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Article re manservant at Wilson's Creek battle...

The following short article was printed in the Mobile Advertiser and Register on Saturday Morning, Sept. 21, 1861
(front page, 7th column from left, 7th article down):

"Gen. Lyon Killed By A Darkey - A negroman [sic], body servant of Capt. John Griffith of the gallant Third [sic], was in the hottest of the fight at Oak Hill, and fought in the last charge like a tiger. He claims to have killed Gen. Lyon. He says he shot a man in the breast that was on a large gray horse, and was waving his hat, and he saw him fall. Thus, it is very probable that the Abolitionist Lyon fell by the hands of a darkey. This same black man, finding his youngest master, Benjamin Griffith, wounded in the calf of his leg, picked him up and carried him off of the field, notwith-standing Ben resisted it with all his might, as he wanted to fire a few more rounds at the Dutch. - Fort Smith Times."


Bruce Allardice kindly emailed me re the existence of this 1861 Mobile Advertiser & Register (MAR) newspaper article about two years ago. It appears to be an article that was originally published in the Fort Smith Times newspaper (Fort Smith, Sebastian Co., AR) shortly after the battle of Wilson's Creek (Oak Hill), Missouri fought on Aug. 10, 1861. My attempts to obtain the original article published in the Fort Smith Times have not been successful to date; Russell Baker at the Arkansas Historical Commission informed me that there are no extant copies of the Fort Smith Times from 1861 in their archives. Hopefully some copies may eventually be found elsewhere (?).

Capt. John Griffith and his younger brother Benjamin H. Griffith described in the article both belonged to Co. E (Griffith's) of Gratiot's 3rd Arkansas State Infantry which indeed fought at Wilson's Creek on Aug. 10, 1861. The service record of Pvt. Benjamin H. Griffith does indeed indicate that he was "slightly wounded" during the battle. The MAR article indicates that Benjamin Griffith was wounded in the calf - this is hitherto unknown detail re his wound. The MAR article also documents how Benjamin Griffith was carried off the field by Capt. Griffith's manservant; this is in accordance with a brief passage written by Jay Monaghan in his book Civil War On The Western Border, 1854-1865 (1950, Bonanza Books, New York, page 180): "Finally the Southerners retired down the ridge for the fourth time, a slave belonging to Ben Griffith staggering after them, carrying his wounded master." Although I am not certain, it appears that Monaghan obtained this information from the 1938 book by L.E. Meador, History of the Battle of Wilson Creek (Springfield, MO, page 24). If true, could Meador have obtained his material from the 1861 Fort Smith Times article?

The killing of Federal General Nathaniel Lyon by Capt. John Griffith's manservant during the battle of Wilson's Creek - although making an entertaining story - is not supported by all other accepted histories of the battle (recently described in Wilson's Creek by W.G. Piston and R.W. Hatcher III, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2000). Historian Jeffrey Patrick at Wilson's Creek NMP and I are in complete agreement on the following: (1) Gratiot's 3rd Arkansas State Infantry went into battle sometime after General Lyon was killed, and (2) at the far left of the Confederate battle line, some distance from where General Lyon was mortally shot on Bloody Hill. Is it possible that Capt. Griffith's manservant may have shot another Federal officer during the battle? The only documented Federal units opposite Gratiot's 3rd Arkansas State Infantry appear to be detached companies of the 1st Kansas Infantry and the 2nd Kansas Infantry, along with 2 guns of Battery F, 2nd U.S. Artillery under George O. Sokalski - was a mounted Federal officer from any of these units shot from his horse while Gratiot's 3rd Arkansas State Infantry was in proximity? To my knowledge there is no extant documentation supporting this hypothesis. Another hypothesis is that Capt. Griffith's manservant went off on his own across the chaos on Bloody Hill and somehow wound up in proximity to General Lyon - this scenario of a Confederate captain's manservant ranging far from his master during a battle is very hard to accept.

A more plausible hypothesis is that Capt. Griffith's manservant may have been in proximity to a reporter from the Fort Smith Times newspaper after the battle. The newspaper was based in Sebastian County, AR, as were the two Griffith brothers and their family. The reporter may have directly or indirectly seen, or perhaps heard about, the manservant bringing Ben Griffith off Bloody Hill or directly talked with the manservant. The tone of the MAR article seems to be one of delight in the possibility that the abolitionist General Lyon may have been killed by a "darkey" manservant rather than a White soldier - perhaps the reporter (or editors) exercised a little creative journalism? We will probably never know for certain. Another possibility is that Capt. John Griffith, his younger brother Pvt. Benjamin H. Griffith, and/or parties unknown wrote a letter to the Fort Smith Times re the manservant and General Lyon - who knows?

The manservant of Capt. John Griffith described in the MAR article may well have been Dan Griffith - he is thusly documented in an article that appeared in the Arkansas Gazette (Friday, July 26, 1889) re the reunion of the 11th & 17th Arkansas Infantry held in Malvern, AR:

"Two very interesting veterans in camp were Rodger Brandon of Malvern and Dan Griffith of Richmond, Little River County, old darkies. Dan was the faithful body servant of the late Col. John Griffith of the Seventeenth, and Roger was with Bill Nat Smith of Malvern, a private in Company I, Third Arkansas. They were both slaves until emancipated. Roger loves his master, and Dan speaks of his master with reverence. Roger and Dan had charge of the mess and saw that everybody had full rations."

Capt. John Griffith, Co. E, Gratiot's 3rd Arkansas State Infantry became Lt.-Col./Col. of Rector's 17th Arkansas Infantry, then Col. of the 11th & 17th Consolidated Arkansas Infantry. His younger brother Benjamin H. Griffith also served in the same Confederate units. It appears that then Capt. John Griffith's manservant, Dan Griffith, stayed with his master throughout the War Between The States. If the MAR article and the Fort Smith Times article it was taken from are any indication, it appears that on occasion manservant Dan Griffith may have actively participated and done more than just cook meals and wash clothes.

The former manservant Dan Griffith is also described in the May 10, 1936 issue of The Arkansas Gazette Magazine (pages 5 and 12) as being a Justice of the Peace in Richmond, Sevier (later Little River) Co., AR during the Reconstruction years, presumably after the Griffith families departed for Texas during 1868-1869. I would dearly love to found out more about Dan Griffith and hope to do so in the near future.

Comments? Input?


Kenneth Byrd

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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