The life of Harrison Hawkins, father of the Rev. M.E. Hawkins, has not been nearly as well-known in the family as the ancestors of the daughter-in-law he never knew, Fern Porter Hawkins. In fact, until 1992, even the fact that his name was Harrison was not known to the family. An inquiry a few years earlier at the Greenwood Cemetery in Grand Rapids where he is buried offered the name “Hanson” (which was eventually proven to be erroneous).[1]


We knew that Grandpa Hawkins’s father had fought for the Union in the Civil War. His Company identification is right on his headstone (Company D, First Regiment, Michigan Infantry), and a vet flag was always by the headstone. But it wasn’t until September 1992, when the National Archives produced all the papers in his pension records, that factual data about him and his life were forthcoming. From them we learned his name, his parents’ names, the dates of his enlistment in and discharge from the Civil War, the dates of his marriage to and divorce from Mont’s mother, Florence, and the fact of his second marriage.



An intriguing piece of information about what took Harrison into the Union Army in the early days of the Civil War did not come from the Archives. Chip Hawkins, son of Paul Hawkins and grandson of Grandpa M. E. Hawkins, reports that his father told him Harrison joined up because he was paid to fight in someone else’s place. That someone was a man named Aram Keeler. Forty-seven years later he offered a burial place for Harrison in his family plot.


If this is true, then Grandpa Hawkins apparently kept that information pretty close to his heart. In family gatherings at his father’s grave, he left the impression (at least with me, his granddaughter Esther) that Keeler had been a “war buddy” of his father’s. The possibility that Harrison had no other relationship with Keeler is born out in the fact that Keeler’s name does not appear on any of the Archive records, though names of various of Harrison’s cohorts do appear—witnesses to his eye injury and later his marriage. Yet Keeler evidently kept track of Harrison and knew when he died, apparently somewhat strapped for resources.[2]



Among the papers from the Archives are Harrison’s death certificate (needed for his widow to lay claim to his pension) and the record of a second marriage ten years before his death. Without the death certificate, we would not have the name of his mother (another Esther in another branch of the family). Perhaps the most special of all the papers is a form filled out by Harrison in the summer of 1897. In his own handwriting, it is the only source of information we have about his marriage to and, after 22 years of marriage, divorce from Grandpa Hawkins’s mother.


We learn from the Archive papers that Harrison was born in New York (nothing more specific) to James and Esther Eastman Hawkins. A birth date is never given. In the manner of those times, however, on four occasions, his age is given.

            At enlistment:                            (July 4, 1861)               17

            At application for pension:         (Sept. 23, 1891)           48

            At second marriage:                  (Sept. 23, 1898)           54

            At death:                                  (Feb. 3, 1908)              68


Calculations with those figures do not result in the same year for his birth. So what do we believe? The death certificate says he was 68 yrs., 6 mons. & 2 days when he died. That would make his birth date August 1. If he was born in 1843, he would have still been 17, a month short of 18, when he enlisted. It seems logical to give more credence to the statistics given, no doubt by him, when he was alive than to the one after he was dead.


We find the following in one of the pension papers:

      His personal description at the time he enlisted was a follows: Age: 17 years; height: 5 feet, 4 inches; complexion: dark; color of hair: dark; color of eyes: dark . . . occupations when enlisted: farmer.


He enlisted in the Union Army in Jackson, Michigan, in July 1961, three months after Fort Sumpter and two months after Lincoln called for 42,000 volunteers for three years.



Two documents in the pension papers also describe an injury to his left eye a year after his enlistment.


From the Proof of Disability document, dated May 31, 1890:

       . . . That the said [Harrison] Hawkins as while in the line of his duty, at or near Malvern Hill in the State of Virginia did, on or about the first day of July, 1962, become disabled in the following manner, viz: Something got in his eye and he has partially lost his sight from that cause of one eye. We have personally know him since 1861 [and] was in the same company and regiment with him. Know his eyes was both good before the accident above referred to. He went to a doctor at [Harrison’s] Landing and was treated then for the injury to his eye.


From the Soldier’s Declaration for Pension document, dated September 23, 1891:

That said disability is Injury of left eye contracted at Malvern Hill, Va, in July 1962. Partial deafness both ears contracted in fall of 1963. Rheumatism contracted in spring of 1864 campaign near Petersburg, VA.



The Golden Book of the Civil War[3] provides the following references to and description of the Battle of Malvern Hill. Background: The Confederates were led by Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Union by Gen. George McClellan. Malvern Hill was the last engagement in what became known as the Seven Days’ Battle.

At Savage’s Station, on June 29, Magruder struck at McClellan’s rear guard. He had to break off the action when “Stonewall” Jackson could not come to his support. On June 30, Lee planned to hit the Federals south of White Oak Swamp. . . . Again things went wrong. . . .  Although they fought fiercely in hand-to-hand combat, it was no use. Jackson gave them little help. . . . McClellan fell back to Malvern Hill. While his men dug in, he telegraphed Washington: “I shall do my best to save the army. Send more gun boats.” [Malvern Hill backed on the James River.]


It was up to General Porter to hold the 150-foot-high hill. He had plenty of infantry, both in place and in reserve. More important, he had plenty of field pieces, . . . long-range siege guns, and gunboats with heavy batteries on the James River.


Lee . . . felt that one more push might be all the Union army could stand. On July 1, he gave orders for an attack, the greatest of the Seven Days’ battles. . . . In a short time, the Federal guns had silenced every Southern battery within range. Through a mix-up in orders, wave after wave of Confederate infantry charged up the hill. Each time they were smashed by the massed Federal guns. [One general] said later, “It was not war, it was murder.” About 5,500 Confederates fell on the slopes of Malvern Hill that day. The next morning, a horrified Union officer looked at the bodies strewn over the ground. He said, “A third of them were dead or dying, but enough of them were alive and moving to give the field a singular crawling effect.”


The terrible Seven Days were over. Altogether, Lee had lost 20,000 men in killed and wounded, to the Union’s 16,000 . . . . But in spite of his losses, he had won a victory which the Confederacy had to have. Lee fell back to Richmond, to rest his men and refit his battered army. The Federals marched the eight miles from Malvern Hill to Harrison’s Landing. They, too, needed rest and new equipment.



The account goes on the say that if McClellan had only been aggressive and counter-attacked at the time, he might have overcome the smaller Confederate forces and gained control of Richmond (something for which they would have to wait another three years). Instead, he “dug in at Harrison’s Landing and asked Washington for 100,000 more troops.”


Note that the Harrison Hawkins Proof of Disability document says that he received treatment for his eye from a doctor at Harrison’s Landing. Following the Battle of Malvern Hill and the interval at Harrison’s Landing, McClellan took his entire army (some 140,000 strong) to the Berkeley Plantation on the James River. There they camped and used the grounds as headquarters and hospital throughout the rest of the summer. While there, Gen. Daniel Butterfield composed “Taps.”[4]


In the spring of 1993, Fred and Esther Gross visited the Malvern Hill battlefield and Berkeley Plantation on the James River. “Harrison’s Landing” was undoubtedly just that, the boat or ship landing for the Harrisons’ plantation.



The other reference to a specific battle in the pension papers is the “campaign near Petersburg, Va.” in the “spring of 1864.” A look at the historical record shows that the Union Army, under General Grant, did indeed engage in a major campaign, actually a siege, of Petersburg for five months beginning in June of 1864. [Petersburg was actually a very short distance south of Malvern Hill. Where the Michigan 1st Infantry had fought in the two intervening years we do not know, though it could undoubtedly be traced.]


They turned their attention on Petersburg following a disastrous frontal charge on the Confederates a bit north of Malvern Hill at Cold Harbor. The soldiers had known it was a hopeless charge. “Many of them pinned slips of paper to their coats, bearing their name and address. About 7,000 Union men fell in just half an hour. A Rebel colonel noted that ‘the dead covered more than five acres of ground about as thickly as they could be laid.’” It is quite likely that Harrison Hawkins was in that battle.


The move to Petersburg was strategic because most of the railroads that linked Richmond to the South passed through there. But instead of being able to cut off the capital and swiftly gain control of it, the campaign dragged on for miserable months. “For the Yankees the siege was a time of misery. One soldier called it ‘hell itself.’” Weeks of blazing heat without rain, then too much rain; never-ending engagements with the enemy, day or night; constant exertion and little rest led many to desert, in addition to plenty of wounded and dead. Catton refers to it as “the hardest, longest, costliest battles ever seen on the American continent.”[5]


In the midst of the campaign, on August 31, Harrison Hawkins was honorably discharged. He had served three years and two months with the Michigan First and was still a private.



We know nothing of where Harrison was or what he did for the next eleven years until July 3, 1875. That is when he married 21-year-old Florence Huntley. She was born November 28, 1853, In Jackson County, Michigan (the same county where Harrision enlisted). Birth place for both her father and her mother are listed as New York.[6]


We have conflicting reports about her father’s name: Paul Hawkins’s marriage certificate lists it as Isaac, while her death certificate says Elijah. Since the information for both documents would likely have come from her son Mont, the discrepancy is hard to explain. Her death certificate says her mother’s maiden name was Thompson.


Harrison and Florence had three children, William, Maude, and Montell (later Rev. M.E. Hawkins of Mishawaka, IN; see his story). Though Maude died as a child, a large picture of her survives in the family. Grandpa Hawkins was always known as “Mont”; the only record on “Montell” is the one in his father’s handwriting in 1897. Perhaps he discarded Montell following his life-changing experience at the age of 28?


Mont was born with a diseased eye as a result of the syphilis which his father had transmitted to his mother. The eye had to be removed, and Mont spent his life with a glass eye. Eventually, after 22 years, the marriage of Florence and Harrison was dissolved in divorce. Both remarried.


From the information we have, we can construct the following chronology for Harrison’s life:


        EVENT                                                DATE                              PLACE

        Birth                                                     August 1, 1843/1844        New York

        Enlistment                                             July 1861                         Jackson, Mich.

        Eye injury                                             July 1862                         Malvern Hill, Virginia

        Discharge                                             August 1864                     Petersburg, Virginia

        Marriage to Florence                            July 3, 1875                     Grand Rapids, Mich.

        Birth of William                                     August 28, 1876               unknown

        Birth of Mont                                        Jan. 2, 1880                     Pierson, Mich.

        Proof of Disability                                 May 31, 1890                  Jackson

        Soldier’s Declaration for Pension          Sept. 1891                       Grand Rapids

              $4.00 pension began

        Divorce from Florence                          April 1897                        Grand Rapids

        Marriage to Syntha Marshall                 Sept.23, 1898                  Middleville, Mich.

        $12.00 a month pension began              Sept. 1892

        Last pension payment                           Dec. 4, 1907

        Death                                                   Feb. 3, 1908                    Ottawa, Mich.

        Syntha applied for widow’s pension      March 16, 1908               Kent Co., Mich.



In January of 1908 when Harrison was dying of stomach cancer, his son Mont had a life-changing experience. He turned his life over to Jesus Christ—and it turned his life completely around. He rushed to his dying father’s bedside and was able to lead him to confession of sin and claiming of salvation before he died on Feb. 3.


As mentioned earlier, Harrison was buried in the family plot of one Aram Keeler, near the Leonard Street main entrance of the Greenwood Cemetery in northwest Grand Rapids. The large stone says “Keeler” and a smaller one says simply, “Keeler and Hawkins.” Despite the “paid to fight” aspect of the story, Grandpa Hawkins (Mont) always gave the impression that it was something special and generous on Keeler’s part to have “taken in” Harrison to be buried right there with his own family (wife and daughter).


We do not know when Florence remarried, but it was to a William Waite. He had two children; I believe their names were Fred and Carrie. He died four years before Florence. Following a stroke in the fall of 1926, she lived the last ten weeks of her life with her son Mont’s family in Mishawaka, Indiana. She died November 27, the day before her 73rd birthday. She is buried beside William in the large cemetery on Knapp and Fulton Streets in Grand Rapids.


Related links:


Michigan 1st Regiment

[1] The reason for this error was uncovered in the pension papers. The confusion apparently resulted because in one of the papers, in a particular person’s handwriting, the double “r” and the “i” in “Harrison” were rounded and humped together, making them look like an “m” (i.e., Hamson, interpreted as Hanson).

[2] There is one reason not to consider the subject closed. History tells us that it was in the second year of the War that a law was passed allowing one person to fight in place of another.

[3] By Charles Flato, from The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, by Bruce Catton. New York: Golden Press, 1976.

[4] The Presidents, a compilation from Saturday Evening Post. Indianapolis: Curtis Publishing Co., 1980. The three-story brick mansion at the Berkeley Plantation was built in 1726. It was the family home of the Harrison family (Benjamin, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; his son, William Henry Harrison, 9th President of the U.S., and William’s grandson, Benjamin II, 23rd president of the United States.


[5] American Heritage Picture History, p. 155.

[6] Information from her death certificate in St. Joseph County, Indiana.