As the superintendent of hospitals for Alabama soldiers and officers in Richmond, Virginia, during the first three years of the war, Juliet Opie Hopkins wielded more power in the realm of military hospital administration than most women working in Southern or Northern hospitals during the Civil War. Although other women directed Confederate military hospitals, most notable of whom was Captain SALLY TOMPKINS, they did not have the authority that Hopkins commanded. On the Union side, Northern women working in Union military hospitals did not fufill comparable, leading positions of responsibility in hospital operations.
Juliet Ann Opie was born and raised at “Woodburn, ” her family’s plantation in Jefferson County, Virginia. Her father was a wealthy slaveholder owning approximately 2,000 slaves, securing him a place in the most elite social circles. Although little information about her youth is available, it is known that she was tutored at home during her childhood. As a young adolescent, she attended Miss Ritchie’s school in Richmond, Virginia. At the age of 16 when her mother died, Opie returned to Woodburn, reportedly to help superintend the plantation. It is more likely that she took charge of all domestic affairs on the estate, including managing the care of the slaves.
In 1837, when Juliet was 19 years old, she married Alexander George Gordon, a naval lieutenant. He left her a widow, though accounts differ widely as to the date of his death. She married again in 1854, this time to a prominent Alabama politician and former United States senator, Arthur Francis Hopkins, who served as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. The couple, residing in Mobile, Alabama, did not have children of their own, though they adopted a niece whom they considered their daughter.
Once the Civil War began in the spring of 1861, Opie Hopkins and her husband volunteered to help found hospitals for Alabama soldiers in Virginia, the seat of the early conflicts. With their own funds, and with money raised from members of their elite society and from the state of Alabama, they established three military hospitals in Richmond, known as the First, Second, and Third Alabama Hospitals. Because her husband was in his late sixties, Opie Hopkins, then in her early to mid-forties, performed the labor of administering the hospitals.