General Edmund Kirby Smith
General Smith was born on May 16, 1824 in
St. Augustine, Florida.
On July 1, 1841, Kirby Smith entered West Point and graduated four years later in 1845, ranking 25th out of 41 cadets. While there he was nicknamed “Seminole”, after the Seminole people of Florida who had successfully resisted removal by the US.
In the Mexican–American War, Smith served under General Zachary Taylor at the Battle of Palo Alto and the Battle of Resaca de la Palma.
He served under General Winfield Scott later, and received brevet promotions to first lieutenant for Cerro Gordo and to captain for Contreras and Churubusco. His older brother, Ephraim Kirby Smith (1807–1847), who graduated from West Point in 1826 and was a captain in the regular army, served with him in the 5th U.S. Infantry in the campaigns with both Taylor and Scott. Ephraim died in 1847 from wounds suffered at the Battle of Molino del Rey.
After that war, Kirby Smith served as a captain (from 1855) in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, primarily in Texas.
Kirby Smith also taught at West Point after the war. He collected and studied materials as a botanist; like many other military officers, he was also a scientist. He donated to the Smithsonian Institution some of his collection and reports from his time at West Point.
Smith continued his botanical studies as an avocation for the remainder of his life. He is credited with collecting and describing several species of plants native to Tennessee and Florida.
Kirby Smith was assigned to teaching mathematics at West Point, from 1849 to 1852. According to his letters to his mother, he was happy with this environment.
Assigned to active duty again, Smith served in the Southwest. On May 13, 1859, he was wounded in his thigh while fighting Comanche in the Nescutunga Valley of Texas. When Texas seceded from the Union in 1861, Smith, now a major, refused to surrender his command at Camp Colorado in what is now Coleman, Texas, to the Texas State forces under Col. Benjamin McCulloch; he expressed his willingness to fight to hold it. On January 31, 1861, Smith was promoted to major, but on April 6, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army to join the Confederacy.
On March 16, 1861, Smith entered the Confederate forces as a major in the regular artillery; that day he was transferred to the regular cavalry with the rank of lieutenant colonel. After serving briefly as Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s assistant adjutant general in the Shenandoah Valley, Smith was promoted to brigadier general on June 17, 1861. He was given command of a brigade in the Army of the Shenandoah, which he led at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21.
Wounded severely in the neck and shoulder, he recuperated while commanding the Department of Middle and East Florida. He returned to duty on October 11 as a major general and division commander in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
In February 1862, Smith was sent west to command the Army of East Tennessee. Cooperating with Gen. Braxton Bragg in the invasion of Kentucky, he scored a victory at the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky on August 30, 1862. On October 9, he was promoted to the newly created grade of lieutenant general, becoming a corps commander in the Army of Tennessee. Smith received the Confederate “Thanks of Congress” on February 17, 1864, for his actions at Richmond.
On January 14, 1863, Smith was transferred to command the Trans-Mississippi Department (primarily Arkansas, Western Louisiana, and Texas) and he remained west of the Mississippi River for the balance of the war, based part of this time in Shreveport, Louisiana. As forces under Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant tightened their grip on the river, Smith attempted to intervene. However, his department never had more than 30,000 men stationed over an immense area and he was not able to concentrate forces adequately to challenge Grant nor the Union Navy on the river.
Following the Union capture of the remaining strongholds at Vicksburg and Port Hudson and their closing of the Mississippi to the enemy, Smith was virtually cut off from the Confederate capital at Richmond. He had to command a nearly independent area of the Confederacy, with all of the inherent administrative problems. The area became known in the Confederacy as “Kirby Smithdom”.
In the spring of 1864, Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor, directly under Smith’s command, soundly defeated Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks at the Battle of Mansfield in the Red River Campaign on April 8, 1864. After the Battle of Pleasant Hill on April 9, Smith joined Taylor and dispatched half of Taylor’s army, Walker’s Greyhounds, under the command of Maj. Gen. John George Walker, northward to defeat Union Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele’s incursion into Arkansas. This decision, strongly opposed by Taylor, caused great enmity between the two men.
With the pressure relieved to the north, Smith attempted to send reinforcements east of the Mississippi. But, as in the case of his earlier attempts to relieve Vicksburg, it proved impossible due to Union naval control of the river. Instead he dispatched Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, with all available cavalry, on an unsuccessful invasion of Missouri. Thereafter he conducted the war west of the river principally through small raids and guerrilla activity.
By now a full general (as of February 19, 1864, one of seven generals in the Confederate Army), Smith negotiated the surrender of his department on May 26, 1865. He was the last general to do so and signed the terms of surrender in Galveston, Texas, on June 2.
He immediately left the country for Mexico and then to Cuba, to escape potential prosecution for treason.
His wife negotiated his return during the period when the federal government offered amnesty to those who would take an oath of loyalty.
Smith returned to the United States later that year to take an oath of amnesty at Lynchburg, Virginia, on November 14, 1865.
After the war, Kirby Smith was active in the telegraph business and in higher education. From 1866 to 1868, he was president of the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company. When that effort ended in failure, he started a preparatory school, in New Castle, Kentucky, which he directed until it burned in 1870.
In 1870, he combined efforts with former Confederate general officer Bushrod Johnson and became president of the University of Nashville.
In 1875, Kirby Smith left that post to become professor of mathematics and botany at the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee.
Part of his collection from those years was donated to the universities of North Carolina and Harvard, and to the Smithsonian Institution. He kept up a correspondence with botanists at other institutions. He taught at the University of the South until 1893, when he died of pneumonia.
At the time of his death in Sewanee, he was the last surviving man who had been a full general in the Civil War. He is buried in the University Cemetery at Sewanee.