November 1864: General Edmund Kirby Smith

By Dr. TerryL. Jones
Special to The Journal

Edmund Kirby Smith
On November 7, 1864, Confederate Pvt. William Henry King wrote in his diary, "Reported that General Smith is under arrest for dealing in cotton with the Federals. Since privates and citizens are not allowed to trade with the Federals, I think it is a greater crime for an officer, especially a General, to do so."

King was referring to Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, who ruled over the huge Trans-Mississippi Department from his headquarters in Shreveport. While it was true that Smith was allowing some trade with the Yankees, he was not under arrest. He was, in fact, simply following Confederate policy that allowed limited trade with the enemy to raise badly needed money. Nonetheless, the rumors of corruption tarnished Smith's reputation with soldiers and civilians alike.

Kirby Smith was born in St. Augustine, Fl., on May 16, 1824, and graduated from West Point despite poor eyesight that caused him to wear glasses all his life. After serving in the Mexican War, he taught at the Academy and was wounded in the thigh while fighting Comanches in Texas.

Fellow officers held Smith in high regard, but, like many other Southerners, he resigned his commission during the 1861 secession crisis and became a Confederate general. In the war's first major battle, Smith was seriously wounded at Manassas when a bullet passed completely through his body from right collarbone to left shoulder.

After participating in an unsuccessful invasion of Kentucky, Smith considered resigning his commission to enter the ministry but eventually accepted a promotion to lieutenant general. When Jefferson Davis was seeking a new commander for the Trans-Mississippi, Robert E. Lee recommended Smith, whom he considered to be "one of our best officers." Davis agreed and appointed Smith to the position in early 1863.

Forced to run his department with little government assistance after Union forces seized the Mississippi River, Smith once admitted that he had to "exercise powers with which I am not legally vested." The general's control over the Trans-Mississippi was so complete that the department was sometimes referred to as "Kirby Smithdom." President Davis, however, recognized Smith's unusual predicament and promoted him to full general.

Smith frequently clashed with his subordinate generals, most notably Richard Taylor. Taylor opposed Smith's strategy of trying to recapture lost territory rather than taking care of the areas he still controlled. Smith, in turn, took away most of Taylor's men during the Red River Campaign and sent them Arkansas. Taylor finally refused to serve under Smith any longer and was transferred east of the Mississippi River.

Many civilians also opposed Smith because he enforced such unpopular policies as impressment and the tax-in-kind. The impressment act authorized the army to take what it needed from civilians, with the government reimbursing the people for their loss. The tax-in-kind allowed appointed officials to collect taxes in the form of produce, livestock, and manufactured goods instead of money. General Smith did his best to apply the laws fairly, but some criminals stole goods by impersonating tax collectors, and unscrupulous officials often seized more than the law allowed. A chronic money shortage also forced Smith to give IOUs to citizens for their impressed goods, but he was unable to pay the debt. As a result, the people lost confidence in his leadership.

By 1865, some soldiers in the department began deserting because they had not been paid in two years. To restore morale, Smith announced that up to 10 percent of every company would be furloughed home for a visit. After calculating that it would take two years for every man to get his furlough, the soldiers in one Texas brigade deserted en masse. Smith responded by executing deserters, which prompted one soldier to write, "The plan of shooting still goes on, and as many as 5 & 6 are sent to their long accounts every week."

Despite his overwhelming problems, Kirby Smith intended to keep fighting even after Gens. Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston surrendered in April 1865. It was not until his own men began disbanding their regiments and going home that he realized he was a general without an army and surrendered at Galveston, Texas, on June 2.

Afraid federal authorities might charge him with treason, Smith fled the U.S. and lived in Mexico and Cuba for a few months before returning to America. He then served as president of the University of Nashville before accepting a teaching position at The University of the South. In 1875, Smith died in Sewanee, Fl., from lung congestion after teaching mathematics for eighteen years.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.