“A Brave and Gallant Officer”: Colonel Thomas M. Griffin of the 18th Mississippi

This past weekend I’ve been doing some extra research and writing about the second battle of Fredericksburg on May 3, 1863. Part of the Chancellorsville campaign, this fight resulted in the capture of Marye’s Heights and the retreat of the relatively small Confederate force, allowing the Union General John Sedgwick to head west and attempt to threaten the rear of the Confederate lines near Chancellorsville. (Another battle—Salem Church—and Lee’s decision to divide his army again and send Confederate troops east resulted in Sedgwick getting pinned against the Rappahannock river and eventually retreating across.)

The Sunken Road at Fredericksburg (Bierle)

I’ve been combing through the Official Records, a bunch of primary source letters, and some secondary sources, including Chris and Kris’s book, Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front. In the descriptions of the attempted Confederate defense of the Sunken Road and Marye’s Heights on May 3, 1863, one name kept reappearing: Colonel Griffin. For example, in a May 10 letter to his mother, William H. Moore of the 21st Mississippi explained:

“On Sunday morning about day light they made their first attack here on us and we repulsed them three times. They then sent a flag of truce requesting permission to get off their wounded and bury their dead. Unfortunately for us, Gen. Griffin of 18th Miss Regt., granted it and under cover of this, they came up close to our works and discovered what small force we had here and all the time the flag of truce was flying, they were arranging their plans to flank us both right and left and attack us with an over whelming force in front. And in five minutes after the flag of truce was taken down they made the attack. And in less time almost than I can describe it they had flanked us both right and left, and as they had an over whelming force of at least twenty to one coming down upon us in front, so that they had us almost entirely surrounded we were compelled to get out the best way we could.”[i]

Moore misrepresented Griffin’s rank, but the rest of his tale matches other accounts in the essentials. Colonel Griffin of the 18th Mississippi allowed a flag of truce which the Yankee’s either intentionally or coincidentally used to realize how few defenders held the infamous Sunken Road. (Accounts vary about the intention of the flag of truce—humanitarian turned opportunistic or intentionally deceptive?)

Colonel Griffin gets mentioned in General Barksdale’s official report:

“Upon the pretext of taking care of their wounded, the enemy asked for a flag of truce after the second assault on Marye’s Height’s which was granted by Colonel Griffin, and thus the weakness of our force at that point was discovered. It is proper to say that Colonel Griffin, who is a brave and gallant officer, granted this flag of truce without consulting me.”[ii]

Simply, Griffin’s Mississippians held the Sunken Road below Marye’s Heights and their line stretched thin. Other Mississippi regiments from Barksdale’s Brigade, some of Hays’s Louisianians, and a handful of artillery batteries completed the defense of the high ground, but their numbers lacked the strength to make the position impregnable like the previous December when repeated Union assaults during the first battle of Fredericksburg had failed to even reach the wall or heights. The Confederate defenders in May 1863 repulsed two Union attacks. Then, the lull and the requested truce. General Barksdale explained what happened next: “After a determined and bloody resistance by Colonel Griffin and the Washington Artillery, the enemy, fully twenty to one, succeeded in gaining possession of Marye’s Hill.”[iii] The 18th Mississippi Regiment lost their flag when the Union troops overran their position at the Sunken Road.[iv]

Confederate dead in the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg. This picture is often mislabeled as being taken after the December 1862 battle.

I wanted to know more about Colonel Griffin. Fortunately, I found some service records to help fill in the story:

Thomas M. Griffin was born on January 7, 1816[v], married Sarah P. Colbert in 1844, and enlisted on June 7, 1861, in Corinth, Mississippi, as lieutenant colonel in the 18th Mississippi Infantry. He fought at First Manassas and Ball’s Bluff and was “promoted by election December 1861” and officially commissioned as colonel of the regiment on April 26, 1862, near Lee’s Mill on the Virginia Peninsula. Surviving regimental paperwork shows some of his supply requisitions and requests. He was wounded in July 1862 and still absent from the regiment in November and December 1862, meaning he missed the first battle of Fredericksburg when Barksdale’s Mississippians opposed the river crossings and pontoon bridge building. He remained furloughed in January and February 1863. Clearly, he returned to the regiment during the spring. Griffin was captured on May 3, 1863, probably in or near the Sunken Road, but his captors paroled him rather quickly on May 18 from Old Capitol Prison. Griffin fought again at Gettysburg and was wounded on July 2, resulting in more medical furloughs. In March and April 1864, he was still absent from the regiment but noted “on post duty at Newnan, GA” and he remained there until his resignation caused by medical disability was approved on November 30, 1864.[vi]

On the battlefield, Griffin may have had sensible or even slightly cautious tendencies. According to a post-war account of Gettysburg, the colonel suggested to General Barksdale that the brigade should pause in their attack to reform their lines. Barksdale passed on the idea and ordered Griffin to keep moving his regiment forward. When Barksdale was mortally wounded a little while later, Griffin took command of the brigade’s survivors, positioned near Plum Run, and tried to organize an orderly retreat. He was wounded at this time.[vii] According to a post-war newspaper article, Griffin was wounded in the leg at Gettysburg.[viii]

Thomas Griffin died on October 2, 1878, and is buried in Cayuga Cemetery in Hinds County, Mississippi. His wife died in 1878 also and is buried with him. On his gravestone, he is listed as the Colonel of the 18th Mississippi, suggesting he saw that command as a lasting achievement. An inscription reads: “Long will posterity his virtues own when blank or broken is this pillar’d stone. Our hearts had melted into one, but death undid what love had done.”[ix]

Thomas Griffin’s grave (Find A Grave)

Griffin did not write an official report for second Fredericksburg that is published in the Official Records, and my quick searching did not readily reveal a letter collection that might give his side of the story, regarding the flag of truce. It seems unfair and not a good historical practice to try to draw too many conclusions about that incident from the simple outline of his life and military service, so I’ll have to leave this research as it is for the moment: the battle facts and the bare outline of the life of a Confederate colonel.

Post-Script: If you want to see the *likely* 18th Mississippi’s battle-flag that was captured at Second Fredericksburg, check out this American Battlefield Trust video! (See the 6:25 minute mark.)



[i] William H. Moore, Letter to Mother on May 10, 1863. Accessed in Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Military Park Bound Volume Collection, BV-336:12.

[ii] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 25, Part 1 Reports, General Barksdale’s Report, page 839-841.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid., page 841.

[v] Photograph of headstone, FindAGrave.

[vi] Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers who Served in Organizations from the State of Mississippi, 1861-1865, National Archives: Catalog ID: 586957, Record Group 109, Mississippi, Roll 0268. Accessed through Fold3.

[vii] “The Mississippi Brigade Attacks” – www.13thmississippi.com/2011/09/18/the-mississippi-brigade-attacks

[viii] The Clarion-Ledger, October 6, 1886.

[ix] Headstone photograph, FindAGrave.

4 Responses to “A Brave and Gallant Officer”: Colonel Thomas M. Griffin of the 18th Mississippi

    1. Glad to share. I keep coming across stories and primary source rumors of a lot of deception during the Chancellorsville Campaign. It’s hard to track and prove what’s true, but certainly a lot of intrigue seems to have been happening!

  1. I expect collecting the dead was frequently a source for extemporaneous “intel” on the other side. During the Napoleonic wars, there was often a tussle over whether to allow the enemy to collect their wounded and how close they could get – for that very reason. Griffin likely knew that was a possibility. It would have been better for him to have his own soldiers move the wounded who were close to his lines, but perhaps he thought even that would betray a weakness. Who knows.

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