Thursday, March 05, 2015

A beautiful, haunting post-war letter from a Northern Rebel

Born in New York,  William Allis Hopson served in the Confederate army.
(Photo courtesy of family of Virginia Lamar Hornor Spencer)
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On Jan.19, 1861, Georgia became the fifth Southern state to secede from the Union, prompting celebrations throughout the state. Citizens in Perry became "half wild with enthusiasm,” wrote William Allis Hopson, a transplanted Northerner. When he was 19 in 1855, Hopson had left his family in Vermont to settle in Macon, Ga., where he became a cotton merchant.

Although the New York-born businessman aimed to avoid politics, William found it impossible that winter. In the Perry square, a Georgia flag fluttered atop a liberty pole, citizens made fiery speeches  and several Northerners 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 wrote in a letter to his 21-year-old sister in Vermont.

A corporal in the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, 
Edward Hopson was killed at the Battle of Cedar Creek on 
Oct. 19, 1864. His brother, William, served in the Confederate army.
 (Pre-war photo courtesy Charlet Roskovics)
And should war break out, William left no doubt regarding his allegiance.

“In my opinion the man who would leave this section of the country now," he wrote to Carrie Hopson on Feb. 3, 1861, "is a dastardly coward."

On April 12, 1861, a little more than a month after Hopson wrote the letter to his sister, the Rebels bombarded Fort Sumter, igniting the Civil War. Eight days later, on his 25th birthday, Hopson enlisted in the Confederate Army, mustering into the 2nd Georgia Battalion that July. Wounded at the Battle of Burgess' Mill (Va.) on Oct. 31, 1864, while he was adjutant in the 8th Georgia Cavalry, he was on furlough at home in Georgia when the war effectively ended on April 9, 1865.

His younger brother, Edward, did not see that day. A corporal in the U.S.  Army in the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, he had suffered mortal wounds at the Battle of Cedar Creek (Va.) on Oct. 19, 1864. (See my interactive Cedar Creek panoramas here and here.) Afterward, William Hopson's brother was buried with 12 other comrades near the white house of a country doctor, a short distance from the village of Middletown, Va. Months later, his body was recovered by his brother, George, a minister, and re-buried in Vermont.

Nearly eight months after Lee surrendered to Grant, William wrote another letter to his sister, this time looking back at his four-year war experience. A"hideous dream," he called it. It's one of the most beautiful, eloquent -- and haunting -- letters I have read by a Civil War veteran. William died in New York in 1873. He was only 37.

"...every green thing destroyed..."

Macon, Ga. Dec. 3, 1865

Dear Sister:

“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.

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  1. Anonymous1:11 PM

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Anonymous1:12 PM

    Hello! As it happens, I worked at the Berkeley, CA, Transfer Station for several years, and ended up salvaging about 6 letters by W.A. Hopson, to his sister and his mother. Very interesting reading material! W.A. Hopson was actually born in Connecticut. His brother Ned was killed as a Union soldier one month before Willy was injured as a Confederate soldier.

  3. The war didn't officially end on April 9 -- Lee only surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, and several other Confederate armies remained in the field for weeks or even months afterwards. I'd suggest changing "officially" to "effectively."

  4. Hi, John. This is an interesting blog post.

  5. I love your blog and your writing. Still a newbie learning. You bring so much personalization to it with every day men and women. Love it! At age 68, this old gal can't get enough of Civil War. Presently reading 'Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman by Robert L. O'Connell.

  6. June: I am glad you enjoy. Stories are everywhere, we just have to pay attention. :)

  7. Is anyone capable of writing words like that today?

  8. Great article I enjoy reading your blog and I'm very interested in the civil war

  9. I kept thinking he was describing the Battle of the Wilderness, John. Thanks again.

  10. Hi truly amazing John