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|Mystery of Ferriday's 120-year-old Confederate war vet|
JAMES LEWIS HOPKINS RETURNS TO LIFE NOV. 7-8 AT ANGELS ON THE BLUFF
James Lewis Hopkins, a Confederate veteran of the American Civil War, was said to have been 120 years, seven months and 28 days old when he died in Ferriday on Sunday, Sept. 10, 1944.
He was believed to have been the oldest living Civil War veteran before his death.
There were those during Hopkins' lifetime who doubted the story of his age and his military service. But before he passed away in Ferriday six decades ago, many of the doubters came to believe him.
The Louisiana Board of Pension Commissioners, after much research, never proved nor disapproved his age. Instead, the board, led by Secretary W.M. Stirling, simply accepted his age and his claim of Confederate military service. Along the way, officials from three states, including politicians, became involved in Hopkins' case and most seemed interested in helping to prove the old man's story of military service and longevity.
In 1944, the death of James Lewis Hopkins, a link to a bygone era, received little fanfare. Times were tough then, World War II was still raging and Hopkins was a simple man who didn't call attention to himself.
A native of South Carolina, Hopkins arrived in Concordia Parish in the early 1920s and died 20 years later. He was buried in the Natchez City Cemetery in a standard $150 funeral service of the day, arranged by Young's Funeral Home of Ferriday.
Old Hopkins will be reborn, right there beside his grave, Nov. 7-8 when the Natchez City Cemetery presents its annual program, "Angels on the Bluff." Vidalia Chamber President Sam Jones will take on the role of James Lewis Hopkins.
Four decades after his death, the Natchez Chapter No. 304, United Daughters of the Confederacy, properly marked Hopkins' grave June 1, 1985. Several of Hopkins' relatives attended the service.
When Don Estes was director of the Natchez City Cemetery he use to tell visitors that Hopkins "was 12 years old at the time of the Alamo and died at the end of World War II. That's quite a span of American history."
But just as intriguing as his age was his mysterious life. He seemed to bounce from place to place. He was married four times and widowed from each marriage. He roamed the South during the years after the Civil War, leaving South Carolina sometime in the late 1880s or early 1890s. He was in Indian Territory in Oklahoma in 1892, in Georgia around 1900 and in Desha County, Ark., in 1912, where he apparently lived until journeying to Concordia Parish in the 1920s.
Hopkins rarely talked about his Confederate service, according to his daughter Katie Curtis, who signed his death certificate, and a neighbor of Hopkins' in Ferriday, Clyde Regan. Both Curtis and Regan provided material on Hopkins to author Jay S. Hoar for his 1986 book: "The South's Last Boys in Gray: A Substudy of Sunset and Dusk of the Blue and the Gray," 670 pages with 85 photographs.
Regan told Hoar that Hopkins "didn't talk much about the war, but he liked to sit in the sun and was fond of beer. Everyone who knew him called him 'Dad.'" He was often observed walking around town, and would sometimes buy a beer and sit on a bench and drink. Just as often, he would walk home with the brew.
Hopkins' daughter Katie Curtis said her father was tall, had brown eyes, loved walking, was a regular Bible reader and went to church. She said he enjoyed deer hunting and fishing, was kind to his fellow man and had no enemies. She remembered him as a happy person "who enjoyed life and never seemed to worry about anything."
She said her father "never really said what permitted him to live so long." He loved vegetables, but he also enjoyed a good roast or fried chicken.
Hopkins was 6-ft. tall, had long gray hair and walked with a cane. He often wore khakis and a top coat, even in warm weather. He liked children.
Hopkins worked as a laborer in Arkansas until 1920 where he performed menial chores and wandered about.
HOPKINS APPLIES FOR PENSION
In the early 1920s he moved first to Clayton. From 1922 to 1932 -- Hopkins was the overseer at Dunbarton Plantation at Lamarque, a name rarely used in Concordia nowadays. You can find Lamarque on an old map. It was located just a short piece east of Dunbarton. Eventually he moved to Ferriday, where he spent his final days on earth.
He enjoyed fishing the Tensas River, living his last years on Mississippi Avenue in Ferriday, says Hoar, "in a shotgun house among shotgun houses -- centered front door, one-story affair with series of rooms fore and aft under a regular single-gabled roof...But here it was that old Hopkins basked on thermal days; that, sitting on a front step, he often talked to passing school children...Here he could be seen on a hot afternoon in a patch of breeze-catching shade, quaffing down a can of Falstaff Beer....On overcast days, having leisure, this Gray pensioner would take his hackberry and hickory pole and strike off east of town to catch a catfish...in Lake Concordia."
But as this old man got older, he learned that he could apply for a Confederate pension. He did this on May 25, 1931, about the time his employment at Dunbarton Plantation was coming to an end. He sent his application in to the Louisiana Board of Pension Commissioners on May 25, 1931. He listed his age on the application as 107 years, four months.
Eager to please the old soldier, the board granted his pension -- $60 a month -- in a record 14 days. But questions about Hopkins' story were soon raised.
There are 45 documents in Hopkins' file at the Louisiana Secretary of State's Office, which detail an amazing story of a governmental body -- the state pension board -- trying to confirm the age and military service of a man who claimed to be almost 11 decades old at the time and whose military service ended seven decades earlier.
Hopkins said he was born in Lancaster County, South Carolina, on Jan. 12, 1824, and enlisted in the Confederacy in Camden, S.C., in April 1861, serving until the close of the war when he was paroled near Richmond, Va., in 1865.
On his pension application, he claimed to own no property, real or personal. To the question -- "What is the value of your total annual income from all sources?" -- the old man wrote: "just exist."
Initially accepting his war record as authentic, the pension commissioners checked their records and realized that Hopkins was apparently "the oldest man now upon our rolls."
For the next few years, old Hopkins seem to live a carefree life until June 19, 1937, when the Confederate veteran was living briefly in Winnfield. Pension commission secretary Stirling asked Winnfield lawyer R.W. Oglesby to try to verify Hopkins' age. Concordia officials had previously been asked to do the same thing, but no one really could.
Oglesby wrote the pension board of Hopkins: "If he is a day over 90, I'm 195. ...The fact is, if an investigation should be made, he is going on his father's or grandfather's record...I do not want to do him an injustice, but from appearances, he is not entitled to a Confederate pension and his case should be investigated."
A month later, Hopkins wrote the pension board, informing him that his check had not arrived: "I don't know what the trouble is...If I am to get anymore checks let me know."
Stirling wrote Lancaster County, South Carolina, Sheriff John Hunter and the South Carolina Office of Comptroller, which oversaw pensions, seeking information from each on Hopkins' war record and his age.
Stirling wrote the sheriff: "Mr. Hopkins tells us that you have known him (Hopkins) for a long time and can give us information regarding his age, the names of other members of his immediate family and probably other information that would enable us to identify him as the man who rendered the service..." to Co. B, 7th Battalion, South Carolina Infantry.
Hunter replied that he could find no records to proved Hopkins' service.
On July 13, 1937, the Board of Pension Commissioners was becoming suspicious of Hopkins, which was apparently the reason Hopkins had not been mailed his most recent pension payment. On this date, the board said he (Hopkins) must "send in evidence to prove your correct age, or to show cause, on or before the next regular meeting date, why your name should not be dropped from our pension roll."
On July 14, 1937, the South Carolina Comptroller General wrote Stirling: "I regret to advise that we have no record of the service of one James Hopkins referred to in your letter of July 12, and would suggest that you write the War Department in Washington for this information."
On Aug. 3, 1937, Hopkins wrote another letter to the pension board about his missing check for July, which had yet to arrive. In the letter, Hopkins indicated that he and Stirling had met earlier to discuss his age.
"What did you find about the names I gave you when you were here." He also wondered if Stirling "found my name as I told you you would."
Stirling replied: "I regret to say that the information secured in the investigation of your case has not been very satisfactory, and I am unable to send you any more checks until the board considers the matter at the next meeting and reaches a decision."
Prove your age and the pension checks will continue to be sent, said Stirling. Without proof, he said, "the checks will be canceled."
Stirling kept digging, and he continued to correspond with officials in other states. But he thought the old man was no more than 75 to 80 years of age.
Meanwhile, on Aug. 11, 1937, Hopkins replied to Stirling's letter informing him that his pension was in limbo. Hopkins asked if the board could send him his July pension check so that he could attend the pension board's September meeting.
HOPKINS CONVINCES PENSION BOARD
"I am out of funds and I expected the checks to come," he wrote. "The great state of Louisiana intends for me to have this pension and I hope to be able to prove it by the time the board meets. Please be good enough to send me the check so that I will be able to come to the meeting of the board."
Stirling, again showing compassion, agreed to send Hopkins his July pension check so that he could attend the pension board meeting. But he warned Hopkins: "You should immediately take steps to secure written evidence to present to the board to prove your age."
Stirling also wrote the war department again in Washington, D.C. He wondered if a headstone for a James Hopkins, who served "during the Civil War in Co. B, 7th Battalion, South Carolina Infantry, C.S.A," has been furnished? In other words, had a man by that name already died and received his headstone as furnished by the U.S. government?
There is no documentation in the Secretary of State's files of a reply to that question.
But on September 13, 1937, a Monday, Hopkins got his meeting with the pension board. The board wanted to believe the old man. And he gave it good reason to.
According to notes taken at the meeting, Hopkins said his father's name was William Hopkins, and that he was buried in Flat Rock in Lancaster County, South Carolina.
Hopkins listed several of the men who served in his company during the Civil War, noting that he missed the battle of Gettysburg because he was on a furlough. A few months later, in the fall of 1863, he got another furlough due to his wife's illness.
During the Civil War, Hopkins testified that he had little meat to eat, although sometimes there was beef. On occasion the soldiers had flour bread to eat and there was no coffee.
Before Gettysburg, he swapped tobacco for coffee in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Hopkins also specifically mentioned fighting during the siege of Petersburg in 1864.
Pension commissioners also learned that Hopkins was baptized in 1859 in the Wolf Pit Baptist Church in Lancaster County, S.C., that he owned a home in South Carolina in the 1870s or 1880s, that he never belonged to a veteran camp, and the last Confederate reunion Hopkins attended was in Memphis in 1909.
The commissioners took him at his word. And another man had a change of heart -- the man who said Hopkins didn't look a day over 90. Attorney R.W. Oglesby of Winnfield wrote on Sept. 1937: "I would not for the world be party to an injustice to a Confederate veteran. My father fought four years under the Stars and Bars and my feelings toward the few remaining ones are the tenderest. To cut him off would entail hardships that he could not endure very long."
According to Hoar's book, Hopkins was the fourth oldest Confederate veteran on record.
Ranked third oldest was Mark Thrash, Tennessee, 120 years, 11 months, 22 days at death on Dec. 17, 1943; second oldest, Sylvester M. Magee, Mississippi, 130 years, four months, 17 days at death on Oct. 15, 1971; and oldest, James E. Monroe, Florida, 133 years, 11 months, 24 days at death on June 28, 1949.
When Hopkins was born in 1824, the nation was being led by its fifth president. He lived through 28.
This ancient Reb has the distinction in the records of the Louisiana Pension Commission as having been the oldest living Confederate veteran in Louisiana, the fourth oldest in the Confederacy -- at 120 years, seven months, 28 days old.
(For more info on Angels on the Bluff call Natchez Visitor's Reception Center 601-446-6345.)
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