Griffin, Charles (1825–1867)

By: James Alex Baggett and Joseph G. Dawson III

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: October 27, 2020

Charles Griffin, United States Army officer and commander of the Department of Texas during Reconstruction, was born at Granville, Licking County, Ohio, on December 18, 1825, son of Apollos Griffin. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1847, twenty-third in a class of thirty-eight, and received a commission in the artillery. Griffin commanded a company during the final campaign of the Mexican War, was promoted to first lieutenant in 1849, and served on the frontier until 1860. He returned to West Point and served as an instructor until early 1861, when, during the secession crisis, he organized a new artillery unit-the West Point Battery (Battery D, Fifth Artillery)-of the academy's enlisted men. Captain Griffin's battery distinguished itself in the first major battle of the Civil War at Bull Run and later during the Peninsular Campaign. He transferred to the infantry in 1862 to become brigadier general of volunteers. He led his brigade at the second battle of Bull Run and at Antietam. Griffin's irascibility frequently led to conflict with his superiors, but his leadership abilities brought steady promotion. He commanded a division in the battles at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, and in the Virginia Campaign (1864–65). He became a major general in command of the Fifth Corps in April 1865 and was one of the Union generals who received Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

After a brief stint as head of the Department of Maine, Griffin took command at Galveston of the military district and Freedmen's Bureau of Texas in December 1866. Under Gen. Philip Sheridan, senior officer for Louisiana and Texas, Griffin was quickly embroiled in Reconstruction politics. In the spring of 1867 he began the registration of Black and White Texas voters under the Reconstruction acts. He moved to disqualify antebellum officeholders who had supported the Confederacy and surveyed the state for Unionist replacements. At the same time he enforced the "iron-clad oath" (requiring men to swear they had never given service to the Confederacy) as the basis for jury selection in Texas. Unsatisfied with Governor James W. Throckmorton's lack of cooperation in carrying out the mandate of congressional Reconstruction-especially the conferring of political and civil rights on freedmen-Griffin persuaded General Sheridan to remove Throckmorton from office. A Republican and Unionist, Elisha M. Pease, replaced Throckmorton and worked with Griffin to remove a number of other state and county officeholders as "impediments to reconstruction." Although Griffin's policies aroused the ire of many Texans at the time, the record suggests that duty, as he construed it under the Reconstruction acts, rather than partisanship, was the primary motive for his actions against Democratic officeholders. Griffin had been ordered to New Orleans to assume Sheridan's command when, on September 15, 1867, he died of yellow fever in an epidemic that was sweeping Galveston. His death removed an ardent supporter of congressional Reconstruction and of freedmen's rights. Fort Griffin on the Texas frontier was later named in his honor. He was survived by his wife, Sallie (Carroll), scion of a prominent Maryland family, whom he had married on December 10, 1861.

Dictionary of American Biography. Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army (2 vols., Washington: GPO, 1903; rpt., Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965). Charles W. Ramsdell, Reconstruction in Texas (New York: Columbia University Press, 1910; rpt., Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1970). William L. Richter, "Tyrant and Reformer: General Griffin Reconstructs Texas, 1865–1866," Prologue 10 (1978).

Time Periods:

  • Reconstruction

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

James Alex Baggett and Joseph G. Dawson III, “Griffin, Charles,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 25, 2022,

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October 27, 2020