Edmund Kirby Smith (1824–1893)
Edmund Kirby Smith was a Confederate general during the Civil War. Seeing service in both the Eastern and Western Theaters of the war, he is best remembered for serving as the commander of the Confederate Department of the Trans-Mississippi, which included Arkansas.
Edmund Kirby Smith was born on May 16, 1824, in St. Augustine, Florida, the son of Joseph Lee Smith and Frances Kirby Smith. His father, a lawyer by training, served as an army officer during the War of 1812 and for several years after the conflict before resigning his commission in 1821. He became the judge for the eastern district of the Florida Territory the same year. Edmund was the youngest child in the family, with an older brother and two older sisters.
At the age of twelve, Smith began attending a military school in Alexandria, Virginia. In 1841, he entered the United States Military Academy as a cadet and graduated four years later, ranked twenty-fifth in his class out of forty-one graduates. First assigned as a brevet second lieutenant to the Fifth United States Infantry, Smith quickly moved with the regiment to Corpus Christi, Texas, to prepare for the Mexican War. The unit participated in the Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, several days before the official declaration of war. On August 22, 1846, Smith received a promotion to the rank of second lieutenant in the Seventh United States Infantry. Ephraim Smith, Edmund’s older brother, was severely wounded at the Battle of Molino Del Ray on September 8, 1846, and died several days later. At the conclusion of the war, Edmund Smith had the rank of brevet first lieutenant, and efforts were made by his uncle to secure a brevet promotion to captain.
Returning from Mexico, Smith served with his regiment at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, Missouri. Assigned to serve as an instructor at West Point, Smith taught mathematics from 1849 until 1852. That year, he returned to active service with his regiment in Texas. With the formation of the Second United States Cavalry in 1855, Smith was transferred to that regiment with the rank of captain. Serving in several expeditions against Indian tribes in the area, Smith was wounded in the leg by Comanche warriors on May 13, 1859.
By 1861, Smith was the commanding federal officer at Camp Colorado in Texas. When Texas State Troops arrived at the camp on February 22, after the secession of Texas, Smith refused to surrender the post and threatened to attack the assembled men. On March 3, 1861, Smith received a promotion to the rank of major but resigned from federal service the same day.
Joining the Confederate army, Smith received the rank of lieutenant colonel and orders to proceed to Lynchburg, Virginia, to organize troops. Next, serving as adjutant to Brigadier General Joseph Johnston, Smith received a promotion to the rank of brigadier general in the Provisional Confederate Army on June 17, 1861. Leading a brigade at the Battle of First Manassas (Bull Run) on July 21, 1861, Smith received a wound across his back that led to his absence from service for several months. While healing from this wound, he met and married Cassie Selden from Lynchburg. The couple would eventually have five sons and six daughters.
Promoted to major general on October 11, 1861, Smith commanded a division along the Potomac River in the winter of 1861–62. On February 25, 1862, Smith received command of the Department of East Tennessee. Over the course of several months, he worked to protect Confederate infrastructure from Unionist attacks and led an army in the invasion of Kentucky that fall. Winning battles at Munfordville and Richmond, Smith also installed a pro-Confederate governor in the state.
Smith received another promotion on October 9, 1862, to the rank of lieutenant general. On January 14, 1863, he received orders to take command of the Department of West Louisiana and Texas. While in route to his destination, however, he received a new order to take command of the entire Trans-Mississippi Department, which he did on March 7, 1863. Smith relieved Lieutenant General Theophilus Holmes, who assumed command of the Department of Arkansas.
The Confederate defenses in the Trans-Mississippi were lacking, and Smith’s orders from Richmond commanded him to focus on the Lower Mississippi Valley in an effort to support the strongpoints at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Port Hudson, Louisiana. Smith took a tour of Arkansas soon after arriving in the department, visiting both Camden (Ouachita County) and Little Rock (Pulaski County). When Holmes led the department, his headquarters were in Little Rock, but Smith established his headquarters at Shreveport, Louisiana, in an effort to be more centrally located.
The first major actions to be fought in the department during Smith’s tenure were related to the Vicksburg Campaign. A division of Texas infantry moved from Little Rock to Monroe, Louisiana, and participated in actions along the west bank of the Mississippi River. On July 4, 1863, an army under the command of Holmes, and with the approval of Smith, attacked the Union fortified city of Helena (Phillips County) in an effort to divert Federal forces from Vicksburg. The attack failed, and Vicksburg surrendered the same day to Union troops.
After the defeat at Helena, Federal troops moved against Little Rock. The city easily fell to the Union forces in September 1863. Confederate units moved to the southwest and did not pose a serious threat to the occupiers at Little Rock for the remainder of the war. Smith did not serve in the field during these actions, working instead at his headquarters to organize troops and supplies to defend his vast department better. On February 19, 1864, Smith was promoted to the rank of general, one of only seven men to receive the rank.
In early 1864, two Union expeditions moved into Confederate-held territory in the Trans-Mississippi. An army under the command of Major General Nathaniel Banks moved up the Red River from New Orleans, Louisiana, while a second army under the command of Major General Frederick Steele moved to the southwest from Little Rock. Union plans called for the two armies to capture Shreveport and move into eastern Texas. Smith moved several infantry divisions from southern Arkansas, while smaller units opposed the advances of both armies. Watching the situation closely, Smith finally determined to send the reinforcements to support Lieutenant General Richard Taylor facing off against Banks. Before most of the additional troops—including a division of Arkansas troops under the command of Major General Thomas James Churchill—could arrive, Taylor defeated Banks at the Battle of Mansfield on April 8. Smith immediately departed Shreveport in an effort to reach the army before the battle. The following day, Taylor attacked the Federal army at Pleasant Hill, with Churchill’s division in the lead. The Confederate forces were unable to destroy the Union army, and Smith arrived on the field after the conclusion of the battle. On April 10, Banks continued to retreat down the Red River.
While the Federal army advancing up the Red River had been turned away in Louisiana, Steele continued to threaten southern Arkansas. Rather than continuing to pursue Banks with the majority of his forces, Smith ordered three infantry divisions to return to Arkansas to defeat Steele. This action was the source of deep disagreement between Smith and Taylor. The divisions pursued Steele’s army as it retreated back to Little Rock, engaging it at Jenkins’ Ferry on April 29–30, 1864, where Smith took field command of the troops. Unable to destroy the Federal forces, Smith and his troops did not follow Steele across the Saline River.
While some fighting continued in Louisiana, the expedition ended with Shreveport protected. Some small actions were fought in the Trans-Mississippi after the conclusion of the Red River Campaign and Camden Expedition, but the majority of fighting moved across the Mississippi River. The major exception is the fall 1864 invasion of Missouri led by Major General Sterling Price that moved across Arkansas and was ultimately unsuccessful in its goals.
Smith officially surrendered the department on June 2, 1865, at Galveston, Texas, to Major General Edward Canby. A few weeks later, he crossed into Mexico with several other high-ranking Confederate officers and officials. After time in Mexico and Cuba, Smith obtained promises from Ulysses Grant that he would not be prosecuted if he returned home. He did so, arriving in Lynchburg on November 14, 1865, and taking the oath of allegiance.
In civilian life, Smith served as president of the Pacific and Atlantic Telegraph Company before entering the education field. He served as a co-chancellor of the University of Nashville from 1870 to 1875. That year, he began teaching mathematics at Sewanee: The University of the South. He died in Sewanee, Tennessee, on March 28, 1893, and is buried in the university cemetery.
For additional information:
Bearss, Edwin. Steele’s Retreat from Camden and the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry. Little Rock: Pioneer Press, 1967.
DiNardo, Richard L. “Confederate Exiles and the Decision Making of Edmund Kirby Smith.” Missouri Historical Review 108 (April 2014): 167–186.
Forsyth, Michael. The Camden Expedition of 1864 and the Opportunity Lost by the Confederacy to Change the Civil War. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003.
Johnson, Ludwell. Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1993.
Kerby, Robert. Kirby Smith’s Confederacy: The Trans-Mississippi South, 1863–1865. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.
Parks, Joseph. General Edmund Kirby Smith, C.S.A. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1954.
Prushankin, Jeffery. A Crisis in Confederate Command: Edmund Kirby Smith, Richard Taylor and the Army of the Trans-Mississippi. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
Warner, Ezra. Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.
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Last Updated: 10/13/2020