Gettysburg 150: Life comes full circle at Civil War camp for great-great-grandson of Ulysses S. Grant
GETTYSBURG — With his Union blue uniform, soldier’s hat, military badges and beard, John G. Griffiths sat in a Civil War battlefield much as his maternal great-great-grandfather did 150 years ago.
“Some people call Ulysses S. Grant “the savior of the Union,” said Griffiths, who came from Fredericksburg, Va. to the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg as a re-enactor with the First Pennsylvania Reserve. “He was adaptable and well-organized.”
Grant, a successful Union general in the Civil War and the 18th American president, had a way of bringing stability to turbulent times, Griffiths said.
Born in Ohio to a leather producer and his wife, Grant at first didn’t appear like anything special. He weighed 117 pounds and stood 5-feet-2 when he graduated from West Point in 1843. Yet he also was an expert horseman. From his early days, he proved himself organized enough to become a quartermaster for the 4th U.S. Infantry.
He seemed destined for the military. Griffiths called his ancestor “an honest man who delegated tasks and expected people to do them. He didn’t micromanage people. He was adaptable.”
Grant served in the Mexican-American War, worked in the family leather business, then got back into the military, Griffiths said. When the Civil War began in 1861, Grant trained volunteer regiments, becoming commander of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He later became a brigadier general.
“Ulysses Grant moved around a lot in the Civil War,” Griffiths said, describing him as an aggressive officer who led hard fighting to eventually win the bloody Battle of Shiloh. Both sides had heavy losses, 1,754 Union deaths and 1,728 Confederate deaths. Some people hated Grant so much that they asked President Lincoln to remove him.
“I can’t spare this man,” Lincoln is said to have answered. “He fights.”
Grant also defeated the Confederates throughout the South and seized Vicksburg, Miss., which gave the Union control of the Mississippi River.
After he won the Battle of Chattanooga, Grant seemed unstoppable. He became commander of all the Union Armies, then went head to head with Robert E. Lee in the Overland Campaign. Eventually, Grant’s troops captured Richmond in April 1865, which led to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.
Griffiths said that Grant was gracious to the conquered, telling Lee to “put your weapons down, take your horses home to plow, go home and be good citizens.”
Griffiths admits Grant wasn’t perfect, saying that he drank too much at times and made corrupt political appointments at other times.
“He didn’t want to get involved in politics,” Griffiths insisted. “But after President Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson became president. Johnson was hard to get along with because he wasn’t tactful. Congress even tried to impeach him.”
Grant was persuaded to run for president, won and served two “good terms,” Griffiths said. He is credited with establishing Civil Service reform, destroying the Ku Klux Klan in 1871, and enforcing reconstruction. After his term, he traveled with his wife and wrote his memoirs which Mark Twain published.
Grant and his wife had three sons. Their oldest, Frederick Dent Grant, was Giffiths’ great-great-grandfather. Griffiths, a former engineering draftsmen for the federal government and a museum specialist before retiring, said he never married. He’s been doing Civil War re-enactments since 1956.