Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Faces of the Civil War: Captain John D. Griswold

John Griswold's final resting place in Griswold Cemetery in Old Lyme, Conn. His
monument was described as "strikingly beautiful" in the Hartford Courant on Aug. 5, 1863.

Up to his armpits in swift-moving Antietam Creek and under fire from Georgians in woods and on the bluff above, John Griswold must have known he was living on borrowed time.

Captain John Griswold of Lyme, Conn., was
mortally wounded at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862.
The 11th Connecticut Infantry had been ordered to storm Rohrbach Bridge and the Confederate position beyond during the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, but their progress was frustratingly slow. Impatient, Griswold, a 25-year-old captain from Lyme, boldly led a group of skirmishers across the 4-foot deep creek.

It was a deadly move.

"In the middle of the creek a ball penetrated his body," Griswold's friend, Dr. Nathan Mayer of the 11th Connecticut, wrote in a letter from Sharpsburg to his brother on Sept. 29, 1862. "He reached the opposite side and lay down to die." (1)

Mayer quickly summoned four privates, and together they forded the creek and climbed a fence while under fire to reach Griswold. The men carried the soaked and bloody captain to a nearby small shed, where the surgeon from Hartford gave his "ashly pale" friend morphine to ease his pain. But they both knew the wound near his stomach was mortal.

"He thanked me for my services in elegant phrase," Mayer wrote, "and attracted my attention to the number of wounded that now filled the shed, intimating that he feared that he had monopolized too much of the time of so good a surgeon on the day of battle." (2)

General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Union left wing at Antietam and an acquaintance of Griswold, later visited. "I am happy, general," the captain said. "I die as I have ever wished to die, for my country."

Famed Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner shot this image after the battle. Soldiers
from the 11th Connecticut crossed this ground from right to left. Shot in the middle of
Antietam Creek, Griswold struggled to the opposite bank. (Library of Congress collection)
On Sept. 18, Griswold finally succumbed from his wounds, perhaps a quarter-mile away at the Henry Rohrbach farm that was used as a Federal field hospital. Griswold's death apparently had a strong effect on Burnside, who spoke about it years afterward, according to one account.

An uncommon soldier, John D. Griswold was a Renaissance man. From a prominent Connecticut family, he graduated from Yale in 1857.  (He was one of many Yale men, from both sides, to die during the Civil War.) Fluent in Spanish and French, he had studied chemistry and mineralogy, enjoyed reading classical literature and was described as a skilled athlete, swordsman and draughtsman. After graduating from college, he went to Kansas to work as a surveyor and later traveled to Hawaii, where he had business, and other Pacific islands.
On July 31, 1863, the Hartford Courant  included Griswold
in a list of Yale graduates who died during the Civil War.
Yale men served the North and South. 

When the Civil War broke out, Griswold hurriedly returned to the mainland in September 1861. He intended to join the Union army as a private, but friends insisted he see Gov. William Buckingham, who promised him a commission and encouraged him to return to Lyme to raise a company. (3) Griswold enlisted in the Union army on Dec. 16, 1861, eight months after the Rebels fired on Fort Sumter, and was commissioned in Company I of the 11th Connecticut Infantry 15 days later.

Like many men of the era, Griswold was described as fiercely patriotic. A major recalled walking with him to place flowers on the battlefield grave of  Edwin Lee, a captain in the 11th Connecticut who was killed at New Bern, N.C. on March 14, 1862. (I posted last month about Lee's death and funeral.)  "Poor Lee," the major said. "Not so," Griswold said. "I say happy Lee, fortunate Lee. What life could he or any of us lead better than to die for our country! Fortunate Lee!" (4)

As he admired the beautiful countryside on the march to Antietam in September 1862, Griswold discussed with Mayer philosophy and classic literature, from De Civatate De to Les Miserables. "Whoever approached him," Mayer wrote, "felt that he had entered a circle of refinement." Despite his affluent upbringing, Griswold "was particular in extending the same courtesies to the soldiers under his command," the surgeon wrote. (5)

Perhaps it's no surprise then that a refined gentleman such as Griswold has a tombstone that is a work of art.




Griswold Cemetery is small cemetery nestled in a strip of woods in Old Lyme, an historic town about an hour southeast of Hartford on Connecticut's coast. Generations of Griswolds are buried there, including John's grandfather, an early 19th-century Connecticut governor.  A flood of bodies returned to Connecticut in late September and early October after Antietam, and sometime during that timeframe, Griswold was buried in his family cemetery. Months afterward, a permanent memorial created by Thomas Adams in Hartford was placed atop his grave.

The Hartford Courant raved about the work, advising "lovers of art to examine it" at Adams' Hartford establishment on the corner of Market and Temple streets before it was placed on Griswold's grave.

"We have never seen a monument more strikingly beautiful; more earnestly expressive in the design contemplated," the newpaper gushed on Aug. 5, 1863. "It is truly a finished production, giving evidence of the wonderful skill of the artist."

Thanks to a Griswold ancestor who still lives in the Lyme area, I gained access to the private cemetery this morning. The Courant nailed it nearly 150 years ago. Griswold's 6 1/2-foot gray marker is indeed special, one of the more ornate and beautiful Civil War memorials I have seen in Connecticut.

Especially poignant are the words carved near the bottom.

"Tell my mother," it reads, "I died at the head of my company."

John Griswold reportedly utttered these words, which are carved into the bottom of his
memorial, after he was mortally wounded at Antietam.

(1) Hartford Courant, Oct. 6, 1862, Page 2
(2) The Military and Civil History of Connecticut During the War of 1861-65, William Augustus Croffut, John Moses Morris 1869, Pages 280-81
(3) Edward Elbridge Salisbury, Family histories and genealogies. A series of genealogical and biographical monographs on the families of MacCurdy, Mitchell, Lord, Lynde, Digby, Newdigate, Hoo, Willoughby, Griswold, Wolcott, Pitkin, Page 12.
(4) Ibid
(5) The Military and Civil History of Connecticut During the War of 1861-65, William Augustus Croffut, John Moses Morris 1869, Pages 280-81

Close-up of the top portion of John Griswold's memorial. After he was mortally wounded,
he told  General Ambrose Burnside: "I die as I have ever wished to die, for my country."
Those words are carved on his memorial.
Close-up of the bottom of Griswold's memorial. The 25-year-old captain was mortally
wounded while  crossing Antietam Creek on Sept. 17, 1862.
A close-up of the back of Griswold's memorial. He hurried back from Hawaii
to join the Union army in late 1861.


  • MORE ON ANTIETAM: Read my extensive thread on the battle and the men who fought in it.
  • 1 comment:

    TakingThe Rohrbach said...

    Excellent web site! I never realized that Capt. Griswold was rescued & survived until the next day!