The 8th Illinois Cavalry relieved the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry from picket duty in King George County on Christmas Day 1862. Leaving their camps in Stafford County, the men headed south and east along present-day Route 3 into King George County. Stafford County was desolate, stark and war-ravaged; fences had disappeared, forests denuded and farms abandoned. By contrast, King George must have struck the men as a relative Garden of Eden. “As we neared King George,” one trooper observed, “the face of the country gradually improved, until within a few miles of the Court House, where it abounds in rich plantations.” In the same letter the soldier termed King George “one of the [wealthiest] counties in Virginia – rich in large plantations.” These plantations encompassed, as another trooper noted, “fine rolling farm land, on which the fences were in good order, and showed but few traces of the hand of war.”
The Illini viewed themselves as Western men, hard and disciplined. Easterners had to prove they could be counted on in the heat of battle; they had to prove themselves men ‘to ride the river with.’ All of their suspicions were confirmed on Christmas afternoon. “As we approached one post,” a trooper reported derisively, “one of their officers came to meet us so intoxicated that he could hardly maintain his seat in his saddle… three other officers also rode up in nearly as bad a condition.” One captain “was so drunk he had lost his side-arms, and…forced to return to camp without them,” while another officer went unseen for two days. The Pennsylvanians “had been having a gay Christmas merry-making with the citizens – not one of whom pretended to anything but sympathy with the rebels.” After, allegedly, crossing the Rappahannock River, several Southern officers had been “conducted” by a Union officer “to the top of a hill from which our pickets could be seen for two miles.” Other Rebels were believed to have crossed the river, and concealed themselves in “farm-houses back of the lines.” “I really believe,” a trooper concluded, “if the 8th Pennsylvania had remained a few days longer, they would have been on the road to Richmond.”
Readers should not be surprised to learn the above account is, slightly, embellished. No evidence confirms the accounts of enemy officers crossing the river and being allowed to observe the Union picket lines or soldiers being concealed in homes. The other allegations proved accurate.
Lt. Col. Amos E. Griffiths, commanding officer of the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry was arrested and charged with Neglect of Duty. The charge contained three specifications:
That he allowed “the officers and men of his command to become intoxicated while on picket, thereby exposing [the Union] to an attack from the enemy.”
That he failed to punish “the officers and men of his command reported to him as being intoxicated by Major Clendenin, 8th Illinois.”
That he allowed “citizens to pass…his lines, at pleasure,” and allowed “his officers and men to eat and drink and carouse with said citizens…the said citizens being noted secessionists and one at least having served in the rebel army.”
His court-martial began one month after the events of Christmas Day.
According to the court testimony, Maj. David Clendenin, 8th Illinois, met Griffiths at his headquarters between 11 and 12 o’clock Christmas morning. Though not explicitly stated, Clendenin and Griffiths probably met at Comorn, the home of the Bruce family. The major immediately inquired as to the “disposition of the pickets on duty, [and] to learn from [Griffiths] the outlines of the posts.” Clendenin then sent majors William Medill and John Beveridge to complete the process by relieving the Pennsylvanians along the exterior picket line. Clendenin held four companies at [Comorn] “to relieve the pickets in that vicinity and for the purpose of forming a ‘Reserve.’”
Initially, the meeting went exactly as required by regulations; the two senior officers conferred and Griffiths, the officer being relieved, explained the manner in which his men were deployed. Any maps diagraming Griffiths’ dispositions would have been handed to Clendenin. Clendenin then gave his officers copies of the orders he had received from his superior, Col. Benjamin ‘Grimes’ Davis, commander of the brigade, and instructed each of them to “obtain from the pickets [being relieved] any additional orders which they might have.”
Lt. Col. Amos Griffiths’ picket map used during his court-martial
Comorn – believed to have served as regimental headquarters for both regiments
Major Clendenin then testified to the number of citizens he observed at the headquarters, “coming in and going out, who seemed to have full access around the neighborhood – some of them living outside the lines.” Alarmed, Clendenin questioned Griffiths regarding “the policy of allowing [citizens] to come and go through our lines.” Not satisfied with Griffiths’ response, Clendenin ordered his men to prohibit citizens coming inside the lines “on any account and to prevent citizens from traveling about within the lines except on urgent duty.” Griffiths then escorted Clendenin to Mount View, the home of the Taylor family, “to obtain,” as Clendenin explained, “knowledge of the outlines and posts in the vicinity.” When they arrived, they found the officer in command of the post, Maj. Pennock Huey, absent. Other officers were enjoying “a Christmas dinner, of which [Clendenin] partook.”
Mount View was built about 1800, upon a commanding hill from where Clendenin would have had a very expansive view of the surrounding countryside in all directions. William Robinson Taylor, and his wife Mary Wilkins Burnley Taylor, owned the home during the war. Mary, known as Mollie, maintained the home, while her husband served as a private and forage master in the 9th Virginia Cavalry.
Part of the expansive 360 degree view from Mount View. Part of the Hopyard Farms Sub-division is visible. The Rappahannock River is in the tree line just beyond the homes. Hop Yard marked the western edge of the regiment’s picket line.
Nothing Clendenin observed gave him any confidence regarding the safety of his regiment. Not only were officers found intoxicated, but men along the picket line were also found to be under the influence. Clendenin also believed the left of his line, extending toward the Potomac River and Westmoreland County to be “entirely exposed.” He remedied the problem by moving one of his companies the next morning, and extending his lines. Still, he remained edgy as “nearly every citizen had a pass” allowing complete freedom of movement within the Union lines. He asked Griffiths to hold his men in the area until daylight, and Griffiths agreed.
Maj. John Beveridge then took the stand. He had relieved Maj. Peter Keenan’s men at Port Conway. Keenan’s headquarters may have been at Belle Grove, the home of Carolinus Turner. As no officers were present when Beveridge arrived, a private explained the manner in which the men were deployed. Shortly thereafter, two officers arrived, a lieutenant and a captain; both were intoxicated. Each of Keenan’s four companies had a separate headquarters, with one company assigned to Keenan’s headquarters. Beveridge believed Port Conway to be the “most important [post] on the river, being opposite Port Royal.” He also deemed Port Conway the most “precarious” position, especially if the intoxicated officers were in command of the post. Keenan pulled his men off the line during the evening, possibly holding them near Comorn.
Lt. Daniel Buck, Company E, followed Beveridge to the stand. Buck had relieved Company F, 8th Pennsylvania, at Port Conway. Capt. William Corrie, commanding the company had not been present when Buck arrived. Rather, Buck found a 1st Sergeant the senior man on duty. The sergeant, rather than an officer accompanied Buck as he relieved the Pennsylvanians along the line. Corrie arrived shortly after Buck returned to the company headquarters. A citizen arrived with Corrie, and Buck believed both men to be intoxicated. Only minutes after returning, both Corrie and the civilian departed again. When Corrie returned the second time, the sergeant formed the company, but Corrie left again before the company departed. Leaving his men standing in the road for almost an hour, Corrie finally returned after a fruitless search for his saber.
Capt. John Southworth, Company H, testified briefly. His company had relieved one of Major Keenan’s companies at Port Conway, and he identified the intoxicated lieutenant, mentioned by Major Beveridge, as Andrew Wells, Company F.
Maj. William Medill followed Southworth to the stand. Medill deployed Company G at Mount View and Company K, at Berry Plain, along the Rappahannock River. Joseph Berry built Berry Plain in 1720. His descendants sold the home to John Dickinson, and his wife, Virginia, in 1845. The home remained in the Dickinson family until 1959.
Medill met Capt. Nicholas Kneass, Company I, 8th Pennsylvania, near Mount View. Kneass was having Christmas dinner with citizens and officers alike, and Medill struggled to obtain “any information from [Kneass].” Though the Pennsylvanians had been on picket duty for days, Kneass was unable to tell Medill where his second company was posted. Medill sent Capt. Dennis Hynes, Company G, along with an unnamed Pennsylvania lieutenant, to locate and relieve the company. Then, Medill, along with Lieut. Darius Sullivan, who appears to have taken command of Company K in the absence of Capt. Elon Farnsworth, followed Kneass to Berry Plain, where Sullivan relieved Company I, 8th Pennsylvania. Sullivan’s company deployed between Cleve, the home of Henry Byrd Lewis, a short distance down river from Berry Plain and Hop Yard, a few miles upriver.
Upon reaching Berry Plain, Medill was disgusted to find no officers present and the soldiers without their weapons and with their horses unsaddled and unbridled. Leaving Lieutenant Sullivan to deal with Kneass, Medill returned to Mount View, where the Christmas frolic continued. Medill “found a great many men of Company G, 8th Pennsylvania, very noisy and drunk, [and] no officer present] to quell the noise.” When the officers finally returned, near midnight, Medill had to intercede when two of them got into a drunken argument. Though instructed to return to Comorn, the Pennsylvanians remained at Mount View until morning.
Medill posted his other squadron along “the turnpike leading from Mathias Point to Port Conway.” The turnpike is present-day Route 301, running between the Potomac River, near Mathias Point and the Rappahannock River at Port Conway. Office Hall stood at the mid-point of Medill’s line, at the present-day intersection of Route 301 and Route 3. Medill’s two companies formed a rough L-shaped line, one company extending north from Office Hall, along Route 301, toward Edgehill and the Potomac, and the second company posted east along Route 3, toward Shiloh. Though Office Hall is gone, two outbuildings remain and the area still appears on some maps as Office Hall.
These outbuildings are all that remains of Office Hall
When the prosecution rested, Lt. Col. Griffiths called Maj. Pennock Huey to the stand. When Griffiths asked if he [Griffiths] had given passes to anyone “considered disloyal,” Huey replied, “I consider everyone in that vicinity disloyal.” Possibly seeking to rectify Huey’s damaging statement, Griffiths inquired as to why he issued the passes. Huey stated, “Quite a number of persons came into our lines to recover property stolen by [Union] troops who went down to the vicinity of [Leedstown, in Westmoreland County]. They received passes to return to their homes.” According to Huey, all recovered stolen property was collected at Comorn, where citizens could claim their items.
Griffiths brought up one final matter, possibly to show the degree to which he had cooperated with Clendenin, but possibly to discredit him. Calling Lt. Frank Baker to the stand, Griffiths asked if Clendenin had reported a disturbance along his line on the twenty-sixth and requested help from Griffiths. Clendenin, according to Baker, “came into Griffiths’ tent and stated that some of his outer pickets had been driven in, and that he, Major Clendenin, had sent some of his people and requested Griffiths send out one squadron to their support, which he did at once under charge of Major Keenan.” Griffiths never asked Baker to clarify what, if anything, Keenan found when he arrived. As Griffiths did not call Keenan as a witness, he asked Major Huey if Keenan had reported “finding anything.” Huey stated, “[He] did not,” and no record of an attack against the picket line on the twenty-sixth has been found.
The court found Griffiths guilty of the over-riding charge, Neglect of Duty. As to the specifications he was deemed not guilty of allowing his men to become intoxicated on duty, guilty of not taking action against his officers after their intoxication was brought to his attention, and guilty for allowing his men to eat with citizens, but cleared of the remaining verbiage in the third specification. The panel recommended he be reprimanded in General Orders at the division level. Not satisfied with the findings, division commander Alfred Pleasonton sent the matter back to the panel for reconsideration. After review, the court found Griffiths guilty of the first two specifications and guilty of the third only to the extent he had been found guilty initially. This time the panel recommended dismissal from the service. He was discharged by order of the War Department on February 16, 1863.
The 8th Illinois and the 8th Pennsylvania had been brigaded together for months prior to Christmas 1862. A rivalry had developed as mentioned earlier, but there were other frictions. In a letter of November 20, 1862, Major Medill, referring to a skirmish earlier that month, complained, “the 8th Pennsylvania cavalry has been appropriating the glory belonging to our regiment… When I read the account originally I thought it was strange,” Medill continued, “that the 8th Pennsylvania suddenly had become so brave, for I had known Major [Keenan] to break and run when I had command of our regiment.” Alluding to the rivalry of east versus west, Medill wrote, “The reporters for the eastern papers always have been anxious to gouge us out of our due share of credit.” Not surprisingly, Medill offered the most specific and possibly the most damaging testimony.
Shortly after Griffiths was dismissed, twenty-two of the regiment’s officers signed a petition thanking him for his service. Emboldened by the support of his men, Griffiths gathered statements from several of his former officers seeking to mitigate the most damaging testimony elicited during the trial. Armed with these affidavits, Gov. Andrew Curtin asked President Lincoln to remove “the disability” against Griffiths. Lincoln sent the case to Joseph Holt, the army’s judge advocate general, for review. Holt was singularly unsympathetic, concluding “Under all the circumstances, to restore this officer to his former position would, it is believed, establish a precedent most dangerous to the service.” On Holt’s advice, Lincoln refused to overturn the court’s decision. Still, Curtin persisted, and in what must have been a matter of political expediency, Lincoln, on July 10, 1863, changed his mind. Curtin had told Lincoln he wished to give Griffiths the colonelcy of another regiment, but once Lincoln relented, and granted Griffiths an honorable rather than dishonorable discharge, Griffiths accepted a medical discharge from the service.
Period map of King George County
Documents from the National Archives
Price Family Papers, Library of Congress
Chicago Daily Tribune
Robert K. Krick, 9th Virginia Cavalry
Lee and Graham, King George County, A Pictorial History
I am especially grateful for the assistance, access and information provided by Mrs. Mary Pryor, Mrs. Laura Taylor and Mr. and Mrs. Tom Poland.
4 thoughts on “Picket Duty in King George, Christmas Day 1862”
Great article Bob. Enjoyed the pictures too.
Bob, we have all known Amos Griffiths personalities in our lives. But this one is especially contemptible as the concept of vigilant attention to duty was entirely foreign and of course his example of dangerously careless behavior was conveyed to his men. I’m sure the good troopers and officers in his command were disheartened and demoralized by their senior leadership. And yet Griffiths had the gall to fight his punishment! Wonder what happened to him after the war? Not much, one imagines.
Thanks for presenting this fascinating, revealing contrast between good and bad leadership. And again, the 8th Illinois Cavalry shines in all their war-making skills.
Thanks Bud. It would be interesting to find out what happened to Griffiths after the war.
I wish I could convince Bill to buy Berry Plains
We bought Berry Plain in Sept and love reading all the stories and finding out the many things that have taken place here. We are restoring the historic atmosphere as closely as we can. Come on out and visit.