Biographical Sketch of the Life of Colonel Robert A. Smith,
Late Commander of the 10th Regiment Mississippi Vols
(from the Daily Mississippian, published at Jackson, Mississippi, April 19, 1863)
Among the many gallant spirits who have fallen during this ruthless war, none deserve honorable mention of their countrymen more appropriately than Col. Robert A. Smith, late commander of the 10th Regiment, Mississippi Volunteers. In the rash and incautious attack on Fort Craig near Munfordsville, Kentucky, September 14, 1862, while intrepidly leading his regiment in the assault, he received a mortal wound which ended his young career of glory and usefulness on the 21st of September.
Col. Smith was born in Edinburg, Scotland, and was, at the time of his death, in the 26th [? hard to read] year of his age. He came to this country twelve years ago and made Jackson his home, where he lived up to the breaking out of the war in the pursuit of honorable industry and rigid business habits and among a circle of affectionate relatives and valued friends. As a man of business, he had acquired an enviable reputation, and his honesty and industry were reaping for him their just rewards. No citizen of his community was more public-spirited, and the heart of the patriot never throbbed in the bosom of a truer man. Good acts, kind deeds, and words had already enwoven his name and person in that never-fading and hallowed memory of friendship that clusters around the grateful heart. Unassuming, yet agreeable -- a man of modest merit, he pursued the noiseless tenor of his way upright and straightforward in all things, neither turning to the right hand or the left except to do some kindness. His early training had been carefully attended to in his native country by parents remarkable for the highest attributes of character and true Christian graces; and those who knew him best in the quiet walks of life can well attest the fine balance of his character, his devotion to duty, and avoidance of every moral taint.
Though young when he left his native land, yet, up to the time of his departure for this country, his educational advantages were of the best, and the strictest was paid to his mental training, for it was the desire of his parents to prepare him either for the pulpit or the bar. Nature had gifted him with a clear, vigorous, and original intellect -- an intellect, together with his native energy and constant application, capable of rapid and lasting acquirements. -- His mind readily receiving cultivation, his was not the disposition to be charged with a lost opportunity. Actively engaged for several years previous to the commencement of the war in a business requiring his personal attention, yet he never ceased to be a student, but, with an application of true mental devotion, he made himself one of the best informed men for his age I ever met. Unpretentous and unpedantic and, though, to a considerable extent, self-taught, he was a better scholar than many of the men around him who were distinguished for high social and political positions. Though not a collegiate from classic halls, he was not unfamiliar with some of the highest branches of study embraced in the course of a first-rate education. Of mathematics, he was an apt and devoted student, and his mind delighted in the most difficult problems. As a reader of history, few young men are so fond as he was of that most instructive course of a gentleman’s education. None of his associates, and few are there men of any position that understood so much of history, whether ancient or modern, as he did; and his reading of history was not attended merely by a memory of facts and data, but also by that philosophical induction which was one of the marked characteristics of his mind.
While he was thus devoted to the primary branches of a solid English education, and fed his mind from the pages of history, he was no stranger in the departments of political science and belles lettres. He was a frequent reader of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” and other works on political economy -- there was no study he delighted more in this, and his logical and analytical mind readily grasped the great principles therein discussed. The great work of Vattel and other writers on international law and even Blackstone’s Commentaries were often the companions of his study -- so earnest was his pursuit of substantial information, and he was even better acquainted with the statute laws of his State and had a more correct idea of the common sense of justice than many of the young lawyers around him that ranted daily before magistrates and petit juries. -- Amid this varied acquirement of solid information, he never lost sight of the sacred writings, but read them as one who had been taught and had the good sense to properly appreciate them. He was familiar with the current literature of the day and the productions of the grand masters of English verse and fiction. He was especially fond of the drama, as rendered worthy of the admiration of any people or age by the genius of Shakespeare. Being no classic scholar, he took advantage of the many fine translations of ancient literature and made himself conversant with the Greek and Roman bards.
At one time, while a member of a high-spirited and intelligent Debating Club, the subject matter of discussion was, In what does the wealth of a people and just government consist. He entered into the debate with a directness that carried him, at once, to the gist of the matter, despite the rather ambiguous statement of the question. His arguments were presented with point and order, and his illustrations were appropriate, while they displayed his fund of historical, political, and statistical knowledge in an eminent degree. Though he was not gifted with any of the supeficial graces of the rhetorician, yet, on this occasion, he displayed that logic, that fact, that arrangement, and that natural ardor of a mind fully infused with the subject and which are the surest evidences of the true debator that he impressed everyone present as a man of no ordinary application and ability. Among the number present was an able member of the bar and one of the first gentlemen of his day, who said such an effort was enough to entitle the speaker to high civil or political honors. And he deserved the compliment for, without doubt, he was a young man endowed with many faculties of the highest order of mind. His powers of analysis and generalization, together with his ready perception, which, when he was animated, was intuition itself, and that strong common sense which was the substratum of his “well-ordered brain” made him a clear and forcible reasoner on any subject worthy of argument. A devoted student, a thinker, an apt and original mind elastic with adaptability, and a firm and generous nature, warmed up with the fires of a laudable emulation, he was worthy of and competent to wear high honors. And it was only among a few congenial and intimate associates the extent of his capacity and culture was fully known, for he was no pert pedant and had nothing of the “sounding brass of tinkling cymbal” about him.
But it was as the soldier he was better known. He was among the very first to respond to the call of his adopted country and, on the 28th of March, 1861, he left Jackson, Mississippi, for Pensacola as captain of one of the best-organized, drilled, and equipped companies of 100 men I have seen during the War. This company went out as “the Mississippi Rifles” and was armed with the famed and splendid weapon of that name. He had been an officer in this company for two years previous to the commencement of the war, and had, himself, mainly perfected it in its discipline and drill. As already appropriately said, this company, with him as commander, was the first military escort and him it was who first publicly addressed and bade “God speed” to the first President of the Confederacy.
As a company commander in every respect, I have never seen his equal, not even during two years of active service in a large army. He was loved and respected by his men and their pride of him amounted to an enthusiasm. His proficiency as an instructor of infantry tactics and his capacity for command were evinced in the evolutions and soldierly bearing of his company, and marked him out for promotion.
Having arrived at Pensacola, the troops from Mississippi were organized into the 9th and 10th Regiments and transferred by the State to the Confederate Government. Captain Smith and his command were assigned to the 10th Mississippi, and, after its organization was perfected, he was the senior Captain in the Regiment. During the month of May, the position of commander of the 10th Regiment having become vacant by the death of Col. S.M. Phillips, and as the rule of promotion was not the law of Mississippi, an election to fill the vacancy thus occasioned was ordered. The competitors were Joseph E. Davis, the Lieutenant-Colonel of the Regiment, a nephew of and now a Brigadier-General and on the personal staff of President Davis, and Captain W.B. Wade of the Regiment, now the intrepid Col. Wade of General Wheeler’s cavalry, and Captain R.A. Smith. The result of the election was a decided majority in favor of Captain Smith.
As a regimental commander in Bragg’s finely disciplined Pensacola Army, he acquired a general reputation as of the most promising of officers of the command. He was ever at his post, and always the gentleman and the true soldier. Duty was the mainspring of his military conduct. He was proud of the splendid body of men composing his regiment, ever-watchful of their welfare and good repute, and thoroughly instructed them in all the evolutions of the school of the battalion. His regiment was proud of him as an officer and attached to him as a man.
Ten months of almost inactive service passed at Pensacola, but, in other portions of the Confederacy, it had been otherwise. The disasters to Confederate arms at Fishing Creek, and the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson, and the general gloomy condition of our military fortunes in the Western Department in the early part of 1862 had decided the Government to abandon the defenses of Pensacola and order that all the available force in the Southwest might be concentrated along the Tennessee river to stay the invasion that so haughtily threatened the entire Valley of the Mississippi in the month of February 1862. Bragg and his well-appointed army were ordered to Corinth, Mississippi, the place selected and the strategic point of the campaign. Here, in the space of one month, was concentrated the finest army the Confederacy had yet marshalled upon any single field and commanded by Beauregard, Bragg, Hardee, and other distinguished Generals, under the leadership of the lamented Sidney Johnston. Here were men who, in blood, had been baptized heroes on the fields of Fishing Creek and Belmont and those that had upheld the flag of the Confederacy in the heart of Kentucky and still cheerfully faced hardship and the future in those dark days when cravens croaked and trembled throughout the land and slander was busy with the name of Sidney Johnston. Here, too, were men who, for ten months, in the soft Italian clime of Florida, beside the blue waters of the Gulf, had burned for active service and knew nothing of hardship and fields of carnage. Here they were, a compact army, forlorn hope of the west, and full of daring as ever splintered lance in the olden days of chivalry. The enemy was already, with a mighty host of his best and bravest, on the south bank of the Tennessee. The day, the hour, came, and the 6th of April, 1862, that bright Sabbath morn, historic forever, ushered in the blood and glory of Shiloh. History will yet tell how, on the 6th of April, Southern valor scattered Grant’s army and how that same band of heroes, worn by four days’ terrible exposure and one of battle, wrestled all day of the 7th with 33,000 fresh troops under Buell, besides what remained of Grant’s shredded host, and still held the field they had made fearfully classic the day before and retired at will, leaving the enemy too crippled to pursue. From this bloodiest field of the war, the Southern people gathered new confidence, and the star of hope once more shown in the gloomy West.
On this ever-memorable battlefield, Col. Smith, with his regiment, being a portion of the Mississippi Brigade of Gen. James R. Chalmers, did his duty, as becomes the brave man and competent officer. His conduct on the field was the theme of admiration in the Army of the Mississippi, the pride and enthusiasm in his own regiment, and earned for him the confidence and honorable mention of the Generals commanding.
All are doubtless familiar with what transpired at Corinth subsequent to the Battle of Shiloh, how the enemy under Halleck again congregated a mightier horde than ever on the south bank of the Tennessee and commenced his characteristic spade and shovel advance on Beauregard and Bragg. How the episode of Farmington terminated and how, after near two months engaged in digging and amassing of troops, and, when he thought he had his game bagged, he only discovered that it was flown, and was left in the region destitute of wholesome water, to battle with the fevers and malaria of the clime more fatal to Yankees than bullet or bayonet.
Several days before the evacuation of Corinth, Col. Smith was detached from his regiment by Gen. Bragg to the command of the brigade, known as “Anderson’s Brigade.” It was, at the time, among the largest brigades of the army and a splendid body of men. He commanded this brigade in one of the many heavy skirmishes that immediately preceded Gen. Beauregard’s retrograde movement, and displayed those qualities that so well fitted him for command. He remained in command of this brigade until after the army reached Tupelo. He was the senior colonel of his own brigade and frequently, in the absence or indisposition of Gen. Chalmers, was in command. As brigade commander, he was competent, attentive, and punctual in the discharge of the duties of the position, readily dispatching business and not above sharing the labors of his Adjutant.
The Army of the Mississippi, having been transported in the latter portion of July from Tupelo to Chattanooga, and all things being in readiness, Bragg finally commenced his march for Kentucky on the 30th of August, and, on the 12th of September, he was at Glasgow, Ky., a distance of about two-hundred and fifty miles from Chattanooga. On the night of the 12th, “Chalmer’s High Pressure Brigade,” so styled by Gen. Bragg in a special order, moved on to Cave City in advance of the entire army, expecting to there intercept a train of cars from Louisville, but the enemy had wind of this movement and the train was detained at Munfordsville, and the only spoil of victory at Cave City was a Yank telegraph operator. On the night of the 13th, Gen. Chalmers assumed responsibility for moving on towards Munfordsville, ten miles north of Cave City, with the intention of making an unnecessary attack on a fortified position of the enemy near that point. At dawn on the 14th of September (another bright Sabbath morn), Chalmers was close upon the foe entrenched on the south bank of Green river. As against storming parties, the position of the enemy was a strong one indeed. To use the words of an already published graphic description of this fatal place, “The earthworks were over a mile in extent, both flanks resting on the river, and supported on one side by a stockade and on the other by a fort. There was a ditch surrounding it, five feet in width and depth. In front of the breastworks, for a breadth of five-hundred yards throughout their whole extent, are open fields or fallen timber.” This stronghold was garrisoned with over 3,000 men and mounted nine splendid guns. Chalmers had only 1500 men and four small guns. The position was irregularly, not simultaneously, assaulted, and the attempt was unsuccessful. A more heroic or braver set of men were never led to battle than the “High Pressure Brigade” on that day. They rushed into a harvest of death and proved themselves worthy of the fame of their State. But why delay? Here it was that Col. Smith fell mortally wounded at the head of his regiment, amidst the scream of shot and shell and the rattle and blaze of small arms, with his clothes riddled and within forty yards of the breastworks. He died from the effects of his wound on the 21st of September.
Thus passed away, in the bright morning of his fame and manhood, a noble spirit. It was sad to see so much promise, so much usefulness, so much hope, and knightly spirit cut off this prematurely. But he fell in the very front, at the very cannon’s mouth, doing his duty as a soldier and a patriot. His death was a loss to his State and the Confederacy. Such ability, energy, and intrepidity as he possessed are needed in these days of trouble. He is missed around the family fireside, among friends, and will never return to loved ones in the “old country.” The men of his old regiment miss him in the camp, on the march, and on the battle-field. Nevermore will they spring into line or dash to the charge at the sound of that voice that stirred them as though a trumpet called. They talk of him around their camp-fires -- how he led that charge at Shiloh -- how gallantly he fell leading that fatal charge at Munfordsville. He died too young, but glory attend his name to the latest day.
“Soldier rest! thy warfare o’er,
“Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking;
“Dream of battlefields no more --
“Days of danger, nights of waking.”