Harrison Hawkins Civil War Service


We always knew that Grandpa Hawkins’s father had fought for the Union in the Civil War, and I remember visiting his grave with Grandpa more than once while he was still alive. I remember his telling us how when his father died rather strapped for funds, a “war  buddy” (that’s the term I remember him using) had generously offered his family’s cemetery plot for the burial. Though the Company identification was right on the headstone (Company D, First Regiment, Michigan Infantry) and a vet flag was always beside it, the names on the headstone are simply “Keeler and Hawkins”—no first names, and I don’t remember any questions about that being asked of Grandpa as we stood around.

An inquiry a few years earlier at the Greenwood Cemetery in Grand Rapids where he is buried offered the name “Hanson." It wasn’t until September 1992 when a friend clued me in to applying for records from the National Archives and they 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 Union Army of the Civil War, and the fact of his second marriage.

We also picked up was a possible explanation for the cemetery’s confusion on his name. That may have resulted because on one of the Archive documents 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). The handwriting is the same for the mention of “Harrison’s Landing” where a doctor treated his injured eye.


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 report 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.

One reason not to consider the subject closed is that history tells us it wasn’t until a couple of years later in the War that a law was passed allowing one person to fight in place of another. Here is an interesting website on the subject: Did Grandpa keep it close to his heart because paying a substitute didn’t become legal until two years later?

But wait! The headstone plainly reads Keeler and Hawkins, with CO.D.1.MICH.INFT. clearly below the names. Despite all the discussion, I find it hard to believe that Keeler would have placed Harrison’s unit on the headstone if it wasn’t his also—especially since no life dates (1843-1908) were ever added for Harrison. Keeler’s dates are under his name—1845-1921.


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 1861, 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, 1862, 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 1862. Partial deafness both ears contracted in fall of 1863. Rheumatism contracted in spring of 1864 campaign near Petersburg, VA.


Battle Fields at Malvern Hill
The day we visited this battlefield was foggy and dreary, which added an extra depth of emotion to seeing the field.

Golden Book of the Civil War[1] 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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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.


In the midst of that campaign, on August 31, 1864, Harrison Hawkins was honorably discharged. He had served three years and two months with the Michigan First. Though he was still a private, it is noteworthy that he had served out his full term in a war where desertion was common and frequent.

For Harrison’s life before and after the Civil War, see Harrison and Florence.

Other related links:


Michigan 1st Regiment

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

[2] 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.

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