Suicide by sea

The 10th Maine Infantry boarded the steamer State of Maine at Fall River, Massachusetts on October 7, 1861 and headed for New York City. A nightmare occurred on Long Island Sound. (Medford Historical Society & Museum)

An obscure soldier’s file among the tens of thousands kept at the Maine State Archives describes one private as “Drowned in Long Island Sound.” He actually committed suicide by sea.

After traveling by train from Boston to Fall River, the 10th Maine Infantry lads boarded the steamer State of Maine early on Monday, October 7, 1861 and set sail for New York City. The 875-ton steamer was packed to the poop deck, said Sgt. Maj. John Mead Gould.

His comrades “were crowded badly and this made vomiting disagreeable,” he muttered. Trying to sleep in an upper bunk, Gould noticed that below him Adjutant Elijah M. Shaw “had a terrible time of it” while enduring “a grand exhibition of seasickness.”

Daylight gradually brought soldiers on deck as the State of Maine pushed west through Long Island Sound. Around 10 a.m. someone saw “a man … sitting upon the starboard guard of the steamer,” Gould said. “He was beckoned to, to come back but he only looked stupidly at [Lt.] Col. [James S.] Fillebrown which made us suppose he could not get back.”

No one knew why the soldier, Pvt. Howard S. Griffin of Co. H and New Gloucester, had ventured so far from the deck. “There was scarcely any sea,” noticed Gould, accustomed to sailing on Casco Bay.

Twenty-one and a single farmer, Griffin had joined the 10th Maine on October 1, making him a latecomer to the regiment. He stood 5-9 with blue eyes, sandy hair, and a dark complexion; he went into Co. H, commanded by Capt. Charles S. Emerson of Auburn.

Many gawkers “instantly gathered around the wheel house,” and their combined weight caused the State of Maine to list to starboard, “bringing the guard nearly down to the water[;] edge,” Gould said.

I saw him [Griffin] a moment in this position. He was sitting facing the stern[,] his left leg turned under him and his right leg hanging down nearly reaching the water over the guard,” Gould noticed.

Griffin “was gazing intently upon the boiling water.” When Fillebrown called to him, “he looked over his shoulder[,] but without making any demonstration,” according to Gould.

Ascending to the upper deck, the first mate tossed a line that landed across Griffin’s chest. Griffin “sat a moment, threw the rope aside[,] and pushed himself overboard.

The consternation aboard was terrible,” Gould noted. “The men rushed aft enmass. In the rolling foam I could see only two specks of black which I took for his head and knee[,] but which may have been his cap and canteen.”

Captain George H. Nye immediately donned “a pair of floats” and plunged into Long Island Sound after Griffin. The steamer gradually slowed as soldiers watched Nye recede in the distance; finally the ship “backed water to the spot,” Gould said.

Sailors lowered a boat and rowed to pick up Nye and Griffin’s floating cap and canteen. Of Griffin “nothing could be found,” Gould said. “His death threw a gloom over us all. The Band stopped playing[,] and the boys gathered in groups deploying the first casualty.”

Gould identified the lost soldier as “Henry S. Griffin,” but his correct name was Howard S. Griffin. His soldier’s file indicates that he left the army on “Oct. 7, 1861” and that he “Drowned in Long Island Sound.”

The son of John and Mary Griffin of New Gloucester, Howard was living with them and her younger sister, Clarissa (10), and younger brother, Charles (7), when he joined the 10th Maine. Why he waited until the last minute to enlist in that regiment is not known.

Nor did anyone aboard the State of Maine know why Griffin pushed himself into the sea.

Sources: The Civil War Journals of John Mead Gould 1861-1866, William B. Jordan Jr., editor, Butternut and Blue Baltimore, MD, 1997, p. 67; Howard S. Griffin Soldier’s File, Maine State Archives

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Brian Swartz can be reached at He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at