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Hell And The Survivor
A Union soldier had a better statistical chance of living through the Battle of Gettysburg than of surviving the prisoner-of-war camp called Andersonville. But Charles Hopkins did it and left this never-before-published record.
October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
We had not been missed by the guards until we had made good our escape “inward” this time. Reaching our old place we found it preempted by others, but we were given a hearty welcome by those who knew us before we had taken our French leave. We made close inquiry as to the return of those who had also started. It was then that we got the full information that fifteen had left by that tunnel and thus far eleven had been returned. We could account for all but one—where was he? What an ending for all that hard fight for life and liberty! This was not the only case, for tunnels were prevalent in camp. Our welcome to this place was cordial in the sense that we were alive, and you can imagine how grateful I was to escape the guards and evade a parley with that human devil, Wirz! An attempt was made to ferret us out, and take us outside, but my name was not “Hopkins” now, and the sergeant that knew me was sent to Macon for duty. And I hoped he would never return, for the thought of that “collar” made me shudder. Some time before we took leave the Raiders had been very open in their work, but after the hangings became very secretive—but they were yet in business. A comrade of my regiment, by name of Samuel J. Nixon, had a watch and wanted me to trade it for something better to eat. I took it and was “dogged” daily and shadowed at all times by some one of those cut-throats—being unsuccessful in making a trade, handed it back to him—glad indeed, for the silent shadowing ceased. Two nights after, Nixon was awakened by the cold touch of a knife at his throat and a command, “Shut up, or your life will pay the forfeit!” Of course he handed the murderers his watch to save his life.
Several men of my regiment died in this Bull Pen in a short time, and just now I was on the wane and had been almost ready to let go the lifeline in despair, but I still insisted that where others could live, I ought to try to do so. One day I saw a strong, sturdy man come into camp—I think from Sherman’s forces—and in a dazed manner make his way to the north side. Listlessly he looked about him—no place to go, he asked no questions, nor would he answer any, always with that same faraway look in his eyes; hopeless, speechless, horror-stricken at what he saw. He sat down on the ground, drew his knees up, arms across his knees and head resting on his arms and never to our knowledge, by word or act, did he recognize anyone. I peered under his arms, raised his head; his eyes were wide open but they saw nothing. When appealed to have a drink of water, no effort was made to accept it, though sitting in the broiling sun at 95 to 100 degrees, no shade here, all day, all night in cold dew, for four days from time of entrance. We discovered him dead as he sat, no change of position.
Hopkins’s resolve to live was successful He was transferred to the prison camp at Florence, South Carolina, exchanged and, after rudimentary treatment, finally discharged. He was, of course, in terrible shape. He had gone from 226 pounds to 123, and his feet were too swollen for shoes. He looked at himself in his first civilian suit and concluded “that I might, with strong talk, convince my friends it was I.” His family had been informed that he died in prison, and his own letter, from Camp Parole, arrived three days before the funeral service that had been planned for him. “A couple of days’ rest was good for me, and in those two days had passed the soul of America’s greatest martyr, Abraham Lincoln.”
Physicians “of prominence” came to New Jersey to look at the famous survivor of Andersonville and told him that his legs must be amputated. He answered, “Gentlemen, I am the sole owner and no one to leave behind to care for, and I say no!” Time proved “that eminent physicians sometimes err in their decisions; otherwise I would have been legless, or dead, or both, while now I quite enjoy the use of fairly good limbs and feet.”
In 1927, sixty-five years after the event, Hopkins was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his gallantry at the battle of Games’ Mill. He died in 1936 at the age of ninety-two.