Improbable as it seems
By PAUL ROY
A couple of weeks ago, FRED GRIFFITH of Helenwood walked into the Independent Herald office and handed an old faded photograph across the counter.
He explained he was bringing the photo to be copied in response to an appeal made by the Scott County Historical Society for pictures of Scott County Civil War veterans.
As I looked at the photo of an old man, a young woman and little girl, GRIFFITH explained that the man in the photo was HAMILTON GRIFFITH, that the woman was his wife, MARY HELEN LOWE GRIFFITH, and the little girl was their daughter, ELZADA. And, without taking a breath he pointed to the man and said, "Thatís my daddy, there."
Civil War veteranís children
Fred Griffith, 75, Helenwood, and his sister, Elzada Maughan, Rogersville, pose outside the Independent Herald office Thursday after relating a remarkable story of their father, a Union army veteran of the Civil War.
I took a mental step back from the front counter, looked at the photo and then looked at the man who had just handed it to me. I was about to say something stupid like, "You mean your grandfather?" when FRED appeared to read my thoughts. He said again, matter-of-factly, "Thatís my daddy."
I just knew it was some elaborate prank being orchestrated from behind the scenes by my friends PAUL W. PHILLIPS and BRUCE BUTLER, who were well aware of my obsession with getting my Civil War book project completed. I just knew it was some kind of hoax. So, what do I do but play along with it while doing the math in my head to see if what he was telling me was even remotely possible.
I asked GRIFFITH a few basic questions while trying to do these mental calculations. Iím terrible at math, so this went on for a while. GRIFFITH answered my questions and I did the arithmetic as best I could while trying to keep the conversation going at the same time.
The Civil War, I thought, was waged between 1861 and 1865. Using the year it ended, that would be 136 years ago. IF his father had been in his teens . . . No, thatís 136 years ago! Impossible, I thought. I asked GRIFFITH how old he was. He said he was 75. Humm, I thought, itís possible IF his father sired children late in life and IF his wife was young enough to bear children.
Too many ifs, I thought.
I told GRIFFITH I needed to go to the back office to scan the photo, and as I did so, I kept thinking about how improbable it was for me to be talking to the offspring of a Civil War veteran. As soon as I got out of sight, I began flipping through the pages of my notebook. "HAMILTON GRIFFITH," the notation said. "1845-1929; apparently served in three different regiments during the Civil War."
Hamilton Griffith Family
Hamilton Griffith (1845-1929) poses with his wife, Mary Lowe Griffith, and daughter, Elzada
Forgetting all about scanning the picture, I felt I had enough ammunition to trip him up if this was, indeed, a prank. I hurried back to the front counter.
"When were you born, Mr. GRIFFITH?" I asked.
"Nineteen hundred and twenty-six. My daddy died when I was three years old."
Somewhat surprised by his quick response, I automatically assumed heíd done his homework . . . or someone had done it for him.
"That would mean that your father was in his eighties when you were born," I shot back.
"Yep, eighty-one, I believe," came his response.
I didnít have a. comeback to that one, so I told him again that Iíd better go scan his picture. I went to the back office and after toying with the calculator a while, I thought of another question I should have asked.
Walking back to the front office I said, "Your mother must have been quite a bit younger than your father? I mean quite a bit younger?"
It was a standoff.
Finally, FRED GRIFFITH got a half grin on his face, arched one eyebrow, cocked his baseball cap back on his head and said, "If you donít believe me, you can ask my sister. I was only three years old when he died and donít remember him, but she was seven and remembers him pretty well."
He had me, hook, line and sinker.
I copied the picture and thanked him for bringing it by and although we talked a while longer and I took a few notes. Iím sure he got the impression that I was still having a hard time believing what he was telling me. And I was. It wasnít long before I ran out of questions and he took his old photograph and left.
Over the next few days, I had an opportunity to grill PHILLIPS and BUTLER, trying to get them to confess to the hoax they were playing on me. Neither would admit to it. Both of them said that it was something they would have never thought of. They, too, did the math. Both figured, yes, itís possible, but highly unlikely.
While I was still pondering the improbability of such a thing as talking to the son of a Civil War veteran, FRED GRIFFITH reappeared at the office a couple of weeks later in the company of his sister, ELZADA MAUGHAN, 80, of Rogersville.
In the span of about an hour last Thursday afternoon, FRED and ELZADA told a remarkable story. Elzada did most of the talking, with Fred doing a tot of nodding as if to say "I told you so."
"I was seven years old when he died," she said. "I remember him well. I thought he was a handsome man. He was tall and white-headed and always wore a mustache. He did all the cooking. And he could sew. He always kept a needle in his coat lapel.
"He numbered school children . . . thatís what they called it. He worked for the county. He would go around and get the num-
(See CHILDREN on page 3)
(Continued from page 1)
ber of children in school. Sometimes heíd go to Nashville and would be gone two or three weeks. We lived at Huntsville at the Foster Place. I went to school in a covered wagon driven by my uncle, NATHAN BYRGE. My mother was 14 years old and he was 68 when they got married. They had 10 children, but only four of us survived."
She went on to explain that her mother, MARY LOWE GRIFFITH, was HAMILTONís fourth wife. He had outlived his three other wives. "He was married to ADELINE LAWSON, then to RACHEL BURCHFIELD, then to MINDY PHILLIPS and; finally, to MARY LOWE." ADELINE, she said, was the mother of HAMILTONís first five children: IVORY, ALVIN, LOUVANIA, REBECCA and MELINDA. He had no children by either RACHEL or MINDY [different than the newspaper edition, corrected by Paul Roy]. The surviving children of HAMILTON and MARY LOWE GRIFFITH were HERMAN, EARLY, ELZADA and FRED.
"My father met my mother up on Smokey. A girl back then, when she was fourteen and not married she was considered an old maid. I donít think she had much of a home life. I think he (HAMILTON) felt sorry for her and that's why he married her.
She recalled her fatherís war medal "for bravery," which, when shown a picture, turned out to be a Grand Army of the Republic badge (that dayís equivalent of the American Legion) which was open only to Union Veterans of the Civil War.
She said her father was sort of an "herb doctor," or nature doctor, and that people would come to their home and he would come up with something to cure them.
She also recalled a story her father told about her about himself and his brother (FIELDING) being in camp during the war and being very hungry.
ĎThey bought some pies from a woman and FIELDING ate his while my daddy was feeding part of his pie to a little dog that was following them around." The dog fell over dead and FIELDING became violently ill and later died.
"And then he said something strange; he said, Ďthat woman never poisoned no one else.í Reckon what he meant by that?"
As she was relating that tale, it was somehow familiar to me. I flipped through the pages of my notebook for the entry on FIELDING GRIFFITH, and read much the same account of the incident which occurred on October 16, 1861 while he was serving with Company F, 1st Tennessee Infantry at Camp Dick Robbinson, Ky.
Another war story told by HAMILTON GRIFFITH to his young daughter had to do with spying on the enemy, she said.
"I remember he said he was surrounded by the enemy and crawled Ďin a hollow log to hide.. a chestnut log, and listened to what they had to say about their movements and such. And then he went back and told the officers what he had heard," she said.
After the war, HAMILTON GRIFFITH returned home to Scott County to make his living. He was active in the Huntsville [First Baptist] Church, she said. "He was a Sunday School teacher or superintendent of that church."
Then she told another tragic tale. The death of her father and her mother being forced to "give us away."
She said her father got sick and then had a stroke and was bedridden for a long time prior to his death. They were poor, she said, and her mother struggled, earning a living "with a washboard." They owned a little land at one time, she said, but had to sell it. When her father died, they were living in the Sulphur Springs area near Helenwood "on the APPLETON CRAM Place."
"I never will forget his last prayer," she said. "He asked the Lord to always take care of ELZADA."
The day before HAMILTON GRIFFITHís death, his wife had given birth to a little girl, FREEDA MAY. The baby would live only about two weeks, ELZADA said.
Within a year or so of HAMILTON GRIFFITHís death, ELZADA said, her mother remarried, to a man named HENRY MAYS. And not long afterwards, she and her little brother FRED were given up to be raised by local families, while the two older brothers, EARLY and HERMAN [different than the newspaper edition, corrected by Paul Roy], were put in a home, in Donelson.
"I was eight and a half when I went to live with the MONROE TERRY family. FRED was raised by JAMES ELSWICK PHILLIPS," she said.
Not understanding why the family had to be torn apart like that, ELZADA said she "disowned" her mother for 13 years. In fact, she was married and her first child was three years old before she came back to Scott County from her home in Hawkins County to see her mother. She had a reunion with her brother FRED after being separated for 11 years.
"I finally came to understand why she gave us up . . . but I didnít for a long time. Iíve had a good life and so has FRED," she said.
ELZADA left Scott County in 1940 and went to work as a cook for the Buffalo Stave Co. of Knoxville. Thatís where she met her future husband, KELSIE MANIS, who would go on to serve in World War II. They were married 43 years before his death. She has since remarried.
FRED, meanwhile, stayed at home, working 20 years at Swain Lumber Mills and 15 years at Tibbals Flooring Co. before retiring. He married BETTY BREWSTER, daughter of ABB BREWSTER, in 1949. They live in the house he built on Detour Road in Helenwood 40 years ago.
Both FRED and ELZADA have grown children, and both have had long and productive lives.
But the story doesnít end there.
The day after the lengthy interview with two children of a Civil War veteran, I accompanied FRED and his lifelong friend, the Rev. FLOYD TERRY, to the burial place of HAMILTON GRIFFITH. FRED asked FLOYD to come along to point out the grave site, since it was marked only by a field stone.
Now 78, FLOYD said he remembered attending the funeral of HAMILTON GRIFFITH and recalled the exact spot where he was buried in a corner of the Sulphur Springs Cemetery, some four miles from Helenwood. He pointed out the grave marker and he and FRED stood beside the grave while I took a picture.
And at that moment I couldnít help but think of FREDís words to me a couple of weeks earlier: "Thatís my daddy, there."
Vol. 25, No. 51
10 May 2001
19391 Alberta Street, Oneida, TN 37841
[As a follow up to that story, Curtis Marcum, Veterans Service Officer for Scott County, has agreed to order a military tombstone for Hamilton Griffith's grave.]
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