Archive for June, 2011

The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

June 20, 2011

Dr. Keith Bohannon of the University of West Georgia is a fellow student of the battle of Chickamauga, and seems to love delving into archives as much as I do. Recently he transcribed an account of Captain Henry Smith’s experiences at Chickamauga, and shared that account with several of us who care about such things. I found several things in it that got me thinking…

At about 8:00 p.m. on September 19, 1863, Confederate Brigadier General Preston Smith and several of his aides encountered what they thought was a regiment of fellow Confederates, but in fact turned out to be the 77th Pennsylvania of Joseph Dodge’s Brigade, 2nd Division, the XX Corps. Smith expected to find Texans from Brigadier General James C. Deshler’s brigade, Cleburne’s Division. Smith was supposed to be supporting Deshler’s Brigade in a night attack.

Night attacks are tricky things. Deshler went astray, opening up a gap through which Smith’s line advanced, unwittingly, straight into the Union line. Smith was being cautious that night and did not just go charging off into the gloom, however. Instead he halted his line after moving several hundred yards and rode ahead, his aides in tow, to reconnoiter.

Years later, Captain Henry H. Smith, former member of the 1st Tennessee Infantry and nephew to the general, recalled the moment. Stumbling into this unknown body of men, Smith – thinking they might belong to Deshler or even be part of his own brigade that had moved too far forward – called out to them. “Who’s there?” came the reply. “your commander, General Preston Smith” snapped the general. “We do not know you” retorted the men. Then someone thought to ask, ‘which command?’ “The 69th Indiana.”

Captain Smith’s memoir was written in 1899, “dictated entirely from memory and without the aid of any notes, memoranda or books of any description,” and so we can forgive his memory for failing to remember the correct number of the Federal regiment in question. This quibble and a couple of other minor discrepancies in his account of the affair, however, don’t detract from the overall authenticity of the recollection of that night.

General Smith, thinking perhaps to bluff his way past the danger, immediately demanded that the Yankees surrender. In reply, about thirty Pennsylvanians fired their rifles. General and Captain Smith were both hit. Preston Smith was mortally wounded, dying within the hour, while Henry had his leg broken, and nearly amputated. Captain Smith survived, of course, but was months recovering. They were not the only two men shot. Captain Thomas E. King was also fatally wounded, also dying within a few minutes of the encounter. Captain John Donelson was killed outright, at the side of Colonel A. J. Vaughn of the 13th Tennessee, as they came forward.

Preston Smith’s death is a famous incident of the battle, marked by a shell pyramid and tablet. There are a number of interesting side-stories connected with the occurrence, as well. For instance, Union Colonel Thomas E. Rose commanded the 77th Pennsylvania that night, and was taken prisoner here. Rose later organized and led the famous tunnel escape from Libby Prison the next February, where 109 Federal officers got away, 59 of them eventually returning to Union lines. Smith’s encounter is also the perfect illustration of the dangers of night operations in the Civil War, and helps illustrate why such events were rare.

While the fate of the Confederate captains garner only passing attention in coverage of the affair, they, too, have their own stories to tell. Henry Smith’s memoir set me to wondering what those stories might be.
Thomas King’s is most intriguing. King was the son and grandson of prominent Georgians. His Grandfather was Roswell King, who founded both the town and the mills that have since borne his name. The town of Roswell thrives to this day, but the mills are gone. In 1864, Sherman shipped the workers (almost all women) north and burned the buildings, and even though they were rebuilt after the war, the mills shut for good in 1971.

The King family was large and warlike in 1861. John’s two older brothers, Charles and William, served the Confederacy as a chaplain and doctor, respectively. Another brother, James, operated the family business through most of the war, but after its destruction, fought against Sherman at the head of a local cavalry company. Thomas raised and commanded Company G of the 7th Georgia; his younger brother Joseph joined the same unit as a private. Brother Barrington joined and eventually commanded the cavalry of Cobb’s Legion; Ralph joined the Chatham Artillery, and Clifford served on William J. Hardee’s staff, even marrying that General’s daughter.

Thomas’ only taste of soldiering came in 1861. His ankle was shattered by a musket ball on July 21st of that year, at First Manassas; his brother Joseph was also struck, injured in the hip, leg, and hand. Both men were crippled and returned home. Thomas spent a year on crutches, and then transitioned to a cane. Joseph never fully recovered. For both of them, the war seemed over.

But when the Army of the Cumberland crossed the Tennessee River and entered Georgia, however, Thomas felt he had to do something. On September 14th, as the armies sparred for advantage around Lafayette, Thomas boarded the train north, hoping to volunteer his services – limited as they were- on the staff of either Longstreet or Leonidas Polk. Reaching the battlefield on the morning of the 19th, he found General Smith, who granted him a spot as an aide-de-camp.

That same morning found Captain Henry Smith riding by in the entourage of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Henry joined his uncle’s staff in 1863, but that March had been loaned out to Forrest while the army was stationed in Middle Tennessee. For the past six months, Henry remained with the hard-bitten raider. When Forrest’s column bumped into Smith’s Brigade, however, General Smith reminded Forrest that the loan had been temporary, that Henry had never been formally transferred, and Smith now needed him back. Dutifully, Captain Smith watched Forrest ride off without him.

Here Henry Smith and King became comrades in arms for what proved to be a very short time. Upon meeting King that morning, Smith essayed a rough joke, telling the other that “”if he wanted to keep himself whole, he had made a mistake joining General Smith for, if he followed him, he would surely get a bullet buried in him.” King’s own diary did not record his impressions of Henry’s humor, but did note that by 5:00 p.m. the fight seemed to have quieted down. The battle seemed over for the day.

Of course, then up came Cleburne, and the fateful meeting in the gloom.
Both King and Smith stumbled into the wrong place at the wrong time. If circumstances had been only slightly different, neither man might have been shot that night. Had King found Polk first, or even a different brigade in Cheatham’s Division, he might easily have avoided that night encounter. As it was King was exposed to fire two days in the whole war – and both proved disastrous for him.

As for Smith, while riding with Forrest was no rear-area sinecure, the chance meeting with his old command and his Uncle’s asking for him back is also quite the coincidence.

One final note: The third captain killed that night, John Donelson, was a member of another famous family – the Donelson’s of Tennessee – and had been born in the White House, during Andrew Jackson’s presidency. It seems his mother was serving as a hostess for Jackson, and living in the mansion while pregnant with John. Personally, this piece of trivia strikes me as ironic.