Hon. John Augustus Griswold
Hon. John Augustus Griswold

Information on this page is from History of Rensselaer Co., New York by Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester, published in 1880.
To read his Congressional Biography, click here.

HON. JOHN AUGUSTUS GRISWOLD was born at Nassau, Rensselaer Co., N. Y., on the 11th day of November 1818. His ancestors were among those who fought in the War of the Revolution, and one of them was captured by the British and confined in the Jersey prison ship, suffering as well as fighting for his country. Mr. Griswold's father was a citizen of usefulness and a gentleman of high personal character - the Hon. Chester Griswold - who filled several positions of public trust, serving a number of years as supervisor of Nassau, and was for three years (1823, 1831 and 1835) one of the members of the New York State Assembly, representing the County of Rensselaer.

Mr. John A. Griswold was married to Miss Elizabeth Hart, daughter of Richard P. Hart, Esq., at Troy, on the 14th day of September 1843. They had six children: three sons and three daughters. Of his father's family, he was the only son, and his only sister was married to Isaac B. Hart, Esq., of the firm of Hart, Lesley & Warren, Troy, N. Y. Mrs. Hart resides in that city, where her husband died some years since.

Mr. Griswold was educated for commercial pursuits, and when seventeen years of age, he entered the iron and hardware house of Messrs. Hart, Lesley & Warren, in Troy, N. Y. About one year afterwards, he accepted the position of bookkeeper in the house of Messrs. C. H. & I. J. Merritt, cotton manufacturers. With this firm he remained for some time, living in the family of his uncle, Maj.-Gen. John E. Wood. Soon after engaging in business for himself, he became interested in iron manufacture, and that and banking formed his principal occupations. From this beginning in the manufacture of iron has grown up one of the largest and most successful establishments in the United States, now known as the Albany and Rensselaer Iron and Steel Works, located in Troy.

Mr. Griswold entered political life as a member of the Democratic Party, and in 1855 he was elected Mayor of the City of Troy. His democracy, however, never led him into opposition to the government, and upon the breaking out of the Rebellion [the US Civil War], he at once placed himself firmly on the side of the country. In 1862, he was a War Democrat, elected to the Thirty-Eighth Congress. So attentive to his public duties and so patriotic in that time of his country's peril was Mr. Griswold that he was in 1862 re-elected to the Thirty-Ninth Congress, the Republican Party supporting him; he served during each term as a member of the House Committee on Naval Affairs. In 1864, he was re-elected - by the largest majority ever given to a candidate in his district - as a member of the Fortieth Congress, serving on the principal committee of the House, that of Ways and Means.

Elected to the Thirty-Eighth Congress as a Democrat, Mr. Griswold enjoyed in a high degree the confidence of the [Republican] Union Party, and acting with it, he sustained Mr. Lincoln's administration throughout the war. Representing his district during six years at a period when the country was passing through its severest trials, he proved true to the great principles on which the war was fought. When the Navy Department was [verbally] attacked in the Senate and House, he made a very effective speech in defense of its policy, and especially in regard to the construction of the Monitor. Not only by his construction of the original Monitor but also by his long service as an efficient member of the House Committee on Naval Affairs, he identified himself with the interests and success of the Navy.

In 1868, Mr. Griswold was nominated by the Republican Union State Convention for the office of Governor of New York. At the general election, he received four hundred and eleven thousand three hundred and fifty-five votes, being the highest number ever given for any gubernatorial candidate prior to that date. It is a well-known fact that his party claimed that he was fairly elected by a majority of the votes actually cast, and many honorable citizens of the opposite party admitted the fact. The Hon. Thomas B. Carroll (Democrat), Mayor of the City of Troy, Nov. 1, 1872, in addressing the Common Council in reference to the decease of Mr. Griswold on the previous evening, frankly acknowledged the fact by saying that "Mr. Griswold, wronged out of the chief magistracy of the State, bore the disappointment without personal rancor, but he felt intensely the wound suffered therein by our liberal institutions." On subsequent investigation by a congressional committee, sworn evidence was given showing gigantic frauds perpetrated in the state election of 1868. In many districts in New York and Kings Counties [Manhattan and Brooklyn], majorities were returned for Mr. Griswold's competitor that exceeded the entire population of such districts; and in those two counties the unapproachable (before or since) majority of eighty-four thousand four hundred and twenty votes was declared for his competitor, to whom was awarded the high office - wrongfully and illegally, the supporters of Mr. Griswold have always maintained.

When the startling news of the attack [by South Carolina troops] upon Fort Sumter [12 April 1861] was flashed over the country, the patriotism of the non-slaveholding states was immediately aroused, and the great heart of the people burst out, in speech and in deeds, that the Union must be preserved and that but one nation should exist within the territorial limits of the United States. At a great war meeting held in Troy on the 15th of April 1861, Mr. Griswold presided. In his speech, he urged a speedy response to the demands of the government. The Second Regiment, New York Volunteers, Colonel Joseph B. Carr commanding - and which was the first New York regiment to reach Virginia - was largely aided by Mr Griswold in preparing for the field. His assistance was also liberally given to the 125th and 169th Volunteers, and to several other regiments as they were called into the service of the country, one of which was named in his honor and was known as the Griswold Light Cavalry.

There were probably many things in Mr. Griswold's history which deserve to become public property, as illustrating his love of country and the quiet and unostentatious way in which he gave his time and money to help the government in its hour of need. His efforts in connection with the raising of regiments, as a member of the War Committee of Rensselaer County, are well known; but outside of these and the limits of his duty as a member of that committee, he was ready to help and further every effort in opposition to the Rebellion. The following incident will illustrate this. When visiting his birthplace, the village of Nassau, during the time when recruiting for the 125th Regiment was going on, he was invited to attend a "war meeting" to be held for facilitating the raising of a company. He went to the meeting and spoke in favor of its object. After the meeting, he called upon the person who was engaged in recruiting the company, which afterwards became Company A of the 169th Regiment, New York Volunteers, and asked him if he had had any pecuniary help from the citizens or local committees. He was told "No," but that the person was spending his private means, without assistance from any other source, for the purpose of perfecting the organization. Mr. Griswold at once handed the person mentioned his check for a considerable amount, asking that nothing be said concerning it, but that the money be applied for the purpose of expediting the formation of the company. He also requested the officer to send him word when the company reached Troy. This was done, and Mr. Griswold immediately directed that the men should be taken to a comfortable hotel and should be provided with food and accommodation at his expense, until they could be properly cared for at the barracks. This is one incident, and doubtless there were many others of the same kind, to show that Mr. Griswold's heart and soul were with his country, and that he sought neither fame nor reward for his patriotism. During the war, while he was attending Congress, he was a constant and liberal contributor to the funds of the New York Soldiers' Aid Society in Washington.

One of the most noted events of the war was the naval battle in Hampton Roads [near Norfolk, Virginia], Sunday, March 9, 1862, between the unknown iron-clad ship Monitor and the rebel ram Merrimac. The latter was one of the largest United States steam frigates, which, lying at the Gosport Navy Yard [Norfolk] when the war broke out, fell into rebel hands, [was sunk in 1861,] was raised and was converted into a formidable iron-clad, steam-propelled battery. The Merrimac had already destroyed two of the largest sailing frigates when the little* Monitor appeared, and, in the fight that followed, the latter was the victor, and the rebel craft was soon after blown up.

* NOTE from Lin Van Buren: The CSS Merrimac, a converted former wood-hulled steam frigate, had a length of 275 feet, a beam of 38.5 feet, a draft of 22 feet, a speed of 9 knots and a displacement of 3,200 tons. On the other hand, the USS Monitor was purpose-built as an iron-clad vessel and had a length of 172 feet, a beam of 41.5 feet, a draft of 10.5 feet, a speed of 8 knots and a displacement of 987 tons. In the end, on the fateful day of the battle, it was the tide that won: with a draft twice that of the Monitor, the Merrimac had to retreat to deeper water sooner, and the Monitor's "victory" was by default.

Captain John Ericsson [1803-1889], a native of the province of Wermeland, Sweden, [Långbanshyttan, Vermlandia province, Sweden] was born in 1803, a son of a mining proprietor; he received his first impressions of mechanics from seeing the working of the engine and machinery at the mines. He was the inventor of the propeller and of the caloric-engineer, and he was the designer of the Monitor, above referred to.

In the perilous hour when the Merrimac was being hastened on to completion, in the hope of destroying our Navy, laying waste our cities and ending the war successfully for the seceding states, the genius of Ericsson was brought to the aid of the nation. But genius without money could avail nothing. The government had no means of its own to construct an iron-clad. In this emergency, individuals were found willing to risk their capital and their business reputation in constructing, at their own risk, the nondescript vessel. Such men were those who associated themselves for the purpose of building and bringing out the Ericsson Monitor - Messrs. John A. Griswold and J. F. Winslow, of Troy, and C. S. Bushnell of New Haven, Conn. Conspicuous among these, as the man whose capital, general influence, and business resources were relied upon to carry out the enterprise, was John A. Griswold, whose extensive iron-mills and acquaintance with manufacturers enabled him to push forward the work, so that the Monitor was not too late in reaching the scene of her trial and her triumph.

The building of the Monitor was begun in October 1861. The ship was completed and launched on the 30th of January 1862, one hundred days from her commencement, at Greenpoint, L. I., the contractors advancing for the work two hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars. The [nine] contractors for the Monitor were bound under forfeiture to guarantee against "failure in any of the properties and points of the proposed vessel"; the Secretary of the Navy would not assume any responsibility. He required that this novel battery should perform what the inventor and contractors promised. There was no time for experimenting with her after she was ready for sea. It was only by trial in battle that conclusive proof could be given that the contract was really fulfilled. The Monitor was not yet paid for, the battle was fought by the vessel and the reputation of the government was saved at a very critical hour, by this wonderful turreted iron battery, which was the property of the contractors! Certainly Mr. Griswold and his associates deserve to be gratefully remembered. They were as truly heroes and saviors of the country as the President and the cabinet and the legislators, or as the general at the head of armies, or as naval officers on their victorious ships. Subsequently Mr. Griswold employed his capital and influence in the construction of the iron-clad Dictator.

At his beautiful home in the busy city [Troy] that he had done so much by his example, energy, enterprise, and capital to make great and prosperous, through its manufacturers, after a brief illness Mr. Griswold died, on the evening of the 31st day of October 1872. The demise of no eminent citizen was ever more severely felt, nor the memory of any more sincerely cherished by all classes of people. In that city of thriving and varied industries, the toiling thousands who had long known him as a liberal patron, a sympathetic friend, and always as a courteous gentleman to all men, especially appreciated the great public and personal loss.

Mr. Griswold was always true to his convictions and was guided by as fine a sense of honor as was ever entertained by a man in public life. When in Congress, at a troubled and embarrassing period, he showed the greatest tact and good sense, as a member of the Committee on Naval Affairs in the Thirty-Eighth and Thirty-Ninth Congresses and as a member of the House Committee on Ways and Means in the Fortieth Congress. No member worked harder or was more vigilant and conscientious in the discharge of his duties in the public service.

He had great opportunity of usefulness before him, and in his private position his life was very precious to his own family and to his friends. Few men had so many friends and so few enemies. He was always welcome wherever he went, a man who carried with him a fund of cheerfulness and good humor which was irresistible in its influence and which made him a delightful guest at every table and in every household. John A. Griswold was in all respects a true and honest gentleman.

NOTE: To read more about the Monitor and the Merrimac, click here and here and here.

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