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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

The Man Most Trusted in town, A Corporal in the 29th U.S.C.I.

by Gordon Thorsby

The most trusted person to many men including today might not be a spouse. It might not even be the doctor. It was their barber. To the man who had their hair cut in or had their beard and mustache trimmed and face shaved, Joel Griggs was your man. He would have been the most well known and he knew of “the comings and goings” about the town and people. He knew who was well and who was ill. He was a most reliable source of information where that important information was not available anywhere else. In late July,1864, trust was not as important as survival.

Joel Wyman Griggs was born in Pennsylvania in 1840. Pennsylvania had enacted gradual emancipation in 1828 so he was probably born as a free man. It is not known the how and the why for his travel to Chicago. He resided in the Chicago area at the outbreak of the Civil War and but no information exists as to his life there. The information we do have is when many of the men were leaving for war, the "colored man" was not allowed to go fight to preserve the Union.

With the Emancipation Proclamation, the call came for 166 colored infantry regiments by Lincoln Administration. Illinois Governor Yates issued an executive order to raise regiments. The 29th United States Colored Infantry Regiment was organized at Quincy, Illinois (near Springfield) and officially mustered in on 24 April 1864. Joel enlisted in Cook County and was made Corporal on January 4, 1864 into Company B. His enlistment. Company B was one of the Chicago Companies in the 29th.

The 29th served mostly in the war where war became its most brutal and inhumane. It was shipped to Harrison’s Landing, VA and then on up the Peninsula where it participated in its first action in the IX Corps in the "Crater Assault." Sergeant William McCoslin of the 29th USCI wrote on 26 July that the regiment had been building fortifications for the last eight days. The 29th was in the battle of the Crater on July 30 where Maj. General Edward Ferrero was commander of the 4th Division. The Crater was and is one of the greatest controversies of the war.

The section of Confederate line exploded two hundred feet into aire and created a football shaped crater. it was around the crater the main force of Federal troops attacked. Man of the support troops were led into the crater that became a killing ground. The 29th USCT reached taken trenches where Griggs and the 29th emerged from the captured trench to continue up ridge when it was greeted by a deadly crossfire from musketry and an eight-gun battery on its right. The rush by men of a fellow colored regiment in the brigade were mowed down and retreated. A second charge was ordered with three regiments of the 23rd, 28th, and 29th USCI but they gained little more and finally retreated in disorder.

Afterward, a truce was refused by the Confederate commander of the Zone to recover IX Corps wounded and dead unless white Union troops performed the recovery. Eventually, a truce was agreed and the V Corps White troops made the recovery of the wounded and dead. Dismissal of Union commanders that made the disastrous assault were swift.

The 29th was transferred to the XXV Corps and was involved in many other actions to the lines south and west of Petersburg. After the Appomattox surrender, Joel Griggs and the 29th USCI was shipped west to Texas where they were placed on the Rio Grande border to prevent possible incursions by the Mexican army. Joel's regiment stationed in that area was possibly involved in the taking of Galveston TX, the victory that became Juneteenth.

Joel Griggs was mustered out on November 6, 1865. He met and married a Mary Eleanor Brady on October 10, 1869. Unfortunately, the marriage was brief as was Joel’s life. Life in the mid to latter 1800’s in Michigan was difficult with epidemics and diseases. The area was still very much untamed. A new arrival of German immigrants began, large numbers of veterans were migrating to the area, and the oldest and a significant population of the area were Native Americans who had adapted to European ways continued.

Today, Joel rests quietly in a Wildwood cemetery on a bluff overlooking the quiet Shiawassee River. With Joel, there are over 105 fellow Union soldiers resting nearby. That is because Joel was their trusted barber.

Painting by: John Adams Elder "The Crater"

There is no known picture of Joel Griggs, photo is Sgt. Meeks, 35th Wisconsin (from the Wisconsin Historical Museum)


“Battles and Leaders of the Civil War” 1883.

Diary of O.W. Damon, 16th Michigan and 5th US Artillery Battery D.

Report from Adjutant General for the State of Illinois 1861-1866.

“Place of the Big Rock,” Mark Ireland Colonel, US Army, 1947.

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