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 spent some part of the next year in a General Hospital and then died.

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)

Michigan’s 26th Regiment flag

When the call for Union soldiers came John volunteered with the second group from northern Michigan in August 1862 when he was just 21. John’s enlistment bounty was $25, a small fraction of bounties 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

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

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.

By April 1863 the 26th was in Virginia assigned to various expeditions against the enemy. In July they were assigned a short stint in New York to help put down the draft riots. After the New York riots John was admitted to Ladies Home U.S. Army Hospital in New York City for chronic diarrhea. His admission record states he was “considerably weak and emaciated“. On 13 August 1863 his records claim he was cured and then returned to duty.

In October the 26th regiment was 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.

One of 23 pages in John Hopkins’ Civil War Service records sourced from the National Archives and Records Administration

After John’s amputation he is moved to a hospital. Between then and the end of the Civil War in April 1865, John is noted in the Company A Muster Rolls as “absent, wounded, in hospital since May 12, 1864“.

The details of how the field and general hospital system worked gives insight into what John may have experienced. Once the wounded were retrieved from the battlefield they would find themselves laid out near a field hospital, that usually consisted of makeshift tents. For John’s regiment this was near Laurel Hill around Cossin’s house. There were hundreds of men in agony, crying, and groaning here waiting for their turn with the surgeon. To make room for the constant stream of newly wounded ambulances moved them to Fredericksburg where virtually every building in town had been commandeered to handle them. The trip to Fredericksburg during May 1864 was especially rainy and cold with 14 men dying of pneumonia on the way. In addition, it was not unusual for a second amputation to be required due to the poor sanitation conditions. Finally the wounded would be taken to Washington D.C. by boat and/or train where the general hospitals had more resources to care for the wounded.

Somewhere in this horrific process John dies. Records also show that John’s parents receive “parental pensions”. First Susannah Hopkins and then Robert Hopkins, once she dies, receive these government pensions of $8/month. Rules in place at the time suggest parents could only receive these pensions if their child died. Susannah’s parental pension was back-dated from 1868 to 12 May 1864 when John was wounded. Though John’s exact death date is unconfirmed, it is likely before May 1865 given these pension records and the 26th Regiment Company A Muster Roll records.

So this is how John Hopkins ended up in Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, fighting for the Union and giving up his life for the cause.

John Hopkins final service record did not record his death date, nonetheless, he gave his life for the Union cause

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. The Last Patients, https://www.historynet.com/the-last-patients.htm
  8. Goreman, Kathleen L., Civil War Pensions, Essential Civil War Curriculum, Virginia Tech, https://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/civil-war-pensions.html
  9. A War of Blood and Sickness: a Story Map, ESRI, https://www.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=a261866068994705abc67904b00dff8a
  10. The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion: 1861 – 65, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1870, https://books.google.com/books?id=ZAVTAAAAcAAJ&pg=RA1-PA154&lpg=RA1-PA154&dq=%22the+hospitals+of+the+fifth+corps+were+established+on+a+grassy+lawn%22&source=bl&ots=4si2TADL0y&sig=ACfU3U2oPkUIqNU7c6JgtOAT-lfPlK4R5Q&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwikmoDZjsLlAhWGrVkKHciiCucQ6AEwAHoECAUQAQ#v=onepage&q=%22the%20hospitals%20of%20the%20fifth%20corps%20were%20established%20on%20a%20grassy%20lawn%22&f=false
  11. 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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