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The Welsh have always been a part of the fabric of the American nation. At the time of the Civil War, there were approximately 120,000 Welsh speakers living in the Northern States, concentrated mainly in New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio. There were regional Eisteddfods (Welsh literary festivals) annually, Welsh named towns and churches dotted the countryside, as well as several Welsh language newspapers circulating the country. When the war broke out, over 6000 Welshmen volunteered to fight for the Union; none were drafted or coerced. Indeed, their status as volunteers became a defining feature of their patriotism to their adopted country, enduring years of conflict to earn what they perceived as legitimate American citizenship sanctified through sacrifice. However, their remarkable heroism through the war has been largely forgotten. One of these patriots was Joseph E. Griffith. 

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Like many others, the United States was his adopted homeland. He was born in 1843 in Llanegryn, North Wales. After his mother died, he and his family emigrated to Wisconsin, but soon removed to Iowa, and settled in the old capitol county of Johnson, where his father became the pastor of the ‘Welsh Church’ six miles west of Iowa City. When Lincoln called for more volunteers in 1862, Joseph enlisted in Company I of the 22nd Iowa Volunteer Regiment. 

The regiment was primarily made up of men from Iowa City in Johnson County, Iowa. Griffith was not the only Welshman in the regiment. He was accompanied by four other volunteers who had been born in Wales, or had their nativity listed as ‘Wales’ on the official roster: Edward Breese, Griffith W. Griffith, and Thomas E. Marsden in Company I, and Richard Thomas of Company A – all resident in Iowa City. As with Powell’s example, these men would have had strong regional ties with Joseph Griffith, so his influence as a role model would have had both a regional and a national dimension. 

Griffith’s quick intelligence had early secured his promotion to the rank of sergeant so that when he crossed the Mississippi from Carthage to Hard Times Landing on the 30th of April, he carried this rank with him – his sole and only fortune – in his “baptism of blood” the next day at the battle of Port Gibson, the first in the series of actions in the rear of Vicksburg. After a hard struggle against Confederate forces in Mississippi and Tennessee, it was at the Siege of Vicksburg, in an engagement known as the ‘Railroad Redoubt’ that Sergeant Joseph Griffith made his name one of national interest. 

On the 22nd of May 1863, the Union army under Grant made an attempt upon the defenses protecting the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg. Surrounded by a ring of forts and earthworks, Vicksburg proved a bloody riposte for the Union assault, especially around Fort Beauregard, otherwise known as the Railroad Redoubt. The 22nd Iowa’s regimental historian Lieutenant S.C. Jones of Company A gave a short but evocative account of the fight in his diary:

‘About 9 am cannonading commenced all around our line simultaneously…Hundreds of guns and mortars opened their mouths and belched forth flame and missiles of death…About 10:15 our army arose at once as if by magic out of the ground. Then commenced the ordeal. The Regiment on a charge started for the Fort. At once the Confederates opened with grape and canister, plowing gaps through our ranks. Steadily, we pushed on up the slope into the ditch and over the parapet, placed the flag on the Fort, and kept it there for some time. Thirteen prisoners were taken out of the fort, only a few of our boys got into the fort and they had to come out of it and remained in the ditch outside.’ 

Joseph Griffith himself also gave an account of his harrowing experience on that day: 

‘22nd – High hill that stood between us and the enemy embankments…the trenches are ten feet wide and ten deep. It appeared unfeasible to storm it, yet we were ordered to carry on…We were led by our brave colonel until he fell. On a charge, we lept at the trenches and met the enemy on the face of their embankments. There, the 22nd were shot in the most horrible manner. The enemy had only to load their guns and aim them down, they were sure to hit someone. In one place only we captured the redoubt. It was held for eight hours until almost all the boys were killed…Our banner was the only one waving over the enemy embankment on that unforgettable Friday.’

For his actions, he was promoted to a lieutenancy, as well as earned himself a scholarship to West Point. This act of suicidal bravery was typical of what was expected of any Welsh volunteer who aspired to be an American patriot. His letter is invaluable, as it eloquently presents the reality of civil war combat. It established for its audience the difference between being fired at by distant cannons and the much grimmer nature of hand-to-hand combat in close proximity. The bloody nature of his experience is made all the more bitter when we realize that the defenses of Vicksburg were not considered particularly formidable. Edward Hagerman has pointed out that Pemberton’s defenders had only a total of about 500 entrenching tools, so his troops were incapable of performing any extraordinary feats of entrenchment on short notice. Even when strengthened with rifle pits, ditches, abatis, palisades, and embrasures for artillery, the Confederate fortifications still did not constitute a heavy system of works. Despite this, however, Hagerman argued that weak though the Confederate positions were in profile, their compensating natural strength, combined with the firepower of the rifled musket, rendered them quite satisfactory. Joseph Griffith’s eye-witness testimony certainly made it seem so, as the power of rebel artillery and rifles had demolished the Union assault. Even the weakest field entrenchments thus presented a near-suicidal obstacle for a Union volunteer when defended by modern weapons. 

An excellent source is Brigadier General Michael K. Lawler’s report on the 26th of May. While stating it was useless to mention all those who distinguished themselves for bravery, nevertheless selected Griffith for public commendation. He wrote that, while all officers and men did their duty nobly and by their coolness and courage added new honors to those won at Port Gibson, at Champion’s Hill, and at Big Black. Sergt. Joseph Griffith, Company I, Twenty-second Iowa Volunteers, distinguished himself, particularly in the charge on the fort, and is the only survivor but one of the men who took it in the morning.

Not only did Brigadier General Lawler praise him for his actions, but so too did his Divisional Commander, General E.A. Carr. He congratulated his division in an announcement that was later published in the Chicago Daily Tribune: 

Once again, on a day consisting of extraordinary individual bravery, Joseph Griffith received public distinction above others. By claiming that it was impossible to name all those who had demonstrated their courage in battle, naming Joseph specifically, clearly demonstrated his irrefutable credentials as a patriot to the rest of the army. As if this wasn’t enough, his actions were lauded by his Corps Commander, Major General John A. McClernand in a letter to Governor Richard Yates of Illinois, also appearing in the Tribune:

‘Twelve men went into it; eleven were killed, and the twelfth, aided by our sharpshooters on the top of the parapet, captured and brought out twelve rebels – a feat more daring and successful is hardly recorded. Its achiever was Sergeant Joseph Griffith, Company I, 22d Iowa Volunteer Infantry, who deserves equal admiration and praise.’ 

For such a man of comparatively low rank, it is significant that General McClernand chose to acknowledge Joseph Griffith directly for his accomplishment. While the feat of escorting twelve prisoners single-handedly, all under heavy fire, certainly deserved national acclaim, it was fortunate that his name was made known to Governor Yates. It is clear that Griffith was becoming notorious, assuredly so to his comrades and superior officers, and to a certain extent on a national level as a result of having McClernand’s letter published in the Tribune. Consequently, despite only being a Sergeant, although he would be promoted to a lieutenant with a commission to West Point as a result of his actions, it is easy to see how his elevated status had made him a role model to American recruits and an icon to his Welsh following in the army.

An article in the Cenhadwr from August 1867 is a clear indication of how Griffith was heralded as a patriot by the Welsh community. Firstly, it gave an American’s account from West Point: 

‘Last evening we received a call from Lieutenant Joseph E. Griffith, late Sergeant in Company I, 22 Iowa Infantry, now the first Lieutenant in that company. The story of the gallant daring exhibited by this young Iowa officer has already been related in the Gazette and repeated all over the North. We have heard from his own lips the simple tale of the fearful attack on the fort, its capture, the killing and wounding of every Federal soldier in it, Lieutenant Griffith himself being among the wounded, and his final return to our lines with thirteen prisoners.’ 

Secondly, it summarised its own feelings on Lieutenant Griffith:

‘If it happened that the Welsh nation in this present age needed the service of a man like Oliver Cromwell, Lieutenant Joseph E. Griffith is that man, perfect in every way, if not better considering his early achievements and his teaching…because this brave young man is an honor to the nation, and deserves the praise of the Welsh as much as the Americans.’

The Cenhadwr wrote that it had followed his progress at West Point with national pride, then publicly declared him as an honor to both Welsh and Americans. His status as a military hero was a public example of how famous individuals who had shown particular bravery in the Civil War crossed the bridge between distinct Welsh and American identities. Due to his exemplary war record and his new status as a West Point graduate, Griffith was seen as very much a son of both camps. 

As was the case with the Cenhadwr, American newspapers kept on reporting about Lieutenant Griffith after the war, providing further evidence of how revered he was in the national imagination. For example, the Daily Gate City published an article in May 1867 entitled ‘Brave Iowa Boy,’ notifying its readers of Griffith’s imminent graduation from West Point. The article read as such: ‘Sergeant Joseph E. Griffith, of Iowa City, celebrated as the ‘Sergeant Griffith’ of the Twenty-second Iowa Infantry, who distinguished himself at the charge on the Rebel’s works at Vicksburg, on the 22d of May 1863, will graduate at West Point this year, at the head of his class.’

The article’s emphasis on ‘the Sergeant Griffith’ implies that he was a renowned veteran in Iowa, to the extent of being a household name, or at least to the extent that the City’s readers would be familiar with his name. In this short excerpt, he was acclaimed as an American hero for his actions at Vicksburg, mirroring his description in the Cenhadwr. The reports of his death on the 7th of July 1877 similarly reveal the extent of his notoriety in regional and national circles. The Rock Island Argus of Illinois reported that he died that morning of apoplexy, aged just 36: ‘Capt Joseph E. Griffith, known historically for gallantry at Vicksburg during the war, was a graduate of West Point, connected with the engineer corps, US Army, and in that capacity long occupied with the survey of the lakes, died here this morning, aged 36 years.’ The New York Herald copied the Argus’ story the next day, also noting that Griffith was known for ‘gallantry at Vicksburg during the late war.’ Firstly, the fact that his death was reported in the papers on the same day is a possible indication of how revered he was as a war hero, and that his passing deserved immediate news distribution. Secondly, adhering to the typical descriptions of Griffith as a hero, both these articles wrote that he was historically known for gallantry, further implying that he was nationally famous. 

Even after his death, in 1893 the National Tribune published a commemorative article about the 22nd Iowa, citing Griffith’s extraordinary bravery during the assault on the Railroad Redoubt. It described that, at one time during the assault Serg’t Joseph E. Griffith, of Co. I, with a squad of 20 men, climbed the wall of the fort, and effecting an entrance engaged in a hand-to-hand fight, from which the Sergeant and only one man returned alive.’ Here he was remembered not as a Welsh soldier, but as an American patriot. It was only a brief citation, yet having his name commemorated in a major Washington newspaper long after the Civil War had ended is a poignant example of how Welshmen strived to celebrate their American identity through fighting in the Union armed forces. 

This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the Civil War. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to the Civil War.

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"Joseph Griffith: A Welshman at Vicksburg" History on the Net
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December 8, 2022 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/joseph-griffith-a-welshman-at-vicksburg>
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