The Civil War was a bloody affair, but in the decades that followed another war was fought in the pages of books, newspapers, and magazines as
veterans battled over their understanding of the conflict. In this new war, no blood was spilled, but plenty of ink was, as soldiers both Blue and Gray sought to remind the public of the importance of the sacrifices made in their behalf for four long and bloody years. Quite often this war of words was between former comrades, as the old veterans jealously guarded the reputations of their former units from any slight, real or perceived. In particular, men who had served in the Army of Tennessee often felt that their service was overlooked in favor of their comrades who served in the eastern theater with the Army of Northern Virginia. The cult of personality that grew up in the post-war South around Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia was considerable, and for the men who served in the Western theater, it often felt like they were living in the shadow of that more successful army.
From time to time, men who served in the western theater took up the pen and sought to vindicate their service during the war. I found a good example of such recently, and wanted to share it on my blog. The following article, published in the Holmes County Times, August 3, 1906, was written by Thomas W. Smith of Lexington, Mississippi, who served in Company A, 38th Mississippi Infantry, during the war. Enlisting in the “Holmes County Volunteers” on March 15, 1862, Smith fought in some of the most important battles of the western theater, including the Siege of Vicksburg where he survived 47 days of siege before the garrison surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant.
Comrade Smith’s Recent Able Address to Veterans of Holmes
Comrades: Forty years ago, the last shot was fired, and the last roll call was had in the Confederate army. Those of us who were spared through the four preceding years of bloody warfare, returned to our humble homes to be tried anew through the ever memorable years of reconstruction. We passed from period to period, until finally the passions and bitter animosities engendered by the war were either ameliorated or forgotten, when the present dawned upon us, and by that present we were reminded that history had been, and was being, written.
It also dawned upon us that such as had been written was not in all respects a true statement of facts, and placed the people of the South and the cause for which they fought falsely before the world and the children of our Southland. To correct, as far as possible, these errors, and to give to future generations a true conception of the aims and purposes of the Confederates, camps, such as our own, were formed, and it should be the duty of each and every member of these camps to place on record such facts as shall assist the future historians to write of us truly. History is only valuable as true. Opinions are not history. Acts and facts alone constitute matters historic. With this line of thought in view, I wish to bring to mind a few facts and acts, pertaining to the armies of Virginia and the West, or the Army of Tennessee.
Some fifteen, or perhaps twenty years ago, a young man born and reared in our town said to me, that “the Army of Virginia did
more fighting, severer fighting, and against greater odds, than did the Army of Tennessee; that the world accorded the Army of Virginia the greatest [measure] of praise, and that it was justly entitled thereto.” This opinion was neither new nor strange. That such opinions prevailed is not a matter of surprise when we remember that the fighting began on Virginia soil. That Richmond, the Confederate capitol, was the goal of the Federal soldier, and the cry “On to Richmond” the slogan of the Federal government. On the other hand, the Confederate soldier strained every nerve, and the government exhausted every means for its defense. Every maneuver by either army was heralded both from Richmond and Washington like lightning flashes, throughout the globe. All felt that with the fall of Richmond the dissolution of the Confederacy would follow.
General Lee, whose star of glory rose at his first battle, rose higher and higher, and shone with greater luster and brightness with each successive encounter, and did not go down with his surrender at Appomattox, commanded the Army of Virginia the greater part of the war continuously. Being in close proximity to the Confederate capitol, he had the full confidence of the president and cabinet – was in close touch with them and they each day knew his intentions and contemplated moves against the enemy. His army was at all times thoroughly organized under his various lieutenants, and was never divided or broken up, except when Longstreet was sent to Tennessee. Never a maneuver or movement was made that it was not give to, thoroughly understood, and if possible, executed by his subordinates, and they, together, with all his army, had perfect confidence in his ability.
Again, the contracted area covered by the Army of Virginia, enabled it by quick and rapid marching and counter marching, to foil the enemy, and attack him with the whole army when he might least expect it. Not so with the Army of Tennessee. The vastness of territory to be defended, the great distances between the various subdivisions, and the long hard marches to be made, rendered it a matter of impossibility to always unite in time to give battle.
Again, the commanding general was not at all times calculated to win the confidence of his men and lieutenants, and frequently, when with them long enough to inspire that trust and confidence necessary between them, some breach would occur between him and Richmond authorities, or for some other cause, he would be relieved, sent to another department, and another sometimes new and almost untried, placed in command. These and various other causes, all of which you, comrades, may call to mind, detracted from the Army of Tennessee, or the West.
I yield to no one a greater admiration for Lee and his men, the Army of Virginia, who won laurels that are deserved and imperishable, and those who utter a word in depreciation of their superb worth and splendid works of heroism, must be traitors to the glorious memories of the Confederacy. Its achievements made illustrious both its officers and men, who met every requirement that patriotism, undaunted courage and self-denial could demand or accomplish. It suffered losses, endured dangers and hardships, and evinced a valor which are among the greatest treasures of the most chivalric army that ever battled for sacred rights and the land they loved. As said before, the very purpose for which it was organized, and the positions it held gave it a presence and tendency to overshadow all other portions of the Confederate hosts.
In the west, Price with his little band of Missourians were pouring out their life’s blood freely for the mastery in that state, finally
closing their campaign with the battle of Elkhorn in Arkansas, but the actual great battle of the war was not fought until April, 1862.
Shiloh, with its terrible loss of life, gave to the South and her people a foretaste of the awful holocaust that was demanded of her in her efforts to be free and independent. Thirteen thousand federals killed and wounded and eleven thousand Confederates, were appalling figures, and staggered the minds of the people in their contemplation. On this bloody field, the chivalric soldiers of the South, was met in stubborn conflict by the sturdy western warrior. The losses in all other encounters dignified with the name of battle were insignificant when the minds of the people were awakened to the terrible casualty list of twenty-five thousand in a single battle. The enormity of these figures forced into the hearts and homes of the people both north and south, the calamity of war, and demonstrated the fierceness with which free men could meet free men, in defense of a principle for which they are willing, if need be to lay down their lives.
The army of the west made no claim of being better soldiers than the army of the east. They recognize the fact that the record of one Confederate redounds to the glory of all. All that the men who marched or died along the great father of the waters – from Belmont, Mo., to New Orleans, and in the states of Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia and North Carolina ask, is that it be known that they exhibited the same willingness to suffer and die, the same unselfish patriotism, as did the men whose blood crimsoned the Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania soil.
The army of the west, at all times overwhelmed by numbers, never despaired; often defeated, never doubted. No misfortune discouraged it, or cast a gloom over its spirits. Being far removed from the center of attraction Richmond, it did not have the best equipment the Confederate authorities could provide, but this aroused no complaint. It was too loyal not to be in sympathy with the efforts being put forth by the government to drive back the mighty hosts of federal soldiers who were pressing down upon the Confederate capitol.
The Federal army on its front and flank supplied, to a very great extent, its quarter-master’s stores, and the ever brave and vigilant knights of the saddle under Forrest, Buford and Wheeler, were its most bountiful commissary. Naked or clothed, barefoot or shod, hungry or well fed, it declined no service and hesitated at no sacrifice. Whether on the march or on the field of battle, it exhibited unsurpassed courage and fortitude. One single thought dominated every soul. The defense of home and loved ones, and the defeat of the foe, being the all-absorbing principle that made them such splendid fighters in battles like Vicksburg, Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Franklin.
Comrades, permit me to call your attention to the fact that every battle engaged in by the Army of Virginia had its counterpart in the west; and also to compare two assaults on the enemy, one by Saunder’s brigade at the “Crater;” the other by Mabry’s brigade at Harrisburg. Both insignificant, but got to show more forcibly the point I am endeavoring to make. The first has been eulogized in books and public prints. The latter was published in a county newspaper in our state. For the first I quote extracts from Capt. John C. Featherston in the Confederate veteran. “On we went, as it seemed to us, literally to the mouth of hell. This practically ended the fight inside the fort; but the two armies outside continued firing at this common center, and it seemed to us that the shot, shell, and musket balls came from every point of the compass and the mortar shells rained down from above. They had previously attacked us from below. So this unfortunate fort was one of the few points in the war or any other the history of which I have read, which had the unique distinction of having been assailed from literally every quarter. By the report of Capt. George Clark, assistant adjutant general, this brigade of five regiments carried into the battle of the ‘Cratre,’ six hundred and twenty-eight men, and of this number it lost eighty-nine.”
For the last, I quote from Lt. Col. Jones’ letter to the Woodville Republican: “The 38th Mississippi regiment made the charge that
day with about 300 men, rank and file. Forty-four escaped unwounded. Every field and line officer was killed or wounded except Jasper Green, now a Baptist minister in Rankin County. The little remnant of survivors rallied around him in a thicket not over fifty yards from the entrenched line and a four-gun battery of the enemy. Col. Mabry ordered him to renew the charge, and his reply , as I was afterwards informed, was this: ‘Colonel, we have exhausted every round of ammunition, but if you say so, we will try again with empty guns.’ Nothing could be more Spartan like than this.”
Gen. S. D. Lee does the men who made the charge at Harrisburg but simple justice when he says that he “never saw soldiers fight better. Except in numbers engaged, Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg did not excel the desperate charge of Mabry’s brigade at Harrisburg. Nor did the famous charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava equal in desperation that of the 38th Mississippi regiment, if we may judge by the percentage of loss incurred by each.”
I wish now to draw your attention to a few of the battles of the west which are fearful in mortality and show the courage of the men engaged in them, whose conduct challenges human admiration, and give them highest rank among the world’s heroes. Having mentioned Shiloh, I pass to Chickamauga, where, in the month of September, 1863, forty thousand Confederates were met by fifty thousand Federals in deadly conflict. Sixteen thousand Federals and eleven thousand Confederates attest the determination of both. No fiercer fight had been witnessed on this continent. On these two days, assistance was out of the question. No reserves were to be had, and every man was at his post.
Some of the men who had won distinction on many fields in Virginia were to charge the enemy side by side with the men who had valiantly fought at Fishing Creek, Corinth, Shiloh, and Stone River. These Virginia veterans soon learned that the Army of Tennessee were their equals. In this bloody battle the Army of Tennessee lost none of their daring courage as compared with the men who at Sharpsburg, Manassas and Seven Pines had written in the great book of fame the story of Confederate heroism.
On the 8th day of October 1862, Gen. Bragg with 15,000 Confederates, confronted Gen. Buell with 28,000 Federals at Perryville Kentucky. The Confederates being elated at the forward movement through the blue grass state, felt confident of victory, and when the order to assault the enemy came, it met with the heartiest response. The battle was begun at 2 o’clock in the evening and by the shade of night came on 3400 Confederates and 4400 Federals killed and wounded, show how terribly earnest were the men engaged. Those who witnessed Shiloh and many other hotly contested fields declare that for numbers engaged, Perryville was the most dreadful they had________________ Franklin, Tennessee, to cover with glory as unfading as time the Army of Tennessee.
Poetry and song alike magnify the assault of Pickett at Gettysburg as being paralleled only by the charge of the Old Guard at
Waterloo, and as being the bloodiest of the age. Pickett’s loss was 21 per cent, while the loss at Franklin reached the enormous percentage of 33. Thirteen regimental commanders were killed, 32 wounded and nine captured. Of the brigadier generals, 4 in one division, 3 were killed and the other captured, and the major general so severely wounded that the day after the battle, his division was commanded by a colonel. In proportion to the numbers, the battle of Franklin was the bloodiest of modern times, and it was a sad fate in a noble response to the call of duty, for the Army of Tennessee to meet with practical annihilation.
Of the 70 regiments in the Confederate service holding the highest percent of loss in a single battle the west has to its credit 17 of these at Chickamauga alone. Of the 18 brigades suffering the greatest loss in a single battle Chickamauga had 4 and Gettysburg had 4 and it is said that the west is entitled to a majority of all so far reported.
And now, comrades, in conclusion, the reverberating peals of the thundering artillery in the seven days around Richmond, proclaiming the severest trials that men could endure, are answered by the clash of resounding arms from Missionary Ridge to, and around Atlanta. When the east speaks with pride of the glory won at Gettysburg, the west answers, here is Chickamauga.
As the east catching the echoes of heroism that rise from the hills of Sharpsburg, the west answers with consciousness of duty well done, and points to the blood stained field of Shiloh. When the east lifts to view the glory head of Malvern Hill, and when Second Manassas and Fredericksburg are mentioned, the west answers back with the requiem of its slain and the heroism of its deeds at Franklin, Stone River, Corinth, Iuka, Vicksburg and Port Hudson.
And from the regions beyond the great Mississippi comes the refrain of the fearless deeds of our comrades who dared and did all that human could do. And the world listens with wonder and admiration, as from all sections of our sunny south comes the same story of illustrious courage, patriotism and unselfish consecration to the cause of truth, right and justice.
Holmes County Camp No. 398,
Thomas W. Smith made it very clear in his letter the importance he attached to his memory of the past; and he did his part to make sure that this history was not forgotten. When the Holmes County Veterans memorial was dedicated on December 2, 1908, the monument was accepted on
behalf of the veterans by Smith. In his acceptance speech the veteran spoke eloquently on how he hoped future generations would remember the Confederate soldier:
May it forever stand, as a perpetual memorial to induce them to emulate the virtue and devotion to duty, of the Confederate soldiers, who offered their lives in defense of that independence and political freedom, bequeathed to us by our revolutionary fathers. It will speak in silent language to them of a citizenry and soldiery scarcely equaled, and never excelled, in any age.
Thomas W. Smith died in Lexington, Mississippi, on April 27, 1919. In his obituary it was noted that “He served with conspicuous bravery and unswerving loyalty in the Confederate army during the Civil War. In civil life he was always aligned with the forces and influences that worked for the moral and material advancement of the community.” Smith is buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery at Lexington, Mississippi; in addition to the dates of his birth and death on his tombstone, there is a simple inscription: “Company A, 38th Miss. Regt., C.S.A.”