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Grant's descendant at home in the South

May 3, 2009 12:36 am


John Grant Griffiths examines a bust of Ulysses S. Grant, his great-great-grandfather. A Spotsylvania County resident for the past 22 years, Griffiths enjoys Civil War re-enacting--and often serves on the Confederate side. lo0503grant2.jpg

John G. Griffiths, a great-great-grandson of U.S. Grant, thinks history has been unfair to the Union general. lo0503grant3.jpg

Griffiths owns several pieces of the rose medallion china that belonged to his great-great-grandfather.


One hundred forty-five years after Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant fought to a draw at the Battle of the Wilderness, one of his great-great-grandsons lives quietly a few miles away in a suburban townhouse.

John Grant Griffiths is a retired federal employee, a self-taught expert on military weapons, and an occasional Civil War re-enactor.

More often than not, Griffiths dons the gray uniform of a Confederate private.

What would his great-great-grandfather, victorious Union commander and 18th president of the United States, think of that?

Griffiths has answered that question before.

"All I can say is, he's not here."

And Griffiths, 70, is.

A bachelor, he has chosen to live for the past 22 years in Spotsylvania County, in the heart of Southern territory, and it suits him.

Work drew him first. After many years as a draftsman for the federal government, he parlayed his extensive knowledge of military weapons into a career change and became curator of ordnance for the former Air-Ground Museum at Marine Corps Base Quantico. He filled that role from 1987 until his retirement in 1998.

And then he just decided to stay.

He's a member of the Rappahannock Valley Civil War Round Table and the Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield, and he re-enacts as either a Confederate or a Union soldier.

He doesn't do battles much anymore because it's hard to get up after falling on the field, but he still enjoys the living-history side of things.

"I turn out once in a while, stand around with my hands in my pockets, drink beer and have a very relaxing weekend," he said with a grin.

He's content to be a private, with no desire for an officer's insignia. And he feels a lot of empathy and respect for the unsung Confederate and Union soldiers he channels in the 21st century.


Young John Griffiths was in fourth grade and flipping through a family photo album when he saw a picture of Ulysses S. Grant and asked his mother about it.

"She said, 'That's your great-great-grandfather. He was President Grant.' I was thrilled."

The president's oldest son, Frederick Dent Grant, was the father of several children, including Ulysses S. Grant III, who was the father of Griffiths' mother, Julia Grant Griffiths.

John Griffiths and his two sisters are among dozens of direct descendants of the 18th president, said one of Griffiths' relations, Ulysses Dietz of Newark, N.J.

But to John Griffiths, being a Grant descendant was not an easy distinction to grow up under.

His father, an Army officer, moved the family to Arlington in the 1940s. It was Northern Virginia, but it was still a very Southern place at a time when the wounds of the Civil War felt fresh.

"Grant's one of those people who've gone through phases of popularity and unpopularity, and at the time I was in junior and senior high school, he was not that well thought of," Griffiths said.

Many thought Grant had been an alcoholic, a squanderer of soldiers' lives and an ineffectual president.

And as a student at a high school named in part for Gen. Robert E. Lee, Griffiths was picked on because of Grant. He didn't try to defend his ancestor.

"I just let it go," he recalls now. "I felt overwhelmed, and I wasn't up to it."

Griffiths went off to college in Iowa, but said he was a lousy student. He left without a degree and came home to Arlington.

At loose ends, Griffiths met a Civil War re-enactor, and the subject piqued his interest.

He joined a Confederate re-enacting regiment not out of conviction or contrariness but because it was easier to get gray wool for reproduction Confederate uniforms than light blue for Union trousers.

The hobby became a full-time endeavor as the 1961 Civil War centennial celebration geared up. Griffiths worked on the centennial for the better part of a year.

When it was over, he went to drafting school and started a career with the government.

By then he was thoroughly hooked on history, not only of the Civil War but also of the Revolutionary War. He joined a re-enacting outfit that participated in the American Revolution bicentennial, and after that disbanded, he joined friends from that group in more Civil War re-enacting.

Along the way, he amassed such a knowledge of the weapons, uniforms and vehicles of war that when the position of ordnance curator at the Marine museum came open, he was a perfect fit, recalled his former supervisor, Ken Smith-Christmas.

Not only could Griffiths handle the necessary cataloging, he was an expert in the subject matter.

"He really knew it all," Smith-Christmas recalled.


Griffiths' Spotsylvania living room is wall-to-wall books, and about a quarter of them are about Grant.

The room is hardly a shrine. A print and a small bronze bust are the only Grant likenesses on display.

Griffiths doesn't own much Grant memorabilia, just some of the president's personal rose medallion china that was divided among many descendants. Griffiths' share includes a cup and saucer he has never once drunk from.

He has read a lot about Grant, enough to conclude that the negative assessment of the general's life and career is unfair.

He doesn't believe, for example, that Grant was an alcoholic. As a young officer out west, Grant chose not to drink because he realized that even one drink affected him too much, Griffiths said. His bad reputation probably came from a clash with a superior officer.

"He put that behind him when he came back east," Griffiths said.

It's unfair, too, to blame Grant for sacrificing soldiers' lives to win the war.

"You have to realize that when you are a general, you're going to command people and people are going to be killed," Griffiths said.

And unlike more popular generals in history, Griffiths said, "Grant wasn't flamboyant. As a matter of fact, he was kind of dull."

But dull didn't mean inflexible.

After fighting Lee to a draw at the Battle of the Wilderness, Grant refused to retreat, an unexpected move that proved strategically stunning.

And then he just kept going.

It helped, of course, that he had the industrial strength of the country behind him.

But Griffiths believes Grant's push in the final year of the war leading to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox wasn't merely a triumph of superior resources.

Grant, he says, outgeneraled Lee.

"He was willing to adapt and change his plans," Griffiths said.

The great-great-grandson modestly disavows the personal characteristics that helped his ancestor distinguish himself.

"I lack certain aspects of his temperament--his patience," Griffiths said. "I tend to panic when things don't work out right. He was cool and collected."

Laura Moyer: 540/374-5417

AGE: 70 HOME: Spotsylvania ANCESTRY: Great-great-grandson of Union Gen. and President Ulysses S. Grant BACKGROUND: Grew up in Northern Virginia, has lived in Spotsylvania since 1987; curator of ordnance for former Air-Ground Museum at Marine Corps Base Quantico from 1987 until his retirement in 1998 INTERESTS: Military weapons; Civil War, Revolutionary War re-enacting

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