Fort Griffin

The U. S. Army camp that would later become Fort Griffin was established in 1856 to help protect a Comanche reservation that had been set up earlier in the area.  When Robert E. Lee held the rank of Lt. Col. in the U. S. Army, he served here as commander from April, 1856 to July, 1857.  It was located less than a mile from the Clear Fork of the Brazos River on a small plateau of about sixty feet in height providing an enhanced view of the surrounding area.  The original location was in the lowlands a short distance away until a monsoon type rain hit and turned it into a swampy mess.

After the Civil War, the Sixth Cavalry stationed four companies there at the site, roughly 35 miles from Fort Belknap.  It was given the name Fort Griffin in honor of the late General Charles Griffin, early in its life.

Looking into the life of Charles Griffin, he was born in Granville, Ohio in December, 1825.  He first attended Kenyon College, but was able to gain an appointment to West Point in 1843.  Griffin graduated from the West Point in 1847, serving though the end of the Mexican-American War.  He remained in the Southwest United States as the Army fought engagements against the Navajo and other tribes prior to the Civil War.  Then, in 1860, he was posted back at West Point where he was an instructor of artillery.  From there, his Civil War career reads like a chronicle of the major battles of the conflict.

Being located at the Point, Griffin was in position to be called to service when the War began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumner.  He organized an artillery battery from enlisted men stationed at West Point as Union forces were ordered south.  His battery (the “West Point Battery,” Battery D, 5th United States Artillery) was involved in the Union defeat at First Battle of Bull Run (also known as the First Battle of Mannassas)  and sustained heavy casualties in the battle.

In 1862, he servied under Major General McLellan’s Army of the Potomac in the Peninsula Campaign.  He led the artillery and participated in the Siege of Yorktown and was promoted to Brigadier General on June 12, 1862.  In this capacity, he led infantry brigades at the battles of Gaines’ Mill and Malvern Hill.  They were held in reserve in the Second Battle of Manassas and at Antietam.  He was given command of a division in the well chronicled battles at Fredericksburg, and on December 13 was involved in the unsuccessful Union assault on Marye’s Heights and participated in the opening of the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia.  He was taken ill and temporarily replaced by another as brigadier general in Pennsylvania at Gettysburg.  When he returned, it was noted that he was cheered by his men.  He received a promotion to Major General in 1864 and continued to serve in many more major battles including the Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Jericho Mills, Cold Harbor, Petersburg and others leading up to and including the Battle at Appomattox, Virginia.

Shortly after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Griffin returned to his peacetime rank of colonel and was given command of the 35th Infantry at Galveston, Texas where the Army was involved in Reconstruction and non military duties such as registering formerly disenfranchised white and black voters.  In 1867, he was serving in Galveston when a yellow fever epidemic swept through the area and rather than withdraw to safety elsewhere, he remained on post.  Griffin performed his duties well and was in line to replace General Sheridan and had received orders to command the Fifth Military District of Louisiana and Texas when he contracted yellow fever and died in September, 1867 just short of the age of 42.  He was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, DC.  Though his life was cut short by yellow fever, his service and career was familiar to the leadership of the United States Army when it came time to name the fort.


(Image credit: Texas Historical Commission)

Originally, plans for the fort had been for around 90 structures, though few were built with permanent materials, leading to the construction of picket barracks and other less well built structures of a temporary nature.  Despite the generally poor quality of the structures, the soldiers of Fort Griffin were active in defending the growing numbers of settlers and participating in campaigns such as the Red River Campaign.  A nearby town grew up in the Flat, with various service businesses, brothels and saloons.  It also was an active post in the buffalo hide trade, providing supplies to the hunters and a market for the hides.

The Flat, also known as Fort Griffin, became a waypoint for cattle drives, providing an alternative to trails passing through Fort Worth.  It had a reputation for Wild West lawlessness, attracting gamblers, outlaw and gunslinger types in the late 1870s.  Many well known people like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, “Big Nose” Kate Horony, Pat Garrett, John Wesley Hardin, lady gambler Lottie Deno passed through The Flat during its hey days.

With the pacification of the tribes around that time, the government began to close and abandon the once active western outposts, and Fort Griffin was ordered closed in the spring of 1881.  This roughly also coincided with the elimination of the once vast buffalo herds and the winding down of the trail drives.  Nearby Albany became a railroad stop and was selected as the county seat, bypassing nearby Fort Griffin.  The once bustling town outside the fort gradually died out.

Time and the elements led to the gradual deterioration of the few permanent military structures and soon all that was left of the fort were partial walls of a couple of buildings.  Since then, there have been some restoration efforts.  The property became owned by Shackelford County which deeded to the State of Texas in 1935.  For many years it was held under the ownership of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department until 2008, when it was transferred to the Texas Historical Commission.  The Fort Griffin State Historic Site now amounts to over 500 acres and can be reached by traveling 15 miles north out of Albany on US Highway 283 and offers camping, picnic grounds, and fishing in the nearby Clear Fork of the Brazos River.  It includes ruins of the headquarters and other stone buildings, some restored buildings and reconstructed enlisted men’s dwellings.  Persons desiring to use or tour the facilities are encouraged to make prior arrangements with the park personnel.  Contact information for the park may be found here.

Not part of the Historical Park but located nearby are replicas of buildings that might have been typical of the Flat.  The grounds are also home to the Texas State Longhorn cattle herd, a story of its own, originally started by Texas author J. Frank Dobie in the 1920s when the breed neared extinction.  Now the herd belongs to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

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