Hell And The Survivor

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On June 4, 1861, at the age of seventeen, Charles Ferren Hopkins enlisted in Company I, First New Jersey Volunteers. He was badly wounded at the Battle of Games’ Mill, Virginia, and again at the Battle of the Wilderness, where he was captured and sent to the notorious prison camp, Andersonville, in Georgia. Many years afterward, he wrote a vivid account of his experiences. This article has been adapted from his original document, which runs to over one hundred and thirty typewritten pages, and which was given to us by his grandson, Gerald Hopkins.

Contemporary historians are inclined to believe that the Southern prison camps were no worse than their Northern counterparts. But it is Andersonville, under the supervision of Henry Wirz, that lives on with a horror of particular resonance. Judging from Hopkins’s account—and it is one among many—there is good reason for this.

With more patriotic ardor than good sense, on the third of May, 1861, without due parental notice and sanction, I startled the family at the breakfast table with, “Ellen, I want a clean shirt, I am going away!” Ellen, who was my stepmother, and a good one, and her two daughters, who to me were as my sisters, were the only persons present—the one whom I did not wish to consult on the question, my father, was absent; I had chosen this auspicious time, in order to avoid a collision that might prove all my nicely laid plans abortive. To my good stepmother’s question, “Charlie, where are you going?” I promptly replied, “To war!” And I imagine there may have been some bombast in the tone, for I was chuck full of enthusiasm. …

Hopkins had some basic training at Camp Trenton in Washington, D.C., and fought in the Peninsula Campaign through Virginia.

Our regiment reached the Village of Mechanicsville, from where the church steeples of the much coveted city of Richmond could be seen, “The bonny bunch of Roses” that McClellan would have liked to obtain. A charge came suddenly, out of the northwest—the flying columns of Stonewall Jackson, in an attempt to flank our right wing, compelling us to fall back to Gaines’ Mill and later to Gaines’ Hills, near the house of Dr. William Gaines, where on June 27, 1862, the unlucky Friday, so called, we engaged the enemy in a hotly contested fight, in which the writer was twice fleshwounded, and while falling back found Sgt. Richard A. Donnelly of my company, and my close friend, badly wounded with a shattered leg. He wanted to be taken from the field of carnage, then raging like a holocaust of Hell, and the chances were as one in a thousand that both of us would reach cover. I would not refuse my friend Dick in such a case, and under a terrific, galling cross-fire carried him to a supposed place of safety into the hands of comrades of our company—though he was made prisoner later on—and after recovering from the temporary blindness and exhaustion due to a 1200-yard dash with a load of no mean proportions, as my comrade was over six feet and I was only five foot nine, I again took to fighting and after about twenty minutes was shot in the left side of the head. To all appearances, my comrades said, I must be dead, and they passed on in that belief, and reported me “dead upon the field of battle.” I slowly came back to the world as, during the shock, I had passed into strange places as well as having a vivid panorama of my whole past life in that short time of not over ten minutes, and while it was not all virtue, I had not much to deeply blush for, perhaps because I had not lived very long and was country bred. A ball and two buckshot were removed from the wounded head and neck. They placed the “ball and buck” in my pocket and then returned me to the shelter of the tree to die from bleeding or be saved by Nature’s choice.

 
 

Hopkins was captured and returned, days later, with the other “walking wounded” to the Union doctors. He recovered sufficiently to rejoin his regiment in June 1862, but his health was shaky. He campaigned in Virginia during the next year, was again hospitalized, and his life despaired of. But he lived to fight again.

The campaign opened with Lee. We met him at the Wilderness, May 5 and 6,1864. On the march from our winter quarters at Hazel Run to the Wilderness we were joined by some raw Pennsylvania troops. They were supplied with all kinds of wearing gear and everything that a soldier in a permanent camp could wish for—from cap to shoe—and much more “tailored” than the men in front had, or could use. This march tried them as never before. Loaded like “jackmules”—and being placed in line between regiments of hardened veterans—they soon displayed their weakness in hard and grueling marching. To make matters more unpleasant, the old vets would laugh and jeer at them for carrying so much while the knapsack and blanket roll of the vet was like a wallet the day after the circus was in town.