Marcus Sterling Hopkins: A White Northerner in Reconstruction Virginia (PAVS 4500 student paper, spring 2018)

By Madeline Shaw (History Distinguished Major & Philosophy, CLAS 2019)

Sensing the possibility for radical change and restructuring in the aftermath of the Civil War, progressive-minded Northerners travelled to the South, some with the hopes of providing aid to the newly freed. The Freedman’s Bureau, an agency established in March 1865 that primarily focused on promoting and financing education, provided federal protection and benefits to African Americans.[i] Many recently freed people also contributed significantly to their realizing of the benefits and opportunities of their newfound freedom—one of the most important being access to an education. Organizations like the Freedman’s Bureau played a substantial role in the creation and support of schools throughout the South and sent white Northerners to the South as their agents. While they were often progressive in the sense that they supported rights for African Americans, the extent to which white Northerners viewed the equality and capabilities of black people varied among individuals. Being more progressive than former slaveholders on issues of race was not a particularly high standard to meet, and Northerners were capable of condemning the practice of slavery without conceding to the fundamental equality of the races.

Marcus Sterling Hopkins was one of these progressive white Northerners. He served as an agent for the Freedman’s Bureau in 1868, and during his tenure he travelled around Northern and Central Virginia. He was assigned to Prince William County, and later served as the Assistant Subassistant Commissioner for the Bureau Field Office in Louisa County in Central Virginia.[ii] He also frequently travelled to Charlottesville and the surrounding Albemarle area on Bureau business. In his post as an agent to the Freedman’s Bureau, he adjudicated disputes between white and black residents and paid particular attention to local schools and schoolteachers. In a private journal that he kept in 1868, he recorded his thoughts that often reflected a casual dismissal of the intellectual or motivational capabilities of black people, even though it his job was to provide for their welfare.

Hopkins was born on a farm in 1840 near Berlin Heights, Ohio, where he was educated in a public school and briefly served as a teacher. When the Civil War began in 1861, he enlisted as a member of the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Shortly after enlisting, he married local girl Eva Clarantine Clay (who he often refers to as “Cad” in his journal). He fought from 1861 till 1862, when he was severely injured by a musket ball to his jaw that lodged in his right shoulder during the Battle of Cedar Mountain in August, 1862. His injury put him on garrison duty for the rest of the war and prevented him from doing intense physical labor. Despite his inability to farm due to complications from his wound, he purchased a farm in Manassas after the end of the Civil War. Hopkins accepted work from the Freedman’s Bureau out of a desperate need for income, and he worked until the Bureau largely suspended its activity in Virginia in 1868. Once his work with the Bureau concluded, Hopkins and his wife travelled to Washington, D.C. where he received his law degree from Columbian College (now known as George Washington University) in 1871. He worked for the Department of the Interior until 1875, and then operated a private patent law practice in Washington for the next twenty-seven years. A paralytic complication from his war wound eventually caused his death in Falls Church, VA on March 4th, 1914, aged seventy-three.[iii]

In his journal, Hopkins speaks frequently of his daily duties in the Bureau office. His job entailed many different responsibilities having to do with protecting Freedmen and establishing infrastructure for their education and labor. On January 4th, 1868, he remarks that he paid a Mr. Snyder  “for his lot for the freed men’s school house to be moved upon” and on June 19th, 1868,  he “spent the day in Charlottesville looking for land on which to build a schoolhouse for freedmen.”[iv] Another one of his tasks was to compile cohabitation registers of formerly enslaved people in Louisa and Orange country who, despite having families while enslaved, had previously lacked official recognition of their familial ties due to their status as property. The lists were simple, usually containing each household members, their occupation, and their age.[v] Hopkins also makes regular note of his trips to the Orange and Louisa courthouses to attend to legal cases concerning African Americans; they were usually labor disputes or instances of physical assault.

A recurring theme throughout Hopkin’s journal is the potential and actual exploitation of African Americans. He received many letters throughout his years working for the Bureau from a variety of people seeking aid in finding work, drawing up labor contracts, recovering property, and being reunited with family. Hopkins writes in 1864 to another Bureau officer on behalf of Henry Gaskins, a Freedman, who “makes application to me to get his son Charles Gaskins who he says is living with Mr. Redman Brawner…Henry states that he permitted his son to live with Mr. Brawner…until he (Henry) should call for him.”[vi] Mr. Gaskins, possibly because of illiteracy or insufficient resources, had to rely on Hopkins to advocate for the return of his son. In another letter from 1867, a former slave owner writes to Hopkins over a disputed mule to which his former enslaved person is laying claim; he argues that “the boy Andrew laid-up no claims to it—until very recently, in fact, could not do so under the then existing Laws of this state” and so the mule ought to belong to the former slave owner.[vii] On February 21st, 1868, Hopkins noted in his journal that he “spent the day in the office having an unusual amount of business resulting from complaints of freedmen most of them that they were unable to get pay for their labor.”[viii]

Hopkins seemed frustrated with such claims from time to time in his journal, and he remarked on January 13th,1868, that “the freemen are being outraged and swindled to about the extent that such an ignorant, stupid, and yielding subservient class would be anywhere else—and little more on account of political feeling.”[ix] In essence, Hopkins is blaming the victims, the newly freed people, for their exploitation. His job at the Bureau is to protect African Americans from exploitation and provide for their education to overcome “ignorance,” but in his private reflections he appears prejudiced against them as a class of people without regard to their former status as property and their only newfound educational opportunities. Towards the end of his tenure with the Bureau, on September 23rd, 1868, he notes simply that “several cases of outrages were reported to me by freed men most of which I am powerless to redress.”[x] Whether out of cynicism or weariness, his comment suggests that the Bureau had failed in its efforts to protect freed people effectively.

Hopkins was more sympathetic and shocked when it came to instances of physical violence against African Americans. There are at least five discrete instances of violence against freed people by whites recorded in his journal. On March 24th, 1868, Hopkins recalls a particularly brutal fight that broke out at the Orange County Courthouse, where “a white man named Robt. Richardson had shot at and afterwards stabbed and killed a colored man named Jack Howard” and “there was a quarrel in which the whites and Negroes manifested their ill feeling towards each other and ranged [sic] themselves generally by colors on either side”; he blamed the “vices of drunkenness” and “the practice of carrying concealed weapons” for the incident, but he mused that “farther back it comes from the class feeling engendered by slavery.”[xi] Alongside brief comments about the weather and his efforts to sell his farm, Hopkins indifferently stated that he went to “attend to the examination of Mr. Turner for shooting a freedman…it is thought the freed man will die.”[xii] In a brief note on September 20th, 1868, Hopkins remarks that “there has been a manifestation of brutal prejudice here for several days past, on the part of a family named Faulconer. They have been drinking and beating freedmen promiscuously.”[xiii] Severe violence against freed people, while important enough to merit a note, usually is not denounced harshly by Hopkins in his private journal.

However, in his official Bureau correspondence, Hopkins’s condemnation of racial violence is forceful and unequivocal. In an 1866 letter to the Bureau Superintendent of the 10th District of Virginia, Hopkins details a “dastardly outrage” when “a freedman named James Cook was…fired upon with a pistol…and beaten with the but [sic] of a revolver” by a white man named John Cornwell. Cook was beaten for being “impudent” for talking of having served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Hopkins said of Cook that he was “uncommonly intelligent, inoffensive, and respectful.” All of the fault, according to Hopkin’s strongly-worded letter, lay with the white people of the area whom he called “vile and cowardly devils” that “hold an insane malice against the freedman, from which he must be protected, or he is worse off than when he was a slave.”[xiv] Whether it was because of the letter was written earlier in his career compared to the diary, before he came to realize the deeply-rooted and violent racism of Virginia culture, or because he felt he must reflect a concern for the freed people to his superiors, Hopkins had a more apathetic personal attitude towards white racial violence against African Americans in his personal reflections.

It is worth noting that the area was particularly violent in Hopkins’s time, and racialized violence was not the only violence that occurred. On May 9th, 1868, Hopkins casually remarked that he “forgot to mention that Mr. Mills was terribly beaten and mutilated by young Mr. Freeman yesterday. I never saw a man so frightfully pounded up.”[xv] On one occasion when he was visiting UVa, Hopkins witnessed “several fights in town resulting in the stabbing of two men and the breaking of the leg of an officer. Old Va. chivalry was demonstrated.”[xvi] Hopkins himself was almost involved in a duel when a man was mistreating his wife, telegramming the man that he “ought to be shot on sight.”[xvii] The incident was ultimately resolved without force, but violence was part and parcel of life in 1868 Central Virginia.

However, his relative indifference towards racial violence aside, Hopkins remained staunchly against slavery and recognized the damage slavery had done to Africans Americans’ lives. On Friday, January 3rd, 1868, just as he was beginning his journal of his work with the Freedman’s Bureau, Hopkins lamented that “it will be some time yet before the demoralizing effects and tendencies of slavery can be eradicated in Va. and the people en masse brought up to that standpoint of morality and civilization presented so gloriously in old New England.”[xviii] He recognized that slavery had been a horrific psychological burden on former slaves, and the conditions of enslavement had only held down the enslaved when it came to their potential as human beings. He displayed sympathy and pity for their former plight, an important trait as he worked to protect them from further exploitation.

Additionally, as a Northerner, he saw New England as a more civilized and rational place when compared to the violent and brutish South. Hopkins believed the land of the South to be beautiful, but the people uncivilized because of the influence of slavery. On Tuesday, May 26th, 1868, he vented his frustration with the Southern people by asking “When will the barbarism of slavery wholly disappear from this fair domain?”[xix] He tended to remain in the company of Northerners, such as teachers and activists. On January 25th, 1868, he met with Mr. G.S. Stockwell, a prominent Massachusetts abolitionist.[xx] He also enjoyed reading abolitionist literature, and on Wednesday, November 4th, 1868, he heaped praise on Anna Dickenson’s anti-racial prejudice book about the Civil War, What Answer?, which he called “an able exposition of the manners of the prejudice against the Negro in this country.”[xxi] Hopkins recognized that black people faced significant prejudice in the United States at that moment, but he was unable or unwilling to reflect on his own forms of prejudice against them.

Marcus Sterling Hopkins was prejudiced towards black people, believing them to be generally less capable, intelligent, and rational when compared to white people. Although he was fundamentally against slavery and believed in the benefits of education for black people, his racial prejudice is evident throughout his journal. Even as he was belaboring the negative effects of slavery, he commented that “with our Negroes I fear we can never have a really high state of civilization.”[xxii] Beyond general comments about the inferiority of black people, Hopkins’s experiences working for the Freedman’s Bureau led him to believe that “gratitude is a virtue seldom found in breast [sic] of a Negro.”[xxiii] Additionally, after watching an African American religious service, he found that “Negroes are very rude and vulgar in their forms of worship but very earnest and devoted.”[xxiv] Part of his job as an agent of the Freeman’s Bureau was to attend court to make sure that black people were not swindled or exploited by local white people, and he made note of how difficult it was for them to receive a fair trial but qualified his opinion by stating that “if the blacks were as intelligent as the whites there would be less difficulty in their obtaining justice.”[xxv]

His racial prejudice aside, Hopkins referred throughout his journal to his Republican allegiance—Republicanism was the party of anti-slavery and African Americans. There are numerous comments on the outcome of elections ranging from Congressional New Hampshire seats to the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson to the election of President Ulysses Grant. When the Republican party won an election in New Hampshire in March, Hopkins described the victory as “a political Gettysburg in the career of the Republican Party” that ensured “Grant and Reconstruction are safe.”[xxvi] By putting the results of the New Hampshire election in terms of a pivotal battle that decided the fate of Grant and Reconstruction itself, he revealed both his understanding of the election as a referendum on Johnson and the Democrats and his strong Republican allegiance. Hopkins despised President Johnson and paid careful attention to his impeachment proceedings; he called him “the most dangerous man that ever occupied the Chief Magistracy.” On Monday, February 4th, 1868, Hopkins made a note in his diary that Congress was to vote on the question of impeachment and that he believed it was plain that he would be impeached; he went as far as to say that “nothing seems to me to be more important to the country than his conviction.”[xxvii] He spoke of Johnson in vitriolic terms, including, “he has at length dared to become not merely an apostate to his party but a criminal before the law,” and “he mediated a coup d’etat.”[xxviii] When Johnson was voted out of office and Ulysses S. Grant was elected President in his stead, Hopkins was filled with a “great satisfaction.”[xxix]

Hopkins frequently participated in politics himself and kept up to date on the news. He was a delegate for the Republican Convention to nominate a candidate for the Seventh Congressional District of Virginia in May 1868.[xxx] He also observed the Republican Convention of the 3rd Congressional District of Virginia on Wednesday, February 12th, 1868. He had a bemused but critical view of the delegates, remarking that “there were not above one third of the members who had any considerable intelligence or who [knew]

anything about parliamentary rules.” Even though “good humor prevailed” and the delegates cooperated with one another, Hopkins believed that the New York Herald “will likely lampoon the affair” because of the uneducated participants and the occasional “laughable [sic] display of ignorance.” Hopkins made special note of the behavior of the Irishman and “darkies” when he spoke of ignorant behavior, indicating that he saw them as the ignorant and unintelligent members of the group.[xxxi]

He held some progressive views on gender equality, and after visiting the hardworking female teachers he remarked that they were “laboring faithfully and doing a good work for very inadequate pay as is often the case with women. Why should they not be paid as much as men when they do as much?”[xxxii] He notes frequently in his journal that he reads with teachers in the evening, and he made specific mention of Anna Gardner and Philena Carkin (two schoolteachers working in Charlottesville with the New England Freedman’s Aid Society. While it is unclear whether or not this applies to all professions or women of all races, Hopkins voiced an opinion that would have been considered controversial and progressive at the time, considering that equal pay was not the norm. Teachers, especially female teachers, were paid pitifully low wages, and even in Massachusetts female teachers “always earned about 60 percent less than their male counterparts.”[xxxiii]

Hopkins recognized the important work of the female teachers, and also was a strong advocate for the benefits of widespread education. His job at the Freeman’s Bureau led him to interact with many schoolteachers and observe classes. Hopkins frequently made note of the “very creditable” freedman’s schooling occurring in the Charlottesville area and the positive impact it had on local people.[xxxiv] He knew that education was an important step for freed people if they were going to be able to take advantage of the new opportunities available to them, as many enslaved people had been purposely kept illiterate to prevent them from challenging the institution of slavery.[xxxv] Literacy and education were crucial if free people were ever going to hold property or be independent. Hopkins remarked that “we must have good schooling for all” if the South was ever going to overcome the deleterious effects of slavery.[xxxvi]  

Even though he recognized the many systemic injustices suffered by black people, Hopkins was simultaneously understanding and dismissive. This may seem like an inconsistent position to hold, but it makes sense when his worldview is that of someone who considered black people to be, as a racial category, inferior to white people. He did not go as far as to deny their basic humanity, and he abhorred the condition of slavery to which they had previously been subjected, but he did not see a designation of humanity as a recognition of equality. In his mind, Hopkins was capable of condemning systemic exploitation of a group while also holding a prejudice against that same group. He saw black people as stereotypically less intelligent (but still worthy of at least a basic education), irrational (in favor of religious irrationality), ungrateful, and lazy. Hopkins only interacted with black people as servants or as complainants to the Bureau, and at least according to his diary he did not make much of an effort to befriend people in the community. His experiences, as a result, were mostly negative and served only to reinforce his existing biases. Hopkins’s progressive worldview did not go as far as to extend to all aspects of race.


Butchart, Ronald E. n.d. “Freedmen’s Education in Virginia, 1861–1870.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Accessed February 13, 2018.

Hopkins, Marcus Sterling. 1867. “Cohabitation Register of Louisa County, Virginia.” Translated by Jean L. Cooper. University of Virginia Special Collections Library.

Lee, Lauranett Lorraine. 2002. “Crucible in the Classroom: The Freedpeople and Their Teachers Charlottesville, Virginia, 1861-1876.” University of Virginia.

Mugleston, William F., and Marcus Sterling Hopkins. 1978. “The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction in Virginia: The Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins, a Union Officer.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 86 (1): 45–102.

“Records of the Field Offices for the State of Virginia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.” 1865-1872. Reel 104. University of Virginia.

“VA Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands.” 1866. Reel 105, National Archives.

[i] Butchart, Ronald, “Freedman’s Education in Virginia, 1861-1865,” Encyclopedia Virginia.

[ii] Appendix, “Records of the Field Offices for the State of Virginia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands,” Reel 104.

[iii] Mugleston, William F., and Marcus Sterling Hopkins, “The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction in Virginia: The Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins, a Union Officer,” 45-46.

[iv] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 51, 84.

[v] Hopkins, Marcus Sterling. 1867. Cohabitation Register of Louisa County, Virginia.

[vi] Marcus Sterling Hopkins to Lieut. W. Slenhose, February 28th 1864, “Records of the Field Offices for the State of Virginia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.” 1865. Reel 104.

[vii] E.J. Boyd to Marcus Sterling Hopkins, April 3rd 1867, “Records of the Field Offices for the State of Virginia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.” Reel 104.

[viii] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 66.

[ix] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 55.

[x] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 94.

[xi] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 70.

[xii] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 84.

[xiii] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 93-94.

[xiv] 1″ Lieut. Marcus. S. Hopkins to Maj. James Johnson, 15 Jan. 1866, Registered Letters Received, series 3798, VA Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Reel 105.

[xv] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 78.

[xvi] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 72.

[xvii] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 83.

[xviii] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 83.

[xix] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 80.

[xx] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 60.

[xxi] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 97.

[xxii] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 51

[xxiii] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 56.

[xxiv] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 60.

[xxv] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 73.

[xxvi] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 69.

[xxvii] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 79.

[xxviii] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 66.

[xxix] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 97.

[xxx] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 81.

[xxxi][xxxi] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 64-65.

[xxxii] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 54.

[xxxiii] Lee, Lauranett Lorraine, “Crucible in the Classroom: The Freedpeople and Their Teachers Charlottesville, Virginia,” 43.

[xxxiv] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 75.

[xxxv] Butchart, Ronald, “Freedman’s Education,” Encyclopedia Virginia.

[xxxvi] Mugleston, “Diary of Marcus Sterling Hopkins,” 51.