The Fiery Spotsylvania Court House Battle and John Hopkins

On May 12, 1864 at 4:30 a.m. the Union Second Corps attacked Muleshoe salient at Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia under the command of Major General Winfield S. Hancock leading to some of the most violent fighting in the Civil War. As part of the Second Corps, the Michigan 26th Regiment joined the charge and was one of the first regiments to plant its colors on the rebel works. John Hopkins was one of these so-called “Lake Shore Tigers” soldiers.

Spotsylvania Court House Battle Scene
Spotsylvania Court House battle scene
12 May 1864 Spotsylvania Court House battlefield map

For John Hopkins and his fellow Lake Shore Tigers the fighting was so intense that a tree 21 inches in diameter in the middle of the battlefield was literally cut in half from the volume of flying lead. Brutal bayonet point, hand-to-hand combat between the Confederate and Union troops with the dead piled up to four bodies deep across the front line. In a war known for horrific battles and massive causalities the Spotsylvania Court House battle still ranks as one of the top three.

Civil War Amputation Kit

Sadly John did not avoid being a causality of this hideous battle. His right leg was seriously wounded, which was then amputated above the knee. During the Civil War amputations were done quickly in a circular saw-cutting motion to keep the patient from dying of pain and shock. Unfortunately, John died the next day.

So how did John Hopkins get here in the first place? John’s parents Robert and Susannah Hopkins and family immigrated to the United States in 1854 from Shadwell, England – a location about a mile from London Bridge – where John was born and baptized. John was just 13 years old at the time his family immigrated. The Hopkins family settled in Peninsula Township of Grand Traverse County, Michigan, a region of astonishing beauty and wilderness.

Contrasting worlds: (upper row) St. Paul’s Shadwell where John Hopkins was baptized, typical working class housing in Shadwell, England where John lived as boy; (lower row) Peninsula, Grand Traverse County, Michigan in the 1860s where John lived until he enlisted in 1862 (paintings by William Holdsworth, John’s first cousin)

The Grand Haven News, 20 August 1862, bragging about the Lake Shore Tiger recruits strength and size

When the call for Union soldiers came John volunteered with the second group from northern Michigan in August 1862 when he was just 21. There wasn’t yet an enlistment bounty, that would come later when it was much clearer how personally devastating the Civil War would be to the soldiers and their families. At the time the Union Army was boasting its ability to recruit over 1.3 million troops. The Lake Shore Tigers learned the 21st Regiment had already met its quota, then the 25th Regiment was also at quota, so they became Michigan’s 26th Regiment with 900 officers and men.

Michigan’s 26th Regiment flag

By April 1863 the 26th was in Virginia assigned to various expeditions against the enemy. They also were assigned a short stint in New York to help put down the draft riots. In October they were integrated into the Army of the Potomac in the First Brigade commanded by General Miles and Second Corps under Major General Hannock where, “They quickly gained the reputation of being the best skirmish regiment in the army, and were often selected to precede the division to come in contact with the enemy, and thereby took part in many hazardous advances.3

Then came General Ulysses Grant’s Overland Campaign. The 26th was assigned to the severest and deadliest engagements of the campaign. By the time the 26th reached Spotsylvania Court House they had marched thru the night in a storm and arrived just in time to join the Union line as it advanced.

And this is how John Hopkins ended up in Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, dying at 23.

John Hopkins final service record was not connected to his death record, likely due to the volume of casualties at Spotsylvania Court House where the dead were buried in mass trenches.

Sources:

  1. American Battlefield Trust, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/civil-war/battles/spotsylvania-court-house
  2. Barnes, Al, Supper in the Evening, Horizon Books, Traverse City, Michigan, 1967, pages 9-11.
  3. Archives of Michigan, Record of Service of Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War, 1861 – 1865: 26th Michigan Infantry, State of Michigan and George H. Turner, pages 1-3 and 40, (currently located on https://www.seekingmichigan.org).
  4. NCpedia, https://www.ncpedia.org/history/cw-1900/amputations
  5. London illustrations by Gustave Doré, British Library, https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/slums
  6. The Grand Haven News, Grand Haven, Michigan, 20 August 1862, https://www.newspapers.com
  7. Goreman, Kathleen L., Civil War Pensions, Essential Civil War Curriculum, Virginia Tech, https://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/civil-war-pensions.html
  8. John Hopkins fact page on Scott-Hopkins Family Tree, Ancestry.com, https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/54200939/person/26660394739/facts (source documentation included: baptism, 1851 UK Census, arrival, 1860 US Census, Civil War Service and Pension Records)

copyright by Elizabeth Scott Wright 2019

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