dead after the Battle of Gaines's Mill and reported him as such on June 27, 1862.

In early November the regiment participated in the Rappahannock Campaign, then in the Mine Run Campaign later that month. By March 1864, Company I was ordered to support General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick's cavalry in what would be known as the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid—a failed attempt upon Richmond to free the prisoners at Belle Isle and Libby Prison. Hopkins joined his regiment to participate in this raid though he had been admonished to remain in camp due to his weakened condition. After marching through mud in the sticky, cold weather, he suffered a relapse. The doctor expressed amazement that he did not die of his diagnosed peritonitis, and told him that he would die, but Hopkins refuted this and said that he would not die.

May 4 marked the opening of the Wilderness Campaign, a series of battles and skirmishes initiated by Union troops in the dense woods. Hopkins, now a corporal in his regiment, began to keep a diary of his wartime experiences. He recorded the horrors of the battle on May 5 when a fire started in the woods and scores of wounded soldiers unable to flee were burned to death. The following day, Hopkins was wounded twice in combat and was ordered by his captain to go to the field hospital. In just three days his service would end, and he would be discharged if he proceeded onward to Washington. But as a loyal soldier dedicated to his cause, Hopkins did not go to the field hospital, and did not leave for Washington. As fate would have it, by the end of the day's fight he was among the captured soldiers who were made prisoners of war.

A Long Journey to a Faraway Place

The prisoners were marched to Orange Court House on May 7; a dispiriting ordeal in which they were robbed at each halt by the captain of the guards. Fortunately for Hopkins, many of his personal possessions were in safekeeping since he had sent these items to the rear of the column when he was captured. The captain also spared no mercy for the prisoners who were badly wounded, and personally executed those who could not keep up with the rest of the men on the march. The day's end brought relief to the prisoners as they were placed under the guardianship of a new group of soldiers.

For two weeks they were herded towards a destination unknown to them, sometimes traveling by foot, other times by rail. Since they were not fed much—if at all, on occasions—their journey was filled with hunger pangs along with their anxiety. In a few of the cattle cars on their trip, Hopkins and his comrades resorted to stealing their guards' provisions. At one rest stop on their southbound journey, Hopkins purchased biscuits from a passing vendor using Confederate money he had previously acquired in an exchange for some of his personal belongings. He barely had a bite of biscuit for himself, sharing the rest with his fellow prisoners around him.

On May 22 the prisoners arrived at Andersonville, the military prison of the Confederate States of America. Seeing the wretched bullpen amidst the rain-starved wilderness of scrub oak and pine trees, Hopkins's heart sank in despair, for he had been told about this "hell hole" in which 35,000 men were crowded at the same time. The prisoners were welcomed inside the stockade by Captain Henry Wirz, the commandant of the prison, upon whom their lives now depended. Following their initiation, hoards of gaunt men blackened by pine smoke and clad in vermin-covered rags emerged from meager tents, greeting them as "fresh fish" (newcomers). These men were curious about the new faces joining them, wondering if they shared a common friend or relative, and if they had any news from the home front or about the current status of the war. Hopkins, hearing about their dismal existence here, was sickened to think of how long they were fated to remain in this real life Inferno, but believed with great hope that "where others can live, we will not die!"

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Hopkins's biography concludes on: Page 2

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