American Civil War: Major General Charles Griffin

Charles Griffin
Major General Charles Griffin. Library of Congress

Charles Griffin - Early Life & Career:

Born December 18, 1825 at Granville, OH, Charles Griffin was the son of Apollos Griffin.  Receiving his early education locally, he later attended Kenyon College.  Desiring a career in the military, Griffin successfully sought an appointment to the US Military Academy in 1843.  Arriving at West Point, his classmates included A.P. Hill, Ambrose Burnside, John Gibbon, Romeyn Ayres, and Henry Heth.

  An average student, Griffin graduated in 1847 ranked twenty-third in a class of thirty-eight.  Commissioned a brevet second lieutenant, he received orders to join the 2nd US Artillery which was engaged in the Mexican-American War.  Traveling south, Griffin took part in the final actions of the conflict.  Promoted to first lieutenant in 1849, he moved through various assignments on the frontier.

Charles Griffin - The Civil War Nears:

Seeing action against the Navajo and other Native American tribes in the Southwest, Griffin remained on the frontier until 1860.  Returning east with the rank of captain, he assumed a new post as an instructor of artillery at West Point.  In early 1861, with the secession crisis pulling the nation apart, Griffin organized an artillery battery comprised of enlisted men from the academy.  Ordered south following the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April and the beginning of the Civil War,  Griffin's "West Point Battery" (Battery D, 5th US Artillery) joined Brigadier General Irvin McDowell's forces which were gathering at Washington, DC.

  Marching out with the army that July, Griffin's battery was heavily engaged during the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run and sustained heavily casualties.

Charles Griffin - To the Infantry:

In the spring of 1862, Griffin moved south as part of Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac for the Peninsula Campaign.

  During the early part of the advance, he led the artillery attached to Brigadier General Fitz John Porter's division of III Corps and saw action during the Siege of Yorktown.  On June 12, Griffin received a promotion to brigadier general and took command of an infantry brigade in Brigadier General George W. Morell's division of Porter's newly-formed V Corps.  With the beginning of the Seven Days' Battles in late June, Griffin performed well in his new role during the engagements at Gaines' Mill and Malvern Hill.  With the failure of the campaign, his brigade moved back to northern Virginia but was held in reserve during the Second Battle of Manassas in late August.  A month later, at Antietam, Griffin's men were again part of the reserve and did not see meaningful action.    

Charles Griffin - Divisional Command:

That fall, Griffin replaced Morell as division commander.  Though possessing a difficult personality that often caused issues with his superiors, Griffin was soon beloved by his men.  Taking his new command into battle at Fredericksburg on December 13, the division was one of several tasked with assaulting Marye's Heights.  Bloodily repulsed, Griffin's men were forced to fall back.

  He retained command of the division the following year after Major General Joseph Hooker assumed leadership of the army.  In May 1863, Griffin took part in the opening fighting at the Battle of Chancellorsville.  In the weeks after the Union defeat, he fell ill and was forced to leave his division under the temporary command of Brigadier General James Barnes.

During his absence, Barnes led the division at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 2-3.  In the course of the fighting, Barnes performed poorly and Griffin's arrival in camp during the final stages of the battle was cheered by his men.  That fall, he directed his division during the Bristoe and Mine Run Campaigns.  With the reorganization of the Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1864, Griffin retained command of his division as leadership of V Corps passed to Major General Gouverneur Warren.

  As Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant commenced his Overland Campaign that May, Griffin's men quickly saw action at the Battle of the Wilderness where they clashed with Lieutenant General Richard Ewell's Confederates.  Later that month, Griffin's division took part in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

As the army pushed south, Griffin played at key role at Jericho Mills on May 23 before being present for the Union defeat at Cold Harbor a week later.  Crossing the James River in June, V Corps took part in Grant's assault against Petersburg on June 18.  With the failure of this attack, Griffin's men settled into the siege lines around the city.  As the summer progressed into fall, his division participated in several operations designed to extend the Confederate lines and sever the railroads into Petersburg.  Engaged at the Battle of Peebles Farm in late September, he performed well and earned a brevet promotion to major general on December 12.

Charles Griffin - Leading V Corps:

In early February 1865, Griffin led his division at the Battle of Hatcher's Run as Grant pressed towards the Weldon Railroad.  On April 1, V Corps was attached to a combined cavalry-infantry force tasked with capturing the critical crossroads of Five Forks and led by Major General Philip H. Sheridan.  In the resulting battle, Sheridan became infuriated with Warren's slow movements and relieved him in favor of Griffin.  The loss of Five Forks compromised General Robert E. Lee's position in Petersburg and the next day Grant mounted a large scale assault on the Confederate lines forcing them to abandon the city.  Ably leading V Corps in the resulting Appomattox Campaign, Griffin aided in pursuing the enemy west and was present for Lee's surrender on April 9.  With the conclusion of the war, he received a promotion major general on July 12.  

Charles Griffin - Later Career:     

Given leadership of the District of Maine in August, Griffin's rank reverted to colonel in the peacetime army and he accepted command of the 35th US Infantry.

  In December 1866, he was given oversight of Galveston and the Freedmen's Bureau of Texas.  Serving under Sheridan, Griffin soon became entangled in Reconstruction politics as he worked to register white and African American voters and enforced the oath of allegiance as a requirement for jury selection.  Increasingly unhappy with Governor James W. Throckmorton's lenient attitude towards former Confederates, Griffin convinced Sheridan to have him replaced with staunch Unionist Elisha M. Pease.  

In 1867, Griffin received orders to replaced Sheridan as commander of the Fifth Military District (Louisiana and Texas).  Before he could depart for his new headquarters in New Orleans, he fell ill during a yellow fever epidemic that swept through Galveston.  Unable to recover, Griffin died on September 15.  His remains were transported north and interred at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, DC. 

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