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The Biography of

Corporal Charles Hopkins

Page 2, continued


Enduring the Greatest Trials

Nearly each day, Hopkins wrote a brief entry in his journal about the occurrences at Andersonville. The prisoners were fed on meager rations that varied from day to day. Because they had no fresh fruits and seldom any vegetables, the men who had been here a long time suffered from scurvy. With only a fetid stream in the middle of the stockyard from which to fill their cups, the prisoners often suffered from thirst and dehydration. The best source of water was at the southern gate of the stockade beside the "dead line," a strip of ground sectioned off by rails and heavily guarded at all times. Any prisoner who dared to cross this line was immediately shot dead by a guard from the platform outside the 18-foot-high log walls of the stockade. Though frequent rainstorms provided clean water and a bit of relief to the weary, without the shelter of buildings or trees the men were often drenched to the bone and had to build fires to keep warm and dry, especially during the cold nights.

Besides these inhumane living conditions, the prisoners endured additional hardships. Not long after Hopkins and his comrades situated themselves in their new home they were assaulted by a gang known as the "Raiders," who robbed, beat, and murdered men for coveted items. These attacks by prisoners upon other prisoners persisted until June when a large number of victims decided that they had had enough of the Raiders' reign of terror. Known as the "Regulators," this group began holding secret meetings to devise ways to protect life and restore order in the camp. Around this time when the Regulators were established, a new arrival to the stockade was badly robbed and beaten, and protested vehemently to Wirz about this outrage. As a result, the Raiders were rounded up and placed on trial, and in early July six members of the gang were found guilty and simultaneously hung in the stockade before all prisoners. Thereafter, for a long time in camp the Regulators were in charge.

With the Raiders now under control, the men were able to return to the usual preoccupations of their miserable existence. As a caring and compassionate man, Hopkins observed that the mental anguish of being imprisoned at Andersonville was even greater than the physical sufferings he endured here, and later wrote at length in his memoirs about this depression and despair:

Just think and imagine, if you can, what your thoughts would be to see a father, son, a brother, or even a comrade, not related, slowly but surely becoming a mere skeleton, a maniac, appealing continuously for something to eat, talk of home, friends, in his delirious spells; knows you not—you, helpless to do more than endeavor to live yourself, cheer him up when your heart is breaking, and do not believe your promised hopes to him.... These were the hours that tried the mental strength of the "man," and were a hundred times worse than the thoughts of a hundred Gettysburg or Chickamauga battles! One was to die in glory under the folds of that flag which he was sworn to defend, and be among his comrades; dying at the post of duty. The other was to rot in misery and degradation among blood of our blood, kin both by blood and Country....

[William B. Styple, John J. Fitzpatrick, editors, The Andersonville Memoirs of Charles Hopkins (New Jersey: Belle Grove Publishing Company, 1988), p. 95.]

Hopkins witnessed the deaths of countless men on a daily basis; a number that increased with the passage of time. In his reports to the officials and other inquirers, Wirz proclaimed that the men who lost their lives within the walls of the stockade "died of natural causes"—false words that angered the honest and forthright Charles Hopkins. Though hundreds of prisoners had perished since his imprisonment, Hopkins noted that hundreds of new prisoners were continually brought into the stockade on a regular basis.

To divert his mind from the misery that abounded, when Hopkins was not consoling a comrade in need he participated in such camp activities as bartering, buying, and selling food and personal items. Hopkins also kept himself occupied making things such as a box of green pine and sewing a shirt. He wrote letters to family and friends, though he doubted that his correspondence reached their destination. And his thoughts constantly focused on escaping from Andersonville.

On two occasions Hopkins decided to try to leave the camp by walking out the gate. In his first endeavor he impersonated the Confederate mess sergeant but ironically was caught by this man outside the gate. He was released on his word that he would not try this act again but could not keep his promise since he believed it was his "privilege" as a prisoner to attempt an escape whenever possible. In his second endeavor he was caught by another guard and brought before Wirz. When the captain asked what he should do with him, Hopkins answered Wirz by saying that should treat him as he wished to be treated himself. Wirz instead decided to make an example of him in front of the other prisoners. For eight excruciating hours Hopkins was pinned up off the ground and shackled at the neck, wrists, and both ankles in the "stand-up collar," and at each hour was elevated and stretched another inch.

As soon as he recovered from this torture, Hopkins focused on his alternate plan of escape: "tunneling," a common activity in camp. Many tunnelers were unsuccessful in this pursuit and knew that if caught the punishment would be far worse than a stretch in the "stand-up collar." However, the small chance of freedom was worth the large risk. With their tunnel completed in August, Hopkins and 14 of his comrades crawled through this narrow passage from midnight until two in the morning, up and out into a muck-laden swamp. Though the escapees remained free for hours, by sundown a pack of bloodhounds had found their trail and set upon them. After surrendering themselves to their captors, Hopkins and a comrade were tethered by their wrists to separate horses and with another member from their group tied to each of the two saddles, were dragged part of the way back to camp. Unable to bear the strain any longer, the fellow in the middle begged to be killed and had his wish granted. As they approached the prison, Hopkins and his friend wondered about their fate. Upon seeing new prisoners marching into the stockade at the southern gate, the two filed in with this group and thus were able to evade punishment.

In September the Confederates feared that the Union army was approaching Andersonville and quickly relocated the prisoners to other camps. Hopkins was sent to Florence on September 14, and as he witnessed others suffering from gangrene, he himself began to suffer from scurvy. By December, despite his worsened condition, hope loomed on the horizon when some men were taken out of the prison for exchange. The surgeon promised Hopkins that he would soon be released and had him wait in line for a check up. However, a married man who believed that he might not live to see his family begged to take Hopkins's turn. As a result of his kindness and compassion, Hopkins spent a despondent Christmas Day in prison. On January 15 when the doctor was not in for his rescheduled appointment, for the first time Hopkins began to lose faith in life, and gradually became mentally incapacitated and delirious from typhoid fever. He remained unconscious from February 4 to 24 and once he awakened, slowly began to regain his strength. The doctor said that he would not survive unless his swollen feet were amputated, but Hopkins said that if he were to die he wished to remain intact.

With the imminent threat of a battle now at hand, the Confederates agreed to release the prisoners. On February 27, 1865 all men were removed from the camp except for those patients who were not expected to live. Finding the hospital deserted, Hopkins crawled out of the building and through the gate outside. He saw the smoke of a distant locomotive and headed in that direction. Though his strength nearly gave out on him several times, the thought of seeing his home and friends again kept him going. At last he reached the temporary encampment of the now-freed prisoners, and joined them on the trip by rail to Union-occupied Wilmington, North Carolina. On the final leg of their journey to Annapolis, Maryland their vessel weathered a severe storm, and as a result many men who had withstood so much in prison tragically did not survive. Hopkins finally returned home—to the surprise of his family who believed he had died in Florence Prison—and years later contemplated what it took to endure the greatest trials:

Among all the scenes that men who offered their lives at country's call were asked or compelled to pass through, from enlistment to death or imprisonment, death or release in hospital or camp, there was shown the true temperament of the man. Many yielding up life heroically, without a murmur; others easily and hopelessly. Some men under the most distressing circumstances could find the opportunity for a joke, even at death's door. These features were clearly demonstrated in many instances in Andersonville and Florence, where men knew not how soon they would be the subject of dog burial—the man with hope and mirth most dominant in his make-up lived the longest and was calmest when death was at hand. Many died that may have lived longer, but for the hope that died within them, and made them melancholy. It was under the daily sights in these prisons that the "man" or "brute" within, developed.

[William B. Styple, John J. Fitzpatrick, editors, The Andersonville Memoirs of Charles Hopkins (New Jersey: Belle Grove Publishing Company, 1988), pp. 173-174.]


A Model Citizen

For more than a year Hopkins worked on improving his health, learning to walk with a cane, and then without it. After his recovery, he returned to his harness-making business and married Hettie Van Duyne in 1867. Within the next two decades the couple would have nine children, seven of whom would live to maturity. Hopkins's postwar achievements and occupations included his election as Mayor of Boonton in 1880, and service as New Jersey State Assemblyman, Morris County Freeholder, Assistant Sergeant of Arms of the State Senate, and Postmaster of Boonton for 20 years.

picture of Hopkins as a civilian

Charles Hopkins in his G.A.R. uniform. Image care of Hopkins' book, edited by William Styple.

  In addition these vocations, Hopkins was an active member of the Grand Army of the Republic of the United States of America (G.A.R.) and frequented the organization's meetings and reunions. He also began to make his experiences and remembrances of the war tangible and available to others. In memory of his comrades from New Jersey who died in Andersonville Prison, he led the efforts to erect the first state monument at Andersonville National Cemetery. Around 1890, he used his diary from 1864 as he began writing his memoirs of Andersonville for his family. And he set forth to honor his unforgotten general, Philip Kearny, to whom he was indebted for shaping the 1st New Jersey men into soldiers during the war. As president of the Kearny Commission, Hopkins had monuments erected at Chantilly (Ox Hill) to mark the area where Kearny and General Isaac Stevens fell and died in battle. In 1912 he had Kearny disinterred from his unmarked grave at Trinity Church Cemetery in New York City and re-buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Two years later, in his final tribute to the memory of Kearny, Hopkins had a magnificent, bronze equestrian statue bearing the general's likeness placed upon his grave.

In December 1927, at the age of 85, Hopkins received the Congressional Medal of Honor for "distinguished gallantry under fire" at Gaines's Mill, Virginia on June 27, 1862. Though the medal had been issued 35 years earlier, owing to his modesty Hopkins never claimed it. Even the efforts of Richard Donnelly, the sergeant whose life he had saved during the war—who learned that Hopkins had not received the medal and took action to expedite this matter—had not brought him the award any sooner. Though late in its arrival, its tardiness seemed to be consistent with the many delays Hopkins had endured during his soldiering days. For one who expected so little in return from his fellow man and his country for all his patience, humility, hard work, loyalty and dedication, it was a most deserved recognition, long overdue. The citation for his medal reads:

Hopkins, Charles F.; Rank and Organization: Corporal, Company "I", 1st New Jersey Infantry. Place and Date: At Gaines Mill, Virginia, 27 June 1862. Entered into Service at: --. Birth: Warren County, New Jersey. Date of Issue: 9 July 1892. Citation: Voluntarily carried a wounded comrade, under heavy fire, to a place of safety; though twice wounded in the act, he continued in action until severely wounded.

[United States of America's Medal of Honor Recipients and Their Official Citations (Minnesota: Highland House II, 1994), p. 802.]

In July 1930 Hettie passed away, and on February 14, 1934, Charles Hopkins died in his home and was buried beside his cherished wife in Greenwood Cemetery in Boonton, New Jersey. Among the papers found after his death was this poem which I believe best expresses his positive outlook on life:

It Isn't the World—It's You

You say the world is gloomy,
    The skies are grim and grey,
The night has lost its quiet,
    You fear the coming day?
The world is what you make it,
    The sky is grey or blue
Just as your soul may paint it;
    It isn't the world—it's you!
Clear up the clouded vision,
    Clean out the foggy mind;
The clouds are always passing,
    And each is silver lined.
The world is what you make it—
    Then make it bright and true,
And when you say it's gloomy,
    It isn't the world—it's you!

[William B. Styple, John J. Fitzpatrick, editors, The Andersonville Memoirs of Charles Hopkins (New Jersey: Belle Grove Publishing Company, 1988), p. 218.]


Acknowledgments

Special thanks to William Styple for his contributions to this biography. The diary and memoirs of Charles Hopkins that Mr. Styple published in 1988 has served as a great inspiration to me for the testimony it bears on the strength and invincibility of the human spirit under the greatest trials. Thanks also to Bruce Towers for providing information about Hopkins's Congressional Medal of Honor.

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Sources Used in Writing This Essay

Books:

The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, by Bruce Catton, American Heritage, New York, NY, 1988.

The Andersonville Diary & Memoirs of Charles Hopkins, 1st New Jersey Infantry, edited by William B. Styple and John J. Fitzpatrick, Belle Grove Publishing Company, NJ, 1988.

Brother Against Brother: Time-Life Books History of the Civil War, by Time-Life Books, Inc., Prentice Hall Press, New York, NY, 1990.

A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, by Frederick H. Dyer, The Dyer Publishing Company, Des Moines, IA, 1908.

Kearny the Magnificent: The Story of General Philip Kearny, 1815-1862, by Irving Werstein, The John Day Company, NY, 1962.

The Little Bugler: The True Story of a Twelve-Year-Old Boy in the Civil War, by William B. Styple, Belle Grove Publishing Company, NJ, 1998.

To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign, by Stephen W. Sears, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, NY, 1992.

United States of America's Medal of Honor Recipients and Their Official Citations, Highland House II, Columbia Heights, MN, 1994.

Web Pages:

Charles F. Hopkins, by Carol Hopkins, copyright 1999, Northern NJ Hopkins Family Tree Web site, http://members.aol.com/mschopkins/andersonville_memoirs.html (accessed January 2000). (Note: This link has been changed to http://pirate.shu.edu/~hopkinca/andersonville_memoirs.html on October 26, 2008 per Carol Hopkins.)

Charles Fern Hopkins, by Brianne Kelly-Bly, copyright 1999, Rootsweb Web site, http://www.rootsweb.com/~njmorris/lewisbios/hopkinscharlesfern.htm (accessed January 2000).

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