'A Gentleman and an Officer': A Military and Social History of James B. Griffin's Civil War

'A Gentleman and an Officer': A Military and Social History of James B. Griffin's Civil War

'A Gentleman and an Officer': A Military and Social History of James B. Griffin's Civil War

'A Gentleman and an Officer': A Military and Social History of James B. Griffin's Civil War


In 1861, James B. Griffin left Edgefield, South Carolina and rode off to Virginia to take up duty with the Confederate Army in a style that befitted a Southern gentleman: on a fine-blooded horse, with two slaves to wait on him, two trunks, and his favorite hunting dog. He was thirty-five years old, a wealthy planter, and the owner of sixty-one slaves when he joined Wade Hampton's elite Legion as a major of cavalry. He left behind seven children, the eldest only twelve, and a wife who was eight and a half months pregnant. As a field officer in a prestigious unit, the opportunities for fame and glory seemed limitless. In A Gentleman and an Officer, Judith N. McArthur and Orville Vernon Burton have collected eighty of Griffin's letters written to his wife Leila at the Virginia front, and during later postings on the South Carolina coast. Extraordinary in their breadth and volume, the letters encompass Griffin's entire Civil War service. Unlike the reminiscences and biographies of high-ranking, well-known Confederate officers or studies and edited collections of letters of members of the rank and file, this collection sheds light on the life of a middle officer - a life turned upside down by extreme military hardship and complicated further by the continuing need for reassurance about personal valor and status common to men of the southern gentry. With a fascinating combination of military and social history, A Gentleman and an Officer moves from the beginning of the Civil War at Fort Sumter through the end of the war and Reconstruction, vividly illustrating how the issues of the Civil War were at once devastatingly national and revealingly local.


When James B. Griffin went to war in 1861 he was in the prime of life, thirty-six years old, the owner of sixty-one slaves and fifteen hun- dred acres of prime South Carolina plantation land, full of confidence that the armies of the Confederacy would whip the Yankees in short order and establish the new nation's independence. Four years later he returned to a burned-out plantation without slaves, without capital, half of his land gone and the remainder mortgaged to the full amount of its diminished value. After a year of trying to make a go of it as a planter in the new order, Griffin gave up and moved to Texas, where he achieved success in a career as a brick manufacturer.

Griffin's story of agrarian grandeur and initial martial success fol- lowed by ruinous defeat and subsequent rebirth as a businessman is the story in microcosm of the South from 1860 to 1880. It is a story for the wartime years told with pathos and insight in Griffin's letters to his wife, skillfully edited and annotated by Judith N. McArthur and Orville Vernon Burton. As a field officer in the famous Hampton's Legion during the war's first year, Griffin was in a position to portray important operations in the Virginia theater. His letter describing the battle of Seven Pines, where he commanded the Legion after Hamp- ton was wounded, is one of the best accounts of that battle from the Confederate side.

When the Legion was reorganized and Griffin failed to be elected as colonel of its infantry regiment, he resigned and returned to South Car- olina. There he served intermittently in the defenses of Charleston and elsewhere until the end. His letters during these years offer glimpses of an important but neglected theater of war. They have considerable value to historians seeking to understand events in that theater.

But these are not merely military letters. They discuss matters con- cerning the running of the plantation and issues of family, kinship, and race back home in South Carolina. The letters constitute im- portant documents in the social and cultural history of this plantation . . .

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