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MAJ.-GEN. GUSTAVUS W. SMITH.
His family in Kentucky.—He serves in the Mexican war.—Complimentary notices
from Gen. Scott.-Appointed Street Commissioner of New York.-Resigns, visits Kentucky, and accepts a Major-Generalship in the Confederate service. His slight record in the war.--His resignation.-Injustice of President Davis.---Volunteer services of Gen. Smith in the latter period of the war.
GUSTAVUS W. Smith was born on the first day of January, 1822, near Georgetown, Scott County, Kentucky, and is a cousin of John C. Breckinridge. His parents were both natives of the same county. His grand-parents, paternal and maternal, removed from Eastern Virginia to Kentucky in the time of Daniel Boone, when the red men still disputed with the whites for possession of their favourite hunting-ground—the far-famed “Blue Grass District.” He was by lineage, education and habits a thorough Kentuckian.
Through the influence of Colonel Richard M. Johnson, then Vice-President of the United States, who was the close neighbour and life-long personal and political friend of Rodes Smith, the paternal grandfather of the subject of this sketch, Gustavus W. Smith was appointed a cadet, and entered the United States Military Academy in 1838. At the end of six months, he had established a reputation for ability of no ordinary degree, and was placed first in mathematics in a class reported to be equal, if not superiour, to any ever graduated at West Point.
On leaving the Military Academy in 1842, he was appointed a lieutenant in the United States Corps of Engineers. In 1846, although still a second-lieutenant, and low on the list, because of the slow promotion in that celebrated corps, he was selected by the chief-engineer, and ordered upon duty as senior lieutenant of the company of “sappers and miners," or engineer soldiers, then being recruited and organized.
In the Mexican war Smith served as second-lieutenant, and at the age of twenty-five won for himself the reputation of being one of the best officers in the American army. The records of Congress, in regard to the war with Mexico, abound in notices of the gallantry and skill of the young officer. At the siege of Vera Cruz, the battles of Cerro Gordo, Contreras, Cherubusco and Chapultepec, and at the attack on San Cosmo Garita, and in the bloody street-fighting within the city, the name of G. W. Smith is conspicuously mentioned in the official dispatches of Gen. Scott, and by Gens. Worth, Twiggs, and others.
He was three times brevetted for skill, gallantry, and distin
Cherubusco, and at the city of Mexico. Gen. Scott often bore testimony to his high character and professional ability. In an official letter, he said: “In conclusion, I will add, that I have never known a young officer so often or so highly distinguished as Captain Smith was during the war with Mexico."
After the Mexican war Capt. Smith served for several years as principal assistant professor of engineering and the art of war, in the United States Military Academy. He was stationed at West Point on this duty at the time he resigned from the army, in December, 1854. He came to the city of New York in October, 1856, and was engaged soon after as Chief-Engineer of the Trenton Iron Company. He held various other important and responsible positions, and was associated in business relations with men of the highest position and standing in this community. In 1858, under the administration of Mayor Tiemann, he became connected with the city government; and, as Street Commissioner of New York, he showed himself as competent to discharge the duties of a civil, executive, and administrative officer, as he had previously done those of a soldier and engineer.
When, with the bombardment of Fort Sumter, war burst
still in New York, holding a lucrative position. He was popular; he enjoyed the confidence and esteem of a large circle of influential and respectable people; and there was no position, either civil or military, to which he might not have honourably aspired. His native State, Kentucky, had not yet seceded; and he might have joined “the Union army," as it was profanely called, and not have been liable to the charge of infidelity to his State, according to the Southern code. But the conscientious choice of the man was different.
In August, 1861 (after the battle of Manassas had been fought), Capt. Smith made his way to Kentucky. When, in the preceding winter, the legislature of that State, by an almost unanimous vote, declared that the seceded States should not be coerced into the Union, Capt. Smith was looked to as the chosen military leader of Kentucky. When he returned to the State he found that a majority of the people had been deceived and betrayed; and he immediately determined not to be enchained with her, even temporarily, under the rule of the Federals. He therefore left Kentucky, and, on reaching Nashville, offered his services to the President of the Confederate States, stating that he had left the North, and come back to the South, with the intention of sharing her destiny. A few days afterwards he proceeded to Richmond, and, without application on his part, upon the recommendation of the two Johnstons and Beauregard, was by the President appointed a Major-General.
The record of Gen. Smith in the war was brief, but it was not without some brilliant passages; and he was giving promises of great distinction when his career was suddenly cut off by the fiat of the powers in Richmond. He was, at first, appointed commander of the second corps of the Army of the Potomac, whilst Beauregard commanded the first, and Joseph E. Johnston the army. This distribution of commands, however, appears to have been ill-defined, and to have been productive of some jealousies. In the celebrated retreat from Centreville, Gen. Smith commanded the left wing of Johnston's army; he was again conspicuous in command of the rear-guard and left wing in the movement from Yorktown back upon Richmond ; and on the battle-field of Seven Pines, where Johnston was wounded, he succeeded to the chief command of the army. Within twentyfour hours, however, Gen. Lee was appointed its regular commander. Soon after Gen. Smith was assigned a separate command, embracing North Carolina and the southern coast of Vir. ginia, including Richmond. In this Department he checked two advances of the enemy—in December, 1862, and January, 1863. About this time President Davis seems to have contracted a strong prejudice against Gen. Smith; and, in one day, he promoted six of his juniors to be Lieutenant-Generals. All this, how
sensibilities of Gen. Smith, who continued to give his constant and earnest attention to his duties.
In 1863, however, Gen. Smith felt that President Davis had become so personally inimical to him that he could no longer retain command under him, except at imminent risk to the vital interests of the Confederate cause. He therefore resigned his position in the army, and was soon after elected President of the Etowah Manufacturing and Mining Company of Georgia. These were extensive iron works, second in importance only to the Tredegar Works in Richmond. In this capacity he did great service to the Confederacy in producing the materials of war, until the works were burned by Gen. Sherman, in 1864.
Notwithstanding the resignation of the military commission from President Davis, Gen. Smith at different periods of the war thereafter, took up his arms, and did some important temporary services. Such was his patriotic desire to aid all in his power in
gard in an expected attack on Charleston, as volunteer aide, or in any capacity in which he could for the time be useful. The offer was accepted, and he was with Gen. Beauregard in the gallant defence of Charleston in April, 1863. He removed to Georgia, and went into the iron business there with the declaration, that if this State ever needed his military services he would be prompt to render them. In the last exigencies of the war, when Georgia had to put out all her local forces against the enemy, Gen. Smith was elected Major-General of the militia ; and he continued to serve in that capacity until captured and paroled at Macon, on the 20th April, 1865.
The popular Southern estimate of Gen. Smith as a military man was, that he never had the opportunities which his talents merited, and that, if he had been fairly tried, he would have the war. He had a solid and excellent military education; he had a remarkable command over men, arising from a powerful will, combined with a rare sense of justice; and he displayed a devotion to what he believed right which completed the character of the warriour, and gave it a heroic cast. It is a matter of regret that he was so slightly employed in the war; and a subject of indignation that he was so unjustly treated by a capricious Executive.