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“A Hideous Dream”

Dressed in their Sunday best, the well-to-do Hopsons stared intently into the camera at a sitting for a family portrait about five years before Americans slaughtered each other during the Civil War. Edward, better known as Ned, sat at the far left in the front row, wearing a bemused look and an oversized bow tie. His handsome older brothers, William and George, stood in the back row with sisters Elizabeth and Carrie. Oliver— the family patriarch and a well-regarded Protestant Episcopal minister from Vermont—sat in the front row with his wife, Caroline, and their youngest children, Mansfield and Mary. More than two decades earlier, the Hopsons had mourned their first-born child, a son named Richard, who died in infancy.

The three oldest Hopson sons were great achievers: George, like his father, found his calling in religion and became a minister after attending Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut; William, the oldest, had an aptitude for business while Ned, an excellent student, also followed in the footsteps of his father and brother, attending Trinity and rising to second in his class. Fortunate to be alive, he had survived a severe illness as a toddler, prompting a clergyman who had been told to prepare for his burial to remark to Edward’s father: “He is spared for some good purpose.”

In a prewar image of the Hopson family, Edward, who joined the Union army, sits at left. His brother William, who joined the Rebel army, is the tallest man in the second row. Courtesy Charlet Roskovics.
In a prewar image of the Hopson family, Edward, who joined the Union army, sits at left. His brother William, who joined the Rebel army, is the tallest man in the second row. Courtesy Charlet Roskovics.

Less than a decade after the photograph was taken, two of Oliver Hopson’s sons were in the army— one serving for Connecticut and the Union, another for Georgia and the Confederacy. One of the brothers died in battle and was buried in a shallow Virginia grave with 12 of his comrades near the large white house of a country doctor. During the war, the Rebel of the family left little doubt that he thought the Hopsons were strong enough to survive his allegiance to a foreign flag.

“There is a great gulf opening between us,” William Hopson told his mother, “but it can never be so wide that our love cannot cross it.”

In the winter of 1861, Georgians were consumed by talk of the state’s secession from the Union. On January 19, Georgia became the fifth Southern state to join the Confederacy, prompting celebrations from the capital in Milledgeville to the small town of Perry, which “was half wild with enthusiasm,” according to William Hopson, a transplanted Northerner. When he was 19 in 1855, William left his family in Vermont to settle in Macon, Georgia, where he became a cotton merchant.

Although the New York-born businessman hoped to avoid politics, William found that impossible as the country found itself on the precipice of war. In Perry’s town square, a Georgia flag fluttered atop a liberty pole, fiery speeches were made and several Northerners even declared themselves loyal to the South. One of them got so wound up that he was “ready to sacrifice his abolition father should they meet in the conflict,” Hopson told his twenty-one -year-old sister, Carrie.

William Hopson. Courtesy family of Virginia Lamar Horner Spencer.
William Hopson. Courtesy family of Virginia Lamar Horner Spencer.

And should war indeed break out, William made his allegiance clear.

“Judging from the warnings to ‘come home’ received by some northerners residing here,” he wrote from Perry on February 3, 1861, “I presume they breathe out threatenings and slaughter. But I will not even begin a political discussion. I will remark however that in my opinion the man who would leave this section of the country now is a dastardly coward.”

Although William didn’t like to write about himself, he was eager to ease the anxiety of his family back north, given the perilous state of the country. He quietly went about his business and, for a time, didn’t wear symbols of his Southern loyalty. Likewise, his business partner, a man named Davis, largely avoided politics, although he wore a South Carolina rosette and talked “rather blood thirsty.”

Hopson took great pleasure in his standing in his adopted state, writing “that my course has won the confidence of the whole community.” And when his name was discussed by locals, even one of the hardcore secessionists vouched for him. “I am convinced,” he wrote, “that I am liked and trusted as much as I deserve to be.”

On April 12, a little more than a month after Hopson wrote a letter to his sister, the Confederates bombarded Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The Civil War had begun. Eight days later, on his 25th birthday, William enlisted in the Confederate army. His status as a Rebel was official.

Soon after reports of Fort Sumter’s surrender reached Connecticut, Hartford citizens were swept up by patriotic fervor. Giant red, white and blue banners floated over the Allyn House, the finest hotel in the city, as well over the state house and newspaper offices. Smaller flags appeared in the windows of other buildings, and women walked the streets wearing Union rosettes. “The North Thoroughly Aroused! Troops Offered In Every Quarter,” blared headlines in the Hartford Daily Courant on April 16, 1861.

When a 20-car train carrying soldiers in the 16th Massachusetts arrived in the city about two one morning, thousands of citizens greeted the soldiers, who eagerly shook the hands of their admirers.  “A line of arms, about an eighth of a mile long, waved up and down on both sides of the car, like the American eagle was flapping his wings, preparatory to flying to Washington to protect his nest,” wrote Edward Hopson, a freshman at nearby Trinity College.

Edward Hopson. Trinity College, Watkinson Library and College Archives, Hartford, Conn.
Edward Hopson. Trinity College, Watkinson Library and College Archives, Hartford, Conn.

By late April, three companies of soldiers from Connecticut had left Hartford, and Edward already had an eye on joining them. “I hope,” he told his sister, Carrie, “to be ready to do my duty, in case it ever does seem necessary.”

Founded by Episcopalians, Trinity College was gripped by war fever, too. When it became apparent soon after Lincoln’s election in 1860 that Southern states might secede, a professor of Greek language and literature formed a company of students, who met in a campus hall, were supplied cadet muskets from the state armory and trained on the use of the bayonet. In April 1861, a committee of students cornered the newly installed college president on his way home, demanding the U.S. flag be allowed to fly on campus. He refused, telling them “I do not approve of raising bunting over any building consecrated to the worship of Almighty God.” A compromise was reached: a flagstaff was obtained, placed atop a belfry of another building and the Stars and Stripes were raised to rousing cheers.

Among the 70 Trinity undergraduates were a handful of Southerners, who, ordered home by their state governments, were escorted to the steamboat on the Connecticut River by a small group of fellow classmates. In all, 17 Southerners who attended Trinity served in the Rebel army with William Hopson, of whom Edward wrote on April 21, 1861: “I am rather glad, on the whole, that Willie has such southern sentiments that he can favor them (the Southerners) and thus escape all attacks from them.

“How I wish he was North!”

In the summer of 1862, Union fortunes were waning. Robert E. Lee had pushed the Yankees from near the Rebel capital of Richmond and was preparing to move north to threaten Maryland and Pennsylvania. Before Edward joined the army that summer, he sought permission from his parents and the Trinity College president. Hopson enlisted in Watertown on August 4, 1862, mustering into Company D of the 19th Connecticut in September. Two months later, the nineteen-year-old private expected the war to be wrapped up by spring and that he would see his renegade brother soon.  

“First, I prophesy that within a month,” he wrote to Carrie in November 1862, “the Waterloo of the war will be fought in Virginia, which battle will take place [and] Richmond will be in our hands before Christmas. Second, that Willie and I will get together in Richmond. Third, that peace will be declared by the 1st of March. Fourth, that Will and I will get home by next summer.”

“I have a constant intense longing to take an active part in the war, and rise, if possible, to a position of honor and usefulness.”

Serving in the defenses ringing Washington, far from major fighting, soldiers in the 19th Connecticut spent time drilling and finding ways to relieve boredom. Hopson studied French and Spanish, dreaming of visiting countries where both languages were spoken. He also yearned for a higher calling in the army: a command of troops, perhaps even one of the black regiments that were to be formed in 1864. When George Hopson was taken aback by that idea, Edward was indignant: “I am going right ahead,” he wrote him, “and use all honorable efforts to obtain the position I desire.”

In the winter of 1863, after obtaining a recommendation from Connecticut Gov. William Buckingham and prominent citizens, Edward went to Washington, where he hoped to pass an examination before the Board of Examiners to receive a commission. But with only a day or two to study, a “terribly confused and embarrassed” Hopson failed the test and was rejected. The ambitious, young soldier was crushed.

“I have a constant intense longing to take an active part in the war, and rise, if possible, to a position of honor and usefulness,” he wrote to Carrie on December 3, 1863. “Yet, in spite of all my attempts, I have never been able to get into active service, or to rise from the ranks.

“Pray for and with me, my dear sister, that I may work my way up, though fate and hell oppose me.”

By March 1864, William Hopson had not seen his family in years nor heard from his sister in New England in months. “My life,” he wrote Carrie, “has been a wild and eventful one.”

Wherever he went with the Rebel army in Virginia, William, who had risen to staff officer in the 62nd Georgia cavalry regiment, saw misery caused by Yankees. He recalled riding between rows of “naked, scorched, blackened chimneys where once were pleasant villages” and seeing “defenseless women and children fleeing from barbarians who had fired in their homes [and] over heads and driven them away with curses and abuse.”

He could not conceal his contempt for the Lincoln administration, which he sarcastically called “the best Govt. the world ever saw,” and the Union army.

“I have been living an outpost life, on the frontier, and have seen war in all its horror,” he noted in the short letter.

His brother in blue wasn’t mentioned.

“God be praised!” Edward Hopson wrote to his mother on June 4, 1864, three days after his regiment’s first major battle of the war at Cold Harbor, Virginia. “We are thus far successful, and through the mercy of God I am thus far uninjured. …”

A strange, wild experience – Heaven grant it may be the last.

In May 1864, the 19th Connecticut, renamed the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, had been pulled from Washington’s defenses to help keep pressure on Lee’s army and Richmond. Cold Harbor was a horrific, and bloody, disaster for the Heavies, who suffered 316 casualties during a futile charge on the well-entrenched Rebels. Edward, who “prayed earnestly” before the battle that he’d do his duty faithfully, admitted he was frightened when the order was received to attack. He wasn’t the only one.

“Throughout the battle, the shells flew all about to my terror,” the regiment’s chaplain wrote the night of June 1, 1864. “You cannot conceive the horror and awfulness of a battle. I never wish to hear another, much less see it.”  And later, he chillingly told his wife: “Pray for me. I cannot write—am not in a fit state of mind.”

Days after Cold Harbor, Edward gathered grapeshot, fragments of shell and spent bullets from the ground where his regiment charged and sent the souvenirs to his sister in Vermont. “I know that it is foolish to send them,” he wrote her, “but I am willing to pay a big postage for the sake of having some of them to keep myself after I get home—if I ever do.”

In Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley later that summer, Hopson survived battles at Winchester on September 19 and Fisher’s Hill two days later. “Another great and glorious victory has been vouchsafed to us,” wrote Edward to his mother, “and all through the favor of God, I am alive and well.” But as the Heavies fought in the rolling fields near Middletown, Virginia, on October 19, 1864, Edward, who had been promoted to corporal in July, was killed when he was struck by bullets in the shoulder and thigh. The twenty-two-year-old soldier was buried with the bodies of his comrades on the Cedar Creek battlefield, a crude, wooden headboard with his name written on it marking the spot.

Less than a month after his death, Edward’s parents were informed that their son had received his long-coveted commission as 2nd lieutenant in a colored regiment. Ned, according to another soldier, probably never knew. Months later, George Hopson recovered his brother’s body from the battlefield for re-burial in the family plot at St. John’s Cemetery in Poultney, Vermont.

On October 31, 1864, while serving as adjutant in the 8th Georgia Cavalry, William Hopson was wounded at the Battle of  Burgess’ Mill, near Petersburg, Virginia. He was at home in Georgia on furlough because of the wound when Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865.  

Later that summer, Hopson visited his sister in New York and felt reassured that despite turning his back on the Union, family bonds were not permanently broken. “…the grand old affection still rests upon me,” he wrote, “and has burned steadily through the dark ages of these years in all its primal purity.” Nearly nine months after the war ended, William wrote another letter to his sister Carrie—an eloquent, haunting summation of his four-year war experience:

With you I look upon the last dark stormy years as a hideous dream. I never could realize it, even when surrounded with war and its attendant horrors.

I have been in line of battle at the close of a beautiful day and above me and all around me all of God’s creation seemed so harmonious, so peaceful, so smiling, that I would almost forget the terrible scenes in which I was daily engaged. Nature did seem to enter her silent protest and I could realize that only man was vile

I have lain awake many a starlit night at the foot of some grand old tree and the stars would look down lovingly – and old memories would come thronging around me, and the leaves would murmur their soft musical utterances and all would seem so peaceful

Then again we could stand grimly for months, contending for some chosen position, and the tide of battle would ebb and flow over the same ground, the woods would be burned, every green thing destroyed, all scorched, blackened, desolated, until it would seem the good old world of my childhood and youth had passed forever away and in its stead a hideous chaotic ruin, whose air was tainted by the living and the dead, whose day was darkened by smoke and sulphur clouds, whose night was lit by lurid unearthly fires—a land whose chief sounds were the thousand tongued engines of destruction, the groans of wounded and the death rattles.

A strange, wild experience – Heaven grant it may be the last.

On August 31, 1873, William Hopson died in New York of “inflammation of the bowels and brain.” Only 37, he was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon.

Reprinted with permission from Hidden History of Connecticut Union Soldiers by John Banks. Available from the publisher online at www.arcadiapublishing.com or by calling 888-313-2665.

A longtime journalist and Civil War blogger, JOHN BANKS is an editor at ESPN. Previously, he worked for the Dallas Morning News, Baltimore News-American and Martinsburg (W. Va.) Evening Journal. He has authored two Civil War books published by The History Press, Connecticut Yankees at Antietam (2013) and Hidden History of Connecticut Union Soldiers (2015). He lives in Connecticut with his wife and two daughters. Contact him at jbankstx@comcast.net.

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