Webster J. Kniffin was born in 1836, possibly in Ohio, the son of David F. (b. 1800) and Harriet (Richards, d. 1836).
David and Harriet were married on November 21, 1817, in Pendleton, Niagara County, New York, at the home of Harriet’s family. After Harriet died in March of 1836 David married one Lucy Ann, probably in Ohio, in December of 1840. By about1860 David was working a farm in Willoughby, Lake County, Ohio. Just prior to his enlistment in the Third Michigan Webster was living with his father and helping him to work the family farm in Willoughby. By the time the war broke out Webster had probably just arrived in Kent County from Ohio, joining one or more of his family members who resided there.
He was 25 years old and probably living in Kent County when he enlisted in Company A on June 10, 1861.
In late July of 1861, from Camp Hunter, Virginia, he described the recent events at Bull Run in a letter to his brother and sister. (Excerpts of several letters Webster wrote to his brother and sister in Grand Rapids were reprinted by the Grand Rapids Press during the observance of the Civil War Centennial in the early 1960s.)
“Your letter [Webster wrote] found me almost ready to give up trying to fight to maintain the Union. I was nearly worn out with fatigue. We left the battle ground on Sunday night at 6 o’clock and retreated back to Centreville (Va.), 3 miles from the battle ground. We reformed in a hollow square to charge against horse cavalry. Some had lunches but most of us had nothing to eat. We left Centreville at 11 at night and returned to Arlington Heights (Va.), and got there about 2 the next day . . . hungry and tired out and almost dead. It rained almost all of the way through and we expected we would have a chance to get something to eat . . . and a place to sleep. But to our astonishment we received none of these. We had to stand in the rain until night,’ he continued, ‘and some of us were almost ready to give up. But our noble colonel and captain stuck by us until midnight trying to get us out of the rain. Finally they got us into the camp of some New York boys and got some hot coffee which we relished very well. And then our colonel . . . got us in a shed and a barn which we were very thankful for.”
On August 13, 1861, he wrote to his family the general optimism “‘that this trouble will soon be put down to rise no more.’” But if not,
“We are well fortified for 20 miles up and down the Potomac, and we expect to have a battle here on the river,” he told his brother and sister. Turning to the recent battle, he continued: “You have probably heard the official report from General (Irvin) McDowell concerning the fight at Bull Run. There were 1,670 or so killed and wounded and missing on Sunday’s battle. It is thought that if General (Robert) Patterson had not of been secessionist, we would of gained the day, for he had 25,000 men under him and he had orders to cut off or hold to bay General (Joseph) Johnston with his thousands of fresh troops. But he did not obey orders.” Kniffin continued: “Some of the men, worn out with fatigue, had sat down on the ground to refresh themselves and to eat a little. They happened to look off to the right of them and to their utter astonishment, there were General Johnston with his thousands of fresh men approaching upon them. The men could say with faltering hearts, ‘Where is General Patterson and his 25,000 men?’ But they weren’t there. So much for commencing a battle on Sunday when it is uncalled for. If they had of waited until Monday and sent for General Patterson, that day I believe we might have been in possession of Manassas (Junction, Va.) as well as to be in possession of Richmond.”
Webster was a company cook in September and October of 1862, and by December a Color Guard. He was awarded the Kearny Cross for his participation in the battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, on May 3, 1863.
Webster was a Corporal when he was admitted to the regimental hospital near Camp Belle Plain, Virginia, on May 19, 1863, suffering from pneumonia. He died of disease (probably typhoid pneumonia) at 3:15 a.m. on May 31, 1863, in the Regimental hospital at Camp Sickles, Virginia.
Captain Dan Root, commanding Company A, wrote in his diary on June 1, “One of my best men died today, Corp. Kniffin. He was that rare combination – a possessor of religion and a soldier. We buried him in the evening and the simple head board (a fragment of a hard bread box) alone marks the resting place of one of the best and bravest men who have sacrificed themselves for their country. A few months and that will disappear and his comrades will probably be far away. And his lowly bed will disappear from the sight and memory of man. But if there is anything in his religion, it makes no difference.”
Indeed, he may have been buried initially on the Bullard farm, but was eventually reinterred in Fredericksburg National Cemetery: division B, section B, grave 5024 (or 124).
In April of 1870 his father was living in Cleveland, Ohio, when he applied for and received a dependent’s pension (no. 151954).