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 of the Michigan 26th Regiment.

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 – Civil War amputations were done quickly at a field hospital. Doctors used a circular saw-cutting motion to keep the patient from dying of pain and shock.

Sadly John was a causality of this hideous battle. His right leg was wounded, which was then amputated above the knee. After John’s amputation he was put in an ambulance that would take him to Fredericksburg where wounded Union soldiers were cared for. John died on the way.

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 to recruit over

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

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

On April 17th 1864, John writes his family from “Camp near Brandy Station Virginia”. This is less than a month before he is wounded and dies.

Dear Father and Mother & Sisters, Joe, Tom, I write these few lines hoping they will find you all well as this leaves me in present in very good health. We are having a very wet time at present, with plenty of mud. But every preparation is being made for an active campaign. All extra clothing is to be boxed up and sent to the rear, all sutlers and others left this army yesterday. So everything looks like a forward move as soon as the weather and the state of the roads permit. I expect that Lee will have to get out of his hole on the south side of the Rapidan shortly, and seek safety in Richmond. This army is stronger now than ever, with a good commander, who everyone puts confidence in. I received your letter and was glad to see the last 20 went safe, and in this you will find 20 dollars more, which you must make use of in getting food and clothing. You need not stint yourselves on my account as I brought nothing into this world and can take nothing out. I received your paper this morning, and see by it that Mrs. Holdsworth is dead. A call that we must all of us answer one day or another. I received a letter from William some time since and his wife was with him in Pennsylvania and they were quite well and comfortable. You must try and learn Joe to read and write, and if I live to return I will bring him a present, also Tommy. Thomas Bates sends his best respects to you all, and hopes this is the last year of this war. There was to have been a grand review yesterday, but it rained and it will come off tomorrow if the weather permits. So no more at present from your son. John Hopkins P.S. Let me know in your next if you received the book I sent. Headly’s History” 12

By May 1864 General Ulysses Grant begins his 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“. However, in John’s Civil War pension records we learn from his friend and fellow Lake Shore Tiger, Thomas Bates, that he never made it to the Fredericksburg General Hospital.

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 of the field hospital. 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.

Records show that John’s parents receive “parental pensions”. First his mother Susannah Marie Hopkins and then his father 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 and the parents were unable to survive without this support.

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)
  12. (see below) John Hopkins Full Civil War Pension File, pages 53-54.

copyright by Elizabeth Scott Wright 2019

One thought on “The Fiery Spotsylvania Court House Battle and John Hopkins

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s