A Fateful Shore Leave Leads to a Trip to Andersonville

Ron Coddington
Jun 23, 2015 · 7 min read

Sailor Nathan Hopkins and two of his comrades from the Union frigate Minnesota strolled through the Virginia countryside one day in late June 1864. They had been given a brief shore leave to stretch their legs, which was occasionally granted to the bluejackets to break the monotony of routine patrols along the James River.

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Ordinary Seaman Nathan Edwin Hopkins, U.S. Navy, by an unidentified photographer. Collection of Jerry & Teresa Rinker.

While they walked, Hopkins’s companions related a story they had heard about a monument with a strange inscription located on a nearby hill. They trekked on about a half mile and saw no signs of the monument. Hopkins paused, but his mates encouraged him not to give up. “It is a little further on,” one of his comrades assured him.[1]

The trio continued. Soon afterwards, two Confederate pickets stepped out of the brush and confronted the sailors. Hopkins recalled, “My two companions promptly shook hands with our captors but I did not.”[2]

Thus began an odyssey that landed Hopkins in notorious Andersonville Prison.

Hopkins, 23, had had a relatively long connection to the sea. Born in Maine and raised along the Quinebaug River at Jewett City, Connecticut, he made his first ocean voyage at age fourteen and was a veteran sailor by the outbreak of the war. Along the way he had developed clerical skills that served him well after he joined the navy as a paymaster’s steward in the autumn of 1861. Assigned to the storeship Brandywine, he spent the majority of the next two years aboard the old frigate anchored outside Fortress Monroe, Virginia.

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Fortress Monroe. Library of Congress.

In the summer of 1863 he left the navy, and before the end of the year was recruited by the hard-fighting Twelfth New Hampshire Infantry. The regiment had suffered severely in the recent battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg and desperately needed substitutes to replace their losses. These “Subs,” bemoaned the historian of the Twelfth, were the dregs of society. “Such another depraved vice-hardened and desperate set of human beings never before disgraced an army. To send such vile rubbish to take the place of the fallen brave, and fill up the ranks of the veteran heroes who still remained, was an insult to them, and a desecration to the memory of their late comrades.” The historian lumped sailors into this motley crew, though acknowledged that many of them made good soldiers[3]

Hopkins did not spend enough time with the regiment to be fairly judged. On April 30, 1864, as Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was on the verge of launching his spring campaign into the heart of Virginia, Hopkins transferred back to the navy. He reported to Fortress Monroe for duty and joined the crew of the Minnesota. The wood frigate and her crew had distinguished themselves two years earlier during the Battle of Hampton Roads and the clash of the ironclad vessels Monitor and Merrimac.

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Sketch of the frigate Minnesota by artist Alfred R. Waud. Library of Congress.

“Sometime in May, about a hundred of us from the Minnesota were sent up the James River to do picket duty at night in advance of our fleet,” explained Hopkins. “On or about June 28th 1864 three of us went on shore leave for exercise.” Unbeknownst to him, the two sailors were bounty jumpers who intended to desert at the earliest opportunity.[4]

Once in Confederate hands, they were marched to the headquarters of the picket guard. Two officers, one older and another younger, interrogated them. Hopkins’s shipmates were quizzed about the strength and position of the Union navy. Hopkins was asked a single question on another subject: During the previous week, a pair of Confederate sailors had deserted, and the younger officer wanted to know their fate. “We put them in durance [prison] and put a man over them with a drawn sword, the same as we would over any rogues,” Hopkins replied, “whereupon my questioner made a quick motion to his sword hilt and would have drawn the blade and run me thru had not the older officer seized his arm and held him until he ceased to struggle.”[5]

The prisoners were transferred to Richmond the next day and taken to the provost marshal’s office. Hopkins’s fellow sailors declared themselves deserters and were taken aside. Hopkins declared himself a prisoner of war and was sent to Libby Prison.

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Libby Prison soon after the end of the war by Alexander Gardner. Library of Congress.

Two weeks later, in mid-July, he and a large number of other prisoners were packed on a train destined for Georgia. Hopkins discovered, perhaps much to his surprise, the two sailors with whom he had been captured were also on board. They had been held at Castle Thunder with political prisoners and suspect citizens. Whatever case they had made for their freedom had been rejected. One of the sailors, who Hopkins described as an Englishman who deserted the British navy to take advantage of the sizable Union bounties, jumped the train somewhere in North Carolina and disappeared. The other remained on board and kept a low profile.[6]

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Bird’s eye view of Andersonville, August 17, 1864. Library of Congress.

Hopkins arrived at Andersonville about July 22, 1864. Fourteen long weeks later, on September 27, 1864, he boarded a train with about 150 Union sailors. They were headed for Richmond to be paroled and exchanged for a like number of rebel seamen. Hopkins observed that his other shipmate remained at Andersonville rather than return to the Union and face the consequences of his attempted desertion.

In mid-October, Hopkins prisoner of war status ended outside Richmond along the James River — not far from where his odyssey had begun four months earlier. He and the rest of the prisoners were transferred from a Confederate flag-of-truce boat to the Union steamer Mary Washington. A newspaper correspondent was eyewitness to the event. “On coming near the little rebel flag-of-truce boat, formerly a tow tug, I found its deck full of men, whose appearances at once impressed me that they were rebels. Upon inquiry I ascertained they were our half-starved and half-clothed sailors, whose external semblance gave evidence of bad treatment and worse fare. It was a sad sight,” he continued, “to look upon these heroes, shivering under the cool breeze of the morning, many of them with nothing to wrap themselves up.”[7]

In an account of his wartime experiences written years later, Hopkins did not detail the particulars of his treatment inside Andersonville. But he did describe his homecoming at Annapolis, Maryland. “Our condition was such that it was not considered safe to let us use any building, so we were sent direct to Washington D.C. by rail. As soon as the gates were opened in the morning we were marched in a body into the Navy Yard and taken around the rear were stripped and the rags burned. Then we were washed and shaved, and our hair cut and given new uniforms and were once more made fit to be seen by human eyes.”[8]

The navy granted Hopkins a furlough and he returned to his family in Connecticut. In January 1865 he returned to duty and was assigned to the side-wheel steamer Florida. He spent the rest of the war making round trips from New York to New Orleans to deliver supplies to sailors stationed along the Gulf of Mexico.[9]

According to Hopkins, dissatisfaction among the sailors of the Florida ran high after the shore leaves were cancelled. “Many left the ship by boatload,” he remembered. Hopkins eventually joined them and skipped out on the remainder of his enlistment.

Years later when he applied for a military pension he learned of his status as a deserter. His case was eventually appealed and in February 1923 received notice that his long-delayed pension had been approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and would likely pass the Senate. By this time he suffered from tuberculosis, and he succumbed to the illness two months later at age eighty-two. Three daughters survived him. His wife, whom he married shortly after he left the service, had predeceased him.[10]

[1] Nathan E. Hopkins Papers, Collection of Jerry & Teresa Rinker, Springfield, Ohio.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bartlett, History of the Twelfth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers, pp. 152–153.

[4] Nathan E. Hopkins Papers, Collection of Jerry & Teresa Rinker, Springfield, Ohio.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Press (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), October 24, 1864.

[8] Nathan E. Hopkins Papers, Collection of Jerry & Teresa Rinker, Springfield, Ohio.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

Photograph from the collection of Jerry & Teresa Rinker. Special thanks to Jerry’s daughter, Lynda Setty, for her generosity.

Ron Coddington is a collector of Civil War era images, and the editor and publisher of Military Images magazine. He is the author of three books about Civil War soldiers and their stories. His next book will profile men who served in the Union and Confederate navies. Visit facesofwar.com for more information and a complete index of past columns. Follow Ron on Facebook and Twitter.

This profile originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of the Civil War News.

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