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Civil War Orphan Grandma Elzada

Updated: Dec 13, 2019

My grandma’s name was Elzada Marie Manis, and her daddy was in the Civil War. His name was Hamilton Griffith, and he fought as a Union soldier enlisted from Scott County, Tennessee.

Hamilton and Elzada Griffith

(left to right Great Grandma, Mamaw Elzada in the middle, Great Grandpa Hamilton Griffith)

As a youngster I didn’t think that was such a big deal until you realize that the Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865, and this is 2018 – over 150 years ago!

That means that my great grandpa was old… 76 to be exact, when my grandma was born. And even more shocking, he was in his 80s when Uncle Fred, my great uncle was born.

Talk about strong stock.

So as you can imagine, it wasn’t too long after Uncle Fred was born that Hamilton died, leaving his 20 something year old wife to care for the kids alone.

She found a man with kids of his own to help her, but before too long the strain became too much, and Grandma and Uncle Fred were abandoned by their mother and ended up in separate foster homes.

They were abandoned in the cruelest way imaginable – taken to the fair and left there.

I never heard Grandma tell about her experiences in their entirety, but there was a resolute sadness in her periodic matter of fact assessment of her childhood situation.

She said she used to walk the roads looking for her brother Uncle Fred who had only been five at the time of their abandonment.

Uncle Fred and Mamaw Elzada as adults

Fred and Mamaw

Perhaps the joy of reconnecting wiped away all memories of the hardships they endured, or more probably, they preferred not to think or speak of it.

Uncle Fred was quite the character.

He stood about 6 feet tall, lanky with gnarled knuckles and hands, twisted from years of working in the coal mines and from rheumatoid arthritis.

He still managed to make a hobby of carving wooden toys that you could make wiggle and dance or fold a certain way to cause a dollar bill to disappear.

He was no master craftsman by usual standards, but he delighted me to no end.

He built all the shelves hanging around the walls in the home he also built, shared with his wife Aunt Betty.

The pair lived alone by the time I met them, their kids all having long since moved away, and they were some of the most eccentric people I ever met.

Around the line of shelves stood Betty’s tea pot collection that got taken down and washed exactly once per year.

Betty also collected handkerchiefs, and had them hanging on clotheslines across her “this and that” room, where a great many of her tea pots also rested.

She also colored in fine line coloring books long before it was a fad. She had Fred drive her to Rugby to the book shop there that carried the Dover Classics Collection, and she would be coloring Civil War soldiers in uniform, or Victorian ladies dressed in their ball gowns.

Fred, Betty and Grandma made a delightful combination of characters, and while I didn’t always enjoy going to visit as a child, as I got older I began to appreciate spending time with the wise old hillbilly trio more and more.

They spoke in such a heavily dialect and accent that it was entirely possible, and probable in fact, that one could hold a conversation with them that no outsider would have been able to understand a word of.

In my quest for education, and during a misguided attempt to blend in with city life in Nashville, I on occasion corrected Grandma’s grammar or pronunciation. I quickly earned a rebuke that taught me not to allow my city education to make me “uppity.”

Years later in raising and homeschooling my own kids, I found the old Rod and Staff Grammar Books a great source of material, not only in teaching proper grammar to my wildly intelligent offspring, but also in teaching them the proper understanding and reverence for the Southern – Eastern Appalachian dialect.

The visits I loved best with Grandma and Uncle Fred were the ones where they reminisced about their daddy, Hamilton.

He had been an herbal doctor of sorts, and was highly respected in the area as a census taker, and wise mediator. Grandma had learned from him how to harvest plants and prepare simple remedies for common ailments, burns, scratches, bruises, nose bleeds and the like.

It was probably because of her that I became fascinated with herbal medicine as a young woman, and also her that inspired my empathy for kids going through emotional challenges because of living in state custody or foster care.

The bonds of our little East Tennessee family ran deep, and perhaps because of that, I strive to reach out to kids in foster care as much as possible. One doesn’t have to be parentless to suffer from loneliness in the modern world, and for foster kids, there are economic, educational and employment issues to consider. Sometimes it can seem almost insurmountable, the amount of pressure placed on these vulnerable kids.

But then I think about my grandma, walking the country roads on her bare feet all summer, searching for her younger brother. I think about her nickname “Pistol Totin’ Mama” she earned because of packing her hand gun on her pilgrimages through the woods to and from church. Those were different days, but the dangers presented by humans, even in those days, far outweighed any concern of wild animal attack or snake bite.

I hope that by talking about these issues, and by writing songs about it, and encouraging kids and adults to tell their own stories that positive outcomes can be created.

Here’s a song called “We Couldn’t Tell” written with my pal Brandon Rickman that tells the story of my grandma’s upbringing in what is now Big South Fork Park on the Cumberland Plateau in the areas around Oneida and Rogersville, Tennessee.

Revelation We Couldn't Tell

And here’s a song called “Nobody’s Child” that tells what it’s like to be a foster kid.


Here's an article from the Scott County Tennessee Civil War Record about Grandma and Fred:

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