Letters from a Confederate Officer (1862) |
James B. Griffin (18251881) was not one of the towering figures of the Confederacy, nor was he simply a soldier in the ranks: he was a southern gentleman, like many others, who went to war to defend his rights and to liberate the South from the North's attempts to subjugate her. He did not specifically state that he fought to preserve slavery, but among the rights he fought for was the right to continue his way of life. Griffin, as one of the wealthiest men in the Edgefield District of South Carolina, belonged to his society's elite class. He was, however, not rich enough, nor powerful enough to be part of its aristocracy. He did hold leadership positions in his community and state, the most prestigious being brigadier general in the South Carolina militia, but he generally preferred to focus on planting rather than politics. Griffin owned 61 slaves and 1,500 acres of land in 1860 and used both primarily in cotton production. When war threatened his world in 1861, he was primed to act. That spring Wade Hampton III of South Carolina created a special regiment, a legion that combined the three armsinfantry, cavalry, and artilleryof the military. Hampton appointed Griffin to the post of major of the cavalry. When the Legion's second in command was killed at Manassas (the cavalry missed the engagement as they had been left behind to continue their training), Griffin was promoted to lieutenant colonel. While fulfilling his duties on the Virginia front (attended by two slaves, Ned and Abram), he wrote regularly to his wife, Eliza, nicknamed Leila. Griffin remained with the Legion until June of 1862 when, after it was reorganized and the field officer ranks were opened up to elections, he lost his position to another officer and resigned.
. . . Camp life is so monotonous, so much of a sameness, that it is really trying to one's patience at times. This frequently accounts for the fact that Soldiers grow extremely eager for a fight. They want something to relieve the dull monotony of the camp life. This is the case, at this time with our troops. I believe they would, almost to a man, be delighted if the Enemy would come along. . . . Col Hampton had another regiment sent to him to day, he now has under his command, besides the Legion, three Regiments and a field battery. He will now be able to give the Yanks a warm reception, wherever they may choose to try to cross the Occoquan. It looked a little squally day before yesterday evening. There was a succession of fires apparently signal fires, from away up the lines near Alexandria, down the Potomac. I dont know what was the meaning of themIt may have been their signal for an advance, but if so they were deterred by a sleet which fell that night. . . . It is now exceedingly cold, but I dont suffer from the cold. A good many of our men have been skating for the last day or two. One poor fellow from the Ga Regiment, was drowned yesterday. Two men were skating when the ice broke and they both went down. This Georgian jumped in and saved themAnd afterwards went back to show how he saved them, when the ice broke with him, he went down and drowned before they could get him out. I wrote to you in my last that Maj'r Butler was sick. I am happy to inform you that he is convalescentI saw him to dayI hope soon to see him again in the saddle. We have a good many Commissioned Officers now sickOn that account we are in bad condition for a fightSo far as the men are concerned we are in very good fighting condition. I am satisfied that the condition of our army would not be improved, by going into winter quarters, without an engagement. I feel the army would be a good deal demoralized, by such an event. I dont know what to think, whether they will attack us or not. I am fully confident if they do come that we will lick them. And if we give them a thorough licking, in their present shattered condition, I think they will begin to think about giving it up. I wish they would quit their foolishness[.] For I tell you, I would much prefer being at home with my Wife and ChildrenI am delighted to hear that the citizens of old South Carolina, and old Edgefield especially, have come up to the markwithout being drafted. It would have been an everlasting disgrace to have drafted the men when the Enemy were on our own soil. . . .
. . . Oh, My Darling what a comfort to me it is, to know that you and the dear Children although separated from me, are well, and appear to be getting along so well. I am also delighted to hear that the Negroes are behaving so wellDo say to them that I hear with pleasure of their good behaviour, and hope they will continue to behave welltell them they shall not loose anything by keeping it up. I hope also from what you and Willie both write, that our new overseer may do well. Tell him, I have entire confidence in him although a Stranger, from what I have heard of him, and he must do his best. Do ask him if he has a good stand of wheat and oats, and how they look. Has he fed away all the pea vines yet, and how does he get along with his business generally. Tell him to be economical with the corn, I think there is no doubt but he will have plenty, but still it is safest to be economical. Do tell him to see himself to measuring the corn when they go to the mill, and see that no more is sent than is necessary, and that it all comes back. Dont forget sometimes to have the wheat sunned. My Darling I do think you are getting to be a first rate manager. And whilst I hope that the time is not near at hand for you, Still, I believe you would make a right managing Widdow. But excuse meMy Darling that is too serious a subject to joke about just now. I am pleased to hear that you have your garden in such fine order. I hope to enjoy some of your nice vegetables this year. Dont forget the Watermelon patch when the proper time arrives. Tell your man Peter, that he knows my plan for planting, and he must pursue it just as if I were there to attend to it. Tell him to make some hills next month, dig the holes deep and put the manure low down, that is the secret of success. If you have an early Spring he might plant a few hills as early as the 10th of March and then keep on planting all the time after that, every week or two. By the way you have never written me how much cotton you and Peter made last year. . . . I really am at a loss to conjecture what is the programme of the Enemy. It was said when the weather was so fine that they were waiting for hard weather. Now we have had that and they still tarry. I am thoroughly satisfied, that McClelland [sic] doesnt want to come at all. It has been said by some that he has feigned sickness to give him an excuse for not advancing. It seems that Public opinion would force him to move, as they are already speaking of one who is to supercede him. My opinion is that his reputation now hangs upon a rather slender thread. If he advances, and gets whipped, his reputation is goneand if he does not advance, it appears as if they will call in another. I hear that he has pledged to advance by the 15th of this month. And I dont believe now he can do so if he wishes. The rains have made the roads so soft, that I dont believe Artillery can be carried over them. But as the Frenchman said, "we shall see what we shall see". My Darling I am really afraid that my letters are not very interesting to you but you must bear in mind that I have nothing else to write about. Tell Willie I am obliged to him for his letter, tell him he doesnt improve as much in writing as I would wish, but to keep trying, he will learn after awhile. Tell him to write to me every week. Give my love to all the Children and kiss them for me. Also remember me to all my friends and relatives. Abram and Ned beg to be remembered to all. Good night, My Love
. . . This is the rainiestsnowiestmuddiest and with all, the most disagreeable country I ever met up with. This has been a clear sunny dayand now, (ten O Clock at night) it is rainingNight before last it snowedYesterday it thawed, and it seems that every thing combines to keep the earth saturated with water. The roads, being traveled over every day by wagons, of course continue to grow worse. I havent travelled over them but from accounts, and from what I see around here, I know they are awful. I have been trying for the last two weeksto have some new batteries builtbut owing to the dreadful weather, get along very slowly. We never have two days in succession in which we can work. I never was so heartily tired of mud and water in my life. Col Hampton has not yet returned from RichmondHe has been gone a weekI am expecting him every day.
My Darling, you have no idea how proud I felt, yesterday while reading one of your very dear letters to find that you felt that you had reason (as you thought) to be proud of your Husband. It done me a power of good. For while I dont expect much from the cold Charity of the worldAnd indeed ask for little, It is really charming and enspiriting to feel that you are appreciated by one who loves you and one who is prompted by no deceitful motives, to bestow praise on you. But My Darling, let me say, while I thank you for the compliment, I have so far done nothing to merit itExcept perhaps, in showing a willingness to do, whenever an opportunity may offer. I have so far, never had the fortune (whether good or bad) to be engaged with the EnemyI hope however, if it shall ever be my fortune to be engaged with them, that my conduct will be such, that if I do not merit your praise, will not cause you to feel ashamedI, like every man, of course would not like the idea of being even wounded in battleBut I would dislike very much to go out of this Campaign without going through at least one battleMore especially as most of the officers of the Legion have had that good fortune. I assure you that the dangers of a battle, are not near so great as one, who is unacquainted, would suppose. I do not expect any fighting of consequence, in this army before SpringBut I think it will come then pretty heavy, if there is no change.
I honestly believe that the battle itself is about the least of dangers, to which the Soldier is exposed. Sickness is much more dangerous, caused from necessary exposure. The health of our Command is very good, at this time considering the quantity of bad weather we have had. My own health continues very goodI wouldnt have believed that I could have gone through what I have. But it doesnt hurt me at all. I have entire command of the Legion, during the Col's absence and flatter myself that we get along very well. I cant tell whether the men like me or notthey are very respectful to me, but that they are obliged to beMilitary authority is the most powerful known to man. But doesnt do harm unless abusedI think the officers generally like me and most of the men two [sic] but some of them I reckon do notAn Officer, as a general rule, who does his duty is apt to make some Enemies.
Well, my Darling, I have at last received my trunk, it came to dayJust four weeks from the time you started it. My Darling you just tried yourself to see how many nice things you could send. I opened the trunk to day (it came about twelve O Clock) and had a regular party. Invited the whole mess and Capt Gary, Lieut Tompkins and Ball from Laurens, a member of Gary's company. I cut one of the cakes, which was beautiful and very nice, and opened the apple cordial. All agreed in pronouncing it splendid. You were very highly complimented, while the cake & cordial was rapidly consumed. Every thing came perfectly safe and sound, notwithstanding the length of time it had been coming. The sausages were somewhat moulded, but I dont think are at all damaged, at least I hope not, for I am really longing for some. We also sampled the nice brandy peaches, I told the party that they were put up by your own fair hands, and four years ago at that. They were really very nice. Col Hampton is laid up in his tent with the mumps. (I tell him he is the largest case of mumps, I ever saw) So that he could not participate in the feast. I, sent him, however, a share of the good things. My darling every thing you sent is really a treat, but I believe I appreciate more than any thing else, the nice butter. I can eat it with a relish, and have the satisfaction of knowing it is clean and nice. We had such a nice lunch and enjoyed it so much, that we didnt have dinner until five O Clock, and it being a dark evening we had to have a candle lit. I suppose you will think that we are quite aristocratic. And so we are. Our usual meal hours are as follows, Breakfast from nine to ten (Dark rainy mornings from ten to eleven.[)] Dinner from three to four, tea from eight to nine. Dont you think that is rather aristocratic. We sampled, at dinner, your catsupit is splendid. Every thing is nice very nice, ham[,] biscuit and all. For all of which my Darling will please accept the sincere thanks of her husband, and also of the whole mess. I am also obliged to you for the clothing you sent. I didnt need any thing except the towels and handkerchiefs, I have lost some that I had. The shirts you sent are very pretty, I will wear them after the cold weather is gone. I wear nothing now but the calicoe. . . . My Darling the Mail has just come and the papers bring the unwelcome news of the capture of Fort Donnelson [sic] by the Federals. Our reverses have been frequent of lateIt seems that we fought gallantly at the Fortbut the full particulars I havent seen. Our defeat at Roanoke was really disgraceful. Well, I hope the day of triumph is not far distant. I have no other news to writeIt has been raining all day as usual. Do remember me kindly to your Father and family, also to all friends. Give my love to all the Children, and accept for yourself the warmest love of your devoted
I am delighted, my Darling to learn by your last letter that Minnie has at last "Come through". And I am also pleased, and tender my congratulations that she has another Boy. Notwithstanding you all were anxious for her to have a daughter. I really think she should be proud that she has another Boy. This is the time, above all others, that men should be raised. And this too, is the time above all others when females deserve sympathy. I assure you, I feel, far more anxiety about my dear little daughters, than I do about my Boys. For while men can manage to work for themselves, and can fight the battles of their Country if necessary, Females are very dependent. True, they too can do a great deal, and, 'tis true that our Southern Ladies have done and are still acting a conspicuous part in this war[.] In many instances (to the shame of our Sex be it said) a much bolder and more manly part than many men. But still, when it comes to the physical test, of course, they are helpless. It is on this account, that I think the Parents should congratulate themselves on the birth of a son rather than a daughter. We cannot see, My Darling, into the future, but I trust & have confidance in our people to believe, that if the unprincipled North shall persist in her policy of Subjugating the South, that we, who are able to resist them, will continue to do so, until we grow old and worn out in the service, and that then, our Sons will take the arms from our hands, and spend their lives, if necessary, in battling for Liberty and independence. As for my part, If this trouble should not be settled satisfactorily to us soonerI would be proud of the thought that our youngest BoyYes Darling little Jimmie, will after awhile be able and I trust willing to take his Father's place in the field, and fight until he dies, rather than, be a Slave, Yea worse than a Slave to Yankee MastersHave you ever anticipated, My Darling, what would be our probable condition, if we should be conquered in this war? The picture is really too horrible to contemplate. In the first place, the tremendous war tax, which will have accumulated, on the northern Government, would be paid entirely and exclusively by the property belonging to the Southerners. And more than this we would be an humbled, down trodden and disgraced, people. Not entitled to the respect of any body, and have no respect for ourselves. In fact we would be the most wretched and abject people on the face of the Earth. Just be what our Northern Masters say we may be. Would you, My Darling, desire to live, if this was the case? would you be willing to leave your Children under such a government? NoI know you would sacrifice every comfort on earth, rather than submit to it. Excuse me, My Darling, I didnt intend to, run off in this strain. You might think, from my painting this horrid picture to you, that I had some doubts as to whether we might not have to experience it. But No, I havent the most remote idea that we will. I think our people will arouse themselves, shake off the lethargy, which seems now to have possession of them, and will meet the issue like men. We must see that we have allYes our allstaked upon the resultAnd we are obliged to succeed and we will do it. Just at this time the Enemy appears to have advantage of us. But this is no more than we have, all along, had of him, until lately. He did not succombe and give up for itand shall we, Who have so much more to fight for than he has, do so? I am completely surprised and mortified at the feeling manifested by our people at this time. But they will soon rally and come with redoubled energy. Our Soldiers too, or rather our Generals have got to learn to fight better. The idea, of a Genl surrendering with 12000 men under his command,1 is a species of bravery and Generalship, which I do not understand. I wish Congress would pass a law breaking an officer of his commission who surrenders. . . . My Darling tell Spradley, not to commence planting corn early[.] My land will not admit of early planting, of either corn or cotton. I generally, commence planting corn from the 15th to the 20th of March, and cotton about the same time in april. I see that Congress is about passing a bill, to impose a heavy tax on cotton raised this year[.] If they pass itI wish no land planted in cotton except the new ground, and the field next to the overseers house, all the ballance planted in corn. I will write you, however in time. My Darling, Now is the time to bring out all your courageDo not become despondentDont matter what alarmists and Croakers may saytake advice from him whom you know will advise you for the best. Keep up your spirits and your courage, and the clouds will soon pass away, and sun shine will returnMy sheet is fulland I will close by begging to be remembered to allMy love to My Children and my Darling Leila
1. Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner surrendered the garrison at Fort Donelson. (Return to text)
[From Judith N. McArthur and Orville Vernon Burton, eds., "A Gentleman and an Officer": A Military and Social History of James B. Griffin's Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 13237, 14148, 15965. [Editorial insertions that appear in square brackets are from the McArthur and Burton editionEd.]]