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Col. George St Leger Grenfell (1808 - 1868)

Col. George St Leger GrenfellGRENFELL, GEORGE ST LEGER (1808-1868), soldier of fortune, was born in London on May 30 1808 the son of George Bevil Granville Grenfell. He was brought up in Penzance and then sent to the family’s business of banking and metal dealing in Holland and France.

He moved to Paris in 1830 and joined the Royal Guard where he took part in the fighting that led to the downfall of the Bourbon monarchy. However some financial irregularity led to his father’s ruin and the young Grenfell left France in 1837. His adventurous nature was encouraged by the outbreak of the Crimean war where he was a Captain in the “”Anglo-Turkish Contingent”” under the command of fellow Cornishman Major-General Hussey Vivian. After the war Grenfell went to live in South America where he was involved in several revolutions. The outbreak of the American Civil War was the opportunity that he was waiting for.

He joined the Confederacy side with an introduction to General Robert E Lee who passed him on to Colonel John Hunt Morgan who made him his adjutant-general. Although white haired Grenfell was as hard as steel and tough as leather and an excellent horseman. Morgan and Grenfell harassed the Federal army throughout Kentucky and in 1863 he left Morgan and joined Bragg’s Army in Tennessee and subsequently in Virginia with General ‘Jeb’ Stuart.

After two years of fighting, as he was not an American citizen he was able to travel to the North where he was interviewed by the Secretary of War, Stanton and allowed to live freely. He became involved with the Northwestern Conspiracy and in due course was arrested. His court-martial took place on 1865 and created a great deal of publicity and was reported daily in the London Times. Grenfell was found guilty and sentenced to death, which following demands from the British Parliament was commuted to life imprisonment by President Andrew Johnson.

Grenfell was sent to Dry Tortugus, a swampy islet off the coast of Florida when he was held as part of a chain gang under appalling conditions. When a epidemic of yellow fever broke out he and a fellow prisoner, Dr Mudd, worked ceaselessly to ease the suffering of others in the camp and the grateful camp commander wrote to President Johnson asking for Grenfell’s release. But the President was adamant and his appeal was denied. Although no longer in chains and able to cultivate a garden he decided to make a break for freedom. During a storm on the night of 7th March 1868 he and two companions escaped from the prison to the shore where they joined two desperadoes, one chained to a 30lb weight. They rowed out into the storm and were never seen again.

Dr Mudd was pardoned by President Johnson in 1869 and returned to his family in Maryland to resume his life as a country doctor and farmer. He died in 1883.

The above was adapted from ‘The Cornish in America’ by AL Rowse by permission of the publishers, Tor Mark Press, St Day, Cornwall and private information.

The picture is reproduced from the book ‘Colonel Grenfell’s Wars’ by Stephen Z Storr published by Louisiana State University Press.

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