Colonel William Stewart Hawkins, CSA: Prisoner and Poet of Camp Chase, Ohio

By Noah Huffman
Special Collections Assistant

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William S. Hawkins, April 1864. An inscription on the back reads "remains of our dear flag for which we fought and nobly died." All illustrations from the Tucker Family Papers and Tucker Family Photograph Collection“Pardon me if the expressions of my gratitude for your sisterly kindness and sympathy have been too warm. . .” — Colonel William S. Hawkins, 11th Tenn. Cavalry

Confederate prisoner Colonel William S. Hawkins wrote these lines to Lucy G. Tucker of Louisville in an 1864 letter now housed in The Filson’s recently cataloged Tucker family papers. While the Tucker collection contains several other items pertaining to this prominent 19th century family of Louisville, such as correspondence, land surveys, church covenants, and wills, it is the six letters and three original poems of Col. William Hawkins that make this small collection particularly interesting and revealing.

Born in Madison County, Alabama in 1837, William Hawkins expressed an early interest in literature and poetry. He studied both at the University of Nashville and later at Bethany College of Virginia, where he received his degree in 1858. Hawkins then studied law under Tennessee Governor Neill S. Brown and built a reputation as an outspoken advocate of secession. Shortly after war broke out in 1861, Hawkins left his young wife and child and volunteered for a Tennessee cavalry unit. After distinguished service at the Battle of Shiloh, he was promoted to the 11th Tennessee Battalion, where he commanded Joseph Wheeler’s Mounted Scouts. In January of 1864, however, Hawkins military career ended abruptly when he was captured by Union forces and taken to a Lucy G. Tucker, ca. 1860s. Louisville hospital as a prisoner of war.1 It was in Louisville that Hawkins, 27, first met the 42-yearold Lucy G. Tucker, whom he later described as “my special providence in this prolonged and dreary life as a captive.”

Twenty years earlier in 1843, Lucy had married Charles S. Tucker of Louisville, a prominent financial broker in the city. Together the couple took up residence at “Hayfield,” the family estate just east of town, where they raised their four children and lived a life typical of the city’s elite. When war erupted, the Tuckers cast their lot with the Confederacy, and as a result, Lucy found herself in the same predicament that similar Kentuckians faced. In September of 1862 she wrote: “I remain loyal to our state, but nevertheless feel a strong sympathy for our southern friends.” During the first few years of the war, she attended meetings of the Humane Ladies of "The Captive’s Letter," by Col. William S. Hawkins, March 1864. Louisville, an organization that prepared bandages and other supplies for wounded Union soldiers. But when rumor spread through the organization that Lucy supported “southern rights,” a fellow Humane Lady wrote to her declaring, “We believe you are a spy, and must decline any more of your assistance in preparing comforts for the union party.” Angered by the accusation, Lucy wrote to the local doctor who had provided instruction to the group and suggested that even though her loyalties lay with the South, she had “quite as much claim to the name of ‘humane’ ladies” as anyone else in the organization. By
1864, though, Lucy was no longer attending meetings of the Humane Ladies. Instead, she was attending to sick and wounded Confederate soldiers who passed through Louisville on their way to northern prison camps in Ohio and Illinois. In January of 1864, one of these patients was Colonel William Hawkins.

In the few weeks after his capture and before his transfer to Camp Chase near Columbus, Ohio, Hawkins convalesced in a Louisville hospital “suffering considerably from an affliction of the throat.” Sometime during his short stay in Louisville, Lucy Tucker Lucy G. Tucker with her daughters Linnie and Mary Belle. Filson Photograph Collection impressed Hawkins with her “gentle kindness” and her generous assistance. He would never forget it, and in the following months he sent Lucy a series of letters and poems from Camp Chase expressing his profound appreciation for her friendship amidst the privations of prison life. In February 1864, Hawkins wrote about a recent dream he had: “I thought I heard the light fall of a woman’s step, the gentle rustling of her robe, and fancied I was in Louisville at some friend’s house and that you had come to see me.” Accompanying the letter, Hawkins included an original poem written for Tucker entitled “Behind the Bars,” in which he captured the anguish of his captivity and his  longing for a woman’s companionship. The poem began: “Though I rest within a prison / and long miles between us be, / yet through bonds and weary distance, Sweet, / my soul goes out to thee.”

Both flattered and taken aback by the intimacy of Hawkins’ letters and poems, Lucy felt obligated to question the colonel’s motives. In response, Hawkins defended the expressions of his affection for Lucy and argued that he intended nothing but to acknowledge her cherished friendship. However, he did concede that perhaps the psychological toll of his imprisonment had compromised his good judgment. Nevertheless, Hawkins Col. William S. Hawkins to Lucy Tucker, 20 February 1864. Hawkins describes a recent dream. Filson Manuscript Collection pleaded, “I have no other liberty, give me at least a little in my letters.” As their correspondence progressed, Hawkins’ letters and poetry became more playful. “It is philosophy spiced with a little fun and set off with a few flowers of poetry,” he explained. 

When not flattering Lucy in his letters, Hawkins insisted that he remained in high spirits during his captivity. Apologizing for his sad expression in a photo he sent to Tucker, Hawkins wrote: “Now ordinarily I have neither a sleepy or demure look. I never have the blues, am always cheerful, and often hilarious.” In a March 1864 letter, Hawkins bragged that the other officers at Camp Chase had elected him Chief Executive of their provisional prison government. “The race was exciting,” he declared “some of the planks of my platform were ‘Equal Rights and Equal Rations,’ ‘Death to Detectives!’ and ‘a Speedy Exchange.” He also noted that he was responsible for organizing a Lyceum in the camp, “which holds its sessions twice a week for debates, essays, lectures, etc.” Overall, Hawkins sought to give Tucker the impression that, although he was a prisoner of war, he was not defeated. “I mention these things to show you that we are not stagnating,” he wrote. “We wreathe our manacles with garlands.” 

Despite such attempts to demonstrate his self-sufficiency, the fact remained that like the other 8,000 prisoners at Camp Chase, Hawkins depended largely on the kindness of
Charles S. Tucker, ca. 1860s. Filson Historical Societyoutsiders for his very survival. As other letters in the collection indicate, many Confederate prisoners in the north were unprepared for the harsh winters they endured at places like Camp Chase and Rock Island, Illinois. “The very climate is down on us poor Secesh,” Hawkins wrote in January 1865. For clothing and other rations, Confederate prisoners in the north often relied on southern sympathizers in the border states—people like Lucy and Charles Tucker. In an April 1864 letter, Hawkins wrote to Lucy: “I am compelled for the time being to be under obligations to some one. I desire therefore two sets light underwear . . . collars . . . and an overcoat.” Judging from Hawkins’ letters, it is likely that Lucy provided these items. In exchange for her generous aid, Col. Hawkins gave Lucy the only thing he could—his poetry and his charm. We may never know to what extent Hawkins really cared for Lucy Tucker, but through his sentimental letters and poetry he ensured a ready supply of underwear and other critical rations to get him through the long Ohio winter. Thus, as Hawkins’ example illustrates, many Civil War prisoners often survived on their charm and cunning rather than their bravery and brute strength. 

In a December 1864 letter, a jubilant Hawkins informed Lucy of his parole and his appointment to serve as an official Confederate Agent at the prison. However, in his last letter dated 11 January 1865, Hawkins lamented that, despite his best Anonymous letter to Lucy Tucker, 20 September 1862. Alleges that Lucy is a Confederate spy and should no longer attend meetings of the Humane Ladies. efforts, he felt powerless to help his fellow prisoners. Although he died only a few months later in November 1865 at the young age of 28, Hawkins room-mate at Camp Chase remembered that “his abilities to minister, teach, and govern the men while they were imprisoned helped their lives to become enriched.”2 

According to several sources, at least two of Hawkins’ poems were published after the war, “The Letter That Came Too Late” and “The Bonnie White Flag.” The latter was set to music and became popular with the soldiers of Camp Chase. In addition to these known poems, The Filson’s Tucker collection contains three original and unpublished poems by Hawkins as well as six letters to Lucy Tucker that help put his poetry in context. Together, these recently cataloged items document Hawkins’ short but spirited life and particularly his experience as a prisoner of war. Although he witnessed the downfall of his beloved Confederacy just months before his death, Hawkins penned these last prophetic lines in a poem entitled “The Captive’s Letter:”

Hawkins to Lucy Tucker, March 1864. Written on the back of his poem "A Prisoner’s Dream." “From the Harvest lands rise the sweet song of the Reaper, / And the woodman’s axe rings in the forests afar. / The tears shall be dry on the face of the weeper, / and flowers shall smile from the furrows of war!”

"Hayfield," the Tucker family estate in Louisville.1 Background information on Hawkins obtained from Paul Clay’s, “The Men and Women of Camp Chase,” Hilltop Historical Society, Columbus, Ohio.

2 Ibid.

Volume 5, Number 4

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