Edmund Kirby Smith was born at St. Augustine, Florida on May 16, 1824. He was the third child and second son of Connecticut natives Joseph Lee Smith and Frances (Kirby) Smith. Smith’s grandfather, Ephraim Kirby, served as an officer in George Washington‘s army during the American Revolution. Smith’s father, Joseph Lee Smith, was a lieutenant colonel in the War of 1812. In the early 1820s, the elder Smith moved his family to Florida, where he received an appointment as a U.S. district judge.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
In 1836, Smith’s parents sent him to Hollowell’s preparatory school in Alexandria, Virginia. Five years later, following in the steps of his older brother Ephriam, Smith received an appointment to the United States Military Academy. During his years at the academy, Smith acquired the nickname “Seminole” because of his native state. Smith graduated from West Point in 1845, twenty-fifth in his class.
U.S. Military Officer – Mexican-American War
Smith began his military career as a brevet second lieutenant in the 5th Infantry on July 1, 1845. In less than one year, he was engaged in combat during the Mexican-American War (April 25, 1846–February 2, 1848). On August 22, 1846, officials promoted Smith to the rank of second lieutenant in the Seventh Infantry. During the Mexican-American War, Smith received a brevet promotion to first lieutenant for “gallant and meritorious conduct” in the Battle of Cerro Gordo on April 18, 1847. Later that year, on August 20, he received a brevet promotion to captain for his service at the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco.
After returning from Mexico, Smith became an assistant professor of mathematics at the United States Military Academy from 1849 to 1852. During that time, the army promoted him to first lieutenant on March 9, 1851. On March 3, 1855, Smith attained the rank of captain and joined the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, a newly created, elite regiment whose officers were hand-picked for service in Texas by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Eleven of Smith’s fellow officers from the 2nd Cavalry became Confederate generals, and four of them (Albert Sidney Johnston, Robert E. Lee, John Bell Hood, and Smith) achieved the rank of full general. During his stint in Texas, Comanche Indians wounded Smith during a fight in the Nescutunga Valley in 1859.
Resignation from U.S. Army
On January 31, 1861, Smith received a promotion to major and became commander of Camp Colorado. When secessionists began commandeering Federal property across the South, Smith initially refused to surrender his post to Colonel Henry E. McCulloch’s Texas Militia forces. However, when civil war became a certainty, Smith sided with the Confederacy and resigned from the United States Army on April 6, 1861.
Wounded at Bull Run
Smith entered the Confederate Army as a lieutenant colonel and served as General Joseph Johnston‘s chief of staff at Harpers Ferry, Virginia during the organization of Confederate troops in the Shenandoah Valley. On June 17, 1861, officials promoted Smith to the rank of brigadier-general and placed him in command of the 4th brigade of the Army of the Shenandoah. The next month, Smith received serious wounds in the neck and shoulder during the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861).
While recovering from his injuries in Lynchburg, Virginia, Smith met Cassie Seldon. Following a brief courtship, they married on September 21, 1861. During their thirty-two-year marriage, the couple produced five sons and six daughters.
District of East Tennessee Commander
After his recuperation, Smith received a promotion to the rank of major general on October 11, 1861, and succeeded General Felix Zollicoffer as commander of the District of East Tennessee. Smith’s tenure in Tennessee was highly controversial. Eschewing Zollicoffer’s lenient policies, Smith instituted martial law, suspended habeas corpus, and jailed or deported many suspected Unionists. His harsh measures fostered anti-Confederate sentiment in a region of the country nearly evenly divided over secession during the early years of the war.
Confederate Heartland Campaign
By the middle of 1862, Confederate fortunes in the Volunteer State declined dramatically. Besides the turmoil that Smith created in eastern Tennessee, Ulysses S. Grant‘s victories at the Battle of Fort Henry (February 6, 1862), the Battle of Fort Donelson (February 11–February 16, 1862), and the Battle of Shiloh (April 6–April 7, 1862) left the Union in control of the western part of the state. Eager to reverse the Confederacy’s fortunes in the Upper South, General Braxton Bragg hatched a plan to move 34,000 soldiers into Tennessee to join forces with 18,000 men under Smith’s command and then to invade Kentucky. Bragg erroneously believed that most residents in that border state strongly supported the Confederacy and that many of them would join the Southern army if given the opportunity.
Initially, events went well for the Confederates. Smith left Knoxville on August 14, 1862, and he routed the Union garrison at Richmond, Kentucky on August 30, capturing 4,000 federal soldiers. On September 2, he marched into Lexington unopposed. Meanwhile, Bragg’s army left Chattanooga in late August, and on September 17, it captured an important rail station at Munford, Kentucky, along with 4,000 Union soldiers at the Battle of Munford (September 14-17, 1862). Throughout September, the two-headed Rebel onslaught forced Major Don Carlos Buell‘s Army of the Ohio back toward the Ohio River. By October 4, events were so promising that Bragg took part in the inauguration of Richard Hawes as the provisional Confederate governor of Kentucky.
During September, the Union situation became so perilous that the citizens of Cincinnati were bracing for an invasion of their city. Federal officials dispatched Major General Lew Wallace to Cincinnati to prepare the city for the expected attack. Wallace declared martial law and enlisted civilians to dig trenches and erect other defenses around the Queen City. Ohio Governor David Tod ordered state officials to send any available militiamen and munitions to the city. Tod also enlisted the aid of 15,766 volunteers from sixty-five Ohio counties to help protect Cincinnati. Popularly known as the “Squirrel Hunters,” most of the volunteers had no military training and carried antiquated weapons. Nonetheless, their presence, coupled with Wallace’s defenses, convinced Confederate leaders, including Smith, to cancel the invasion.
By October, the size of Buell’s army had grown sufficiently to enable him to become the pursuer. Unprepared for Buell’s advance, Smith and Bragg had still not combined their armies. On October 7, 1862, one corps of Buell’s army confronted Bragg’s army near Perryville, Kentucky. The Confederates won a hard-fought victory at the Battle of Perryville, but the arrival of nearly all of Buell’s army by the end of the day forced Bragg to concede everything his soldiers had gained. Over the objections of his subordinate officers, Bragg withdrew during the night.
To no avail, Smith pleaded with Bragg to follow up on his success: “For God’s sake, General, let us fight Buell here.” Instead, Bragg fell back to Harrodsville, where he finally joined forces with Smith’s Army of Kentucky. The combined Confederate forces were now comparable in size to Buell’s army. Nevertheless, Bragg lost his enthusiasm for the campaign. The Kentucky recruits that he expected never materialized, and he believed that his supply lines were too vulnerable and insufficient to remain in the state. Over the objections of Smith and other subordinates, Bragg ended the campaign and evacuated Kentucky, leaving the state in Union control for the rest of the war.
Lieutenant General Commanding Trans-Mississippi Department
Impressed by Smith’s performance during the Heartland Campaign, Confederate officials promoted Smith to the rank of lieutenant general on October 9, 1862. On February 9, 1863, the Confederate War Department issued Special Orders, No. 33, assigning Smith to the command of the Trans-Mississippi Department, which included Arkansas, Texas, and western Louisiana.
After the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson placed control of the Mississippi River in Union hands, Smith spent the rest of the war nearly isolated from the rest of the Confederacy. With little support and limited contact with the Confederate government in Virginia, Smith faced the dual challenges of governing the district and waging war with only 30,000 troops spread over a vast area. Because of Smith’s virtual autonomy, the region gradually became known as “Kirby Smithdom.” On February 19, 1864, the Confederate government rewarded Smith’s efforts by promoting him to the rank of full general.
Red River Campaign and Camden Expedition
In March 1864, Union authorities launched two offensives to gain control of the Trans-Mississippi region. Although the Yankees outnumbered Smith, he engineered the defeat of both Northern advances. On April 8, Confederate troops commanded by Major General Richard Taylor repulsed Union General Nathaniel Banks‘ Red River Campaign with a decisive victory at the Battle of Mansfield. Smith then dispatched Major General Sterling Price‘s Cavalry Corps northward to foil Union Major General Frederick Steele’s Camden Expedition into Arkansas.
Price’s Missouri Expedition
Later that year, Smith went on the offensive by sending Major General Sterling Price’s 12,000 soldiers, designated as the Army of Missouri, on an ill-advised and disastrous raid into the Show-Me State. Price’s Missouri Expedition began on August 28, 1864, when he departed from Camden, Arkansas. A little over three months and a dozen or more battles later, Price limped back into Arkansas, having lost roughly one-third of the soldiers who followed him into Missouri. For the rest of the war, hostilities west of the Mississippi comprised only skirmishes and guerrilla raids.
Surrender in Louisiana
In April 1865, Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston surrendered their armies, essentially ending the war in the East. Following the surrender in the East, Smith’s Army of the Trans-Mississippi Department rapidly disintegrated as soldiers simply walked away and returned home.
As his army evaporated, Smith held on for roughly another month. Abandoning his headquarters in Shreveport, Louisiana on May 18, Smith headed for Galveston, Texas, leaving Major General Simon Buckner in charge. During the week that it took Smith to reach Galveston, the command structure of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi Department nearly ceased to exist.
On May 25, Buckner and Sterling Price traveled to New Orleans, where they met with a Union delegation headed by Major General Edward R. S. Canby to hammer out terms of surrender of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi Department, subject to Kirby Smith’s approval. The following day, Buckner and Canby’s chief of staff, General P. J. Osterhaus, signed a “military convention” stipulating the same terms given Lee in Virginia and Johnston in North Carolina.
On May 27, Smith reached Galveston and learned that Buckner had surrendered most of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi Department. After considering his options, on June 2, 1865, Smith accepted the undeniable. He issued several special orders facilitating the final surrender of the army.
Although Brigadier General Stand Watie’s 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles (a part of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi Department) remained in the field until June 23, 1865, the Army of the Trans-Mississippi Department was the last major Confederate force to surrender at the end of the Civil War.
Flight to Mexico and Amnesty
Following his surrender, Smith fled to Mexico and Cuba to avoid being prosecuted for treason. He returned to Lynchburg, Virginia, to sign an oath of amnesty on November 14, 1865.
After the war, Smith briefly managed the Accident Insurance Company in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1866. He then served as president of the Pacific and Atlantic Telegraph Company for two years. In 1868, Smith founded a school in New Castle, Kentucky, but it burned the following year. In 1870, the University of Nashville named Smith and fellow Confederate General Bushrod Johnson as co-chancellors of the institution. Smith and Johnson also managed the Montgomery Bell Academy, a preparatory school for boys. In 1875, Smith accepted an appointment as a professor of mathematics at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee. He remained on the faculty there for the rest of his life.
Kirby Smith died in Sewanee on March 28, 1893. He was buried on the University of the South’s campus. Smith was the Confederacy’s last full general to pass away.