Robert Alexander Smith

10th Mississippi Rifles

 

Colonel Robert Alexander Smith was born on the 5th day of April, 1836, in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the youngest of five sons and five daughters of James and Annie Smith of that city. The father a Paisley manufacturer in early life, and later a wholesale druggist.
At the age of fourteen Robert came to this country and settled in Jackson, Miss., where his eldest brother, our host, and a widowed sister had preceded him. Entering the business house of his brother, the youth soon won the elder's confidence, and by habits of sobriety, integrity and industry, together with the highest order of intelligent adaptability to the interests of the firm, he was at a comparatively early age placed in sole charge of the prosperous business.
His brother wrote of him:- : "In 1855, young as he then was, I parted with my business in Jackson to him, while I removed thence to live here. I visited Jackson again in 1859, and did not see him more, but the record was always good, unselfish devotion to duty and unflinching attachment to his command and the care of it."
The breaking out of the civil war -- the war between the States -- found him at the head of this business house -- a law abiding, industrious, firm and intelligent citizen of his adopted State, by principles a Southerner and by inheritance a Christian. Born in a land of heroes, his was a nature suited for the stirring events which were to follow. With a fondness for military life, and long before he could have expected to be called to the battlefield, he exhibited evidences of the coming soldier. Entering the ranks of the Mississippi Rifles in the days of peace, he soon made himself familiar with military tactics. Though it may not have been remarked by the casual acquaintance, yet those who best knew the quiet young citizen of Jackson felt that behind the reserved and self possessed exterior of Robert A. Smith dwelt the qualities of the true soldier. Thus it was that on the first mutterings of the coming storm he was elected Captain of the Mississippi Rifles, a company organized in and composed of his fellow citizens of Jackson, whose services were tendered to the State as soon as she cast her fortunes with the Confederacy, and whose first duty was to escort the newly elected President to the seat of government at Montgomery, Ala.
At the first call of the Confederacy on Mississippi for troops in March, 1861, he was ordered with his company to Pensacola navy yard, where General Bragg was organizing his heroic little army, that was subsequently to become so justly famous in the annals of war. This call resulted in the assembling of twenty companies from Mississippi, at Pensacola, which were organized into two regiments and named the Ninth and Tenth. The Mississippi Rifles, as Company D, formed a part of his latter regiment commanded by Colonel Moses Phillips. Before the expiration of two months service Colonel Phillips sickened and died, immediately after which Captain Smith was elected to the vacant colonelcy.
Colonel Smith was industrious in his study of the science and art of war and giving the needed instruction to his regiment. So proficient had he become in all the accomplishments of a regimental commander that on reaching Corinth and being placed with the other Mississippi troops which formed the brigade of General James R. Chalmers, he was soon recognized as the best drill officer and the best disciplinarian of his grade. He needed only the opportunity to prove that these necessary accomplishments of an officer were but secondary to his ability to successfully command troops on the battlefield. This opportunity was soon given him in the sanguinary battle of Shiloh. Then, as ever after when under fire, he proved himself the knightly soldier and skilled commander. What in the quiet of the camp he had studied as a theory, now in activities of the battlefield, he readily and scientifically reduced to practice, and with the eye and intelligence of the born soldier, disciplined by limited yet the closest study, the system of successfully handling troops in action was thoroughly mastered by him.
It was in action that he shone to best advantage. His bearing which, when in repose, was essentially military and dignified, rather than graceful, assumed a heroic type when in the heat of battle. He looked and felt a different man. The roar of artillery and the rattle of musketry sounded as thrilling music to his ears, imparting to him new life. Then, with face aglow with the inspiration of his soul, he was ready for any "deed of high emprise."
Throughout the two days' battle of Shiloh -- on the 6th and 7th of April, 1862, Colonel Smith was conspicuous for his gallantry and the splendid handling of his troops. No regiment on that bloody field did better service or achieved greater triumphs, and this was due as much to the sterling qualities of its Commander, his coolness, intrepid bravery and influence over his men when in action, as to the excellence of his troops. His gallantry and unflinching courage, his high sense of honor, and his aptitude to grasp the arts of war, together with self abnegation at the bidding of duty, won the respect of all his superiors, and the unlimited confidence, respect and esteem of his troops. From that day his eminence as a true soldier was assured. It was confidently believed by those in the army that had there been a vacancy to be filled by a Mississippi soldier, Robert A. Smith would at once have been promoted to the grade of Brigadier General. As it was, his services were so highly appreciated by the General commanding, that he was, from this time forward, almost constantly in command of some brigade of the army by special assignment.
General Bragg's estimate of Colonel Smith may be judged by the following extract from a letter written by him after the termination of the war, and addressed to a friend of the deceased Colonel: "Entering the service at an early age, without military experience or education, the Colonel fell in the gallant discharge of an almost desperate assault in less than eighteen months, esteemed and honored for his acquirements and heroic deportment. To me his loss was severe, for I had looked to him for support in a much higher and more extended command."

The Battle of Munfordsville

Passing over the intervening time between the battle of Shiloh and Bragg's Kentucky campaign, we come to speak of Colonel Smith in his last battle, -- the one here, -- known as the battle of Munfordsville, fought September 14, 1862. Immediately prior to entering Kentucky Colonel Smith had been ordered to resume command of his regiment. On reaching Glasgow with his main force September 12, 1862, General Bragg ordered forward the same night Chalmers's brigade of Mississippians to the railroad at Cave City, and Duncan's Louisiana brigade to the junction next south, with instructions to intercept and cut Buell's communications by rail with Louisville. General Chalmers surprised and captured the telegraph operator and depot of supplies at Cave City, but, because information as to our movements had been, in some manner, communicated to the Federals, he did not succeeded in capturing any train. Hearing that a force of the enemy, supposed to be raw recruits, but in reality numbering, as we afterward found, largely in excess of 3,000 trained and disciplined soldiers, were entrenched at Munfordsville, protecting the railroad bridge over Green river, General Chalmers, without orders from his superiors, as was currently believed, leaving parts of the Seventh and Twenty ninth regiments to guard Cave City, advanced with the rest of his brigade, numbering 1,200 or 1,300 strong, to Horse Cave, on the road to Munfordsville, and after resting until a late hour in the night again moved forward, and by dawn the next morning struck the Federal pickets about a mile in advance of their fortifications.
These were hastily driven in by the sharpshooters of the brigade, commanded by Major W.C. Richards of Columbus, Miss., who fell seriously wounded before our main line made the attack.
The brigade was then being rapidly placed in position for a general assault, in the following manner, as I remember: The Seventh Mississippi, under command of Colonel Bishop, on the extreme right and extending nearly to the river; next the Twenty ninth, commanded by Colonel E.C. Walthall; next the Ninth, commanded by Colonel Thomas W. White -- all three to be placed east of and parallel with the dirt road -- and with a company of sharpshooters and a part of Garrity's battery, constituted the right attacking column. The Tenth Mississippi, under command of Colonel Robert A. Smith, was to be placed in position to the left, perpendicular to, but far removed from the dirt road, and constituted the left attacking column, with the Forty fourth, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel James Moore, in reserve and partially covering the interval between the Tenth and the road. With these dispositions made, General Chalmers would be prepared to advance on the enemy's works.
As the Tenth Mississippi marched by the left flank on the crest of yonder hill in order to be opposite the Federal right, which was a fortified eminence covering the bridge, the enemy beyond the dense fog that overhung the intervening valley could be plainly seen standing in compact line behind their works with guns shimmering in the morning sun, and announced their readiness by discharging at occasional intervals a single piece of artillery with such accuracy that the first shot struck the head of my company, wounding Privates M.S. Leopard, E.J. Hudson and W.B. Lesley; another, fired on our right, cut the flagstaff of the Twenty ninth regiments in twain.
By the time the Tenth got in position, Captain Watt L. Strickland, of the brigade staff, rode hastily up and said: "Colonel, the General orders you to charge." After indicating the danger and hazard of the enterprise, Colonel Smith replied in substance: "To charge now, before the right is ready, will draw upon men the concentrated fire of the enemy. Will I not be too soon?" "No," replied Strickland, "the General says, 'charge now,'" to which Colonel Smith made response, "The duty is mine, the responsibility belongs elsewhere."
Then, pointing to the felled timber in the enemy's immediate front and to a fence standing to our side of it, Colonel Smith instructed his company commanders that as, when the order to advance would be given, it would be preceded with the command, "By the right of company to the front," he desired them in advancing to preserve well the interval, so that on reaching the fence and throwing it down, the companies, after passing through, would be in position, on the order "Companies into line" being given, to promptly form regimental front. Then followed in his usual clarion tones the command, "By the right of companies to the front, forward, double quick, march!" Through an open field of a full quarter of a mile, under fire from the enemy's artillery and small arms behind formidable entrenchments, the Tenth advanced at a "double quick," with Colonel Smith proudly leading on horseback. Passing over the intervening space without serious damage, and throwing down the fence that skirted the timber, we found the abatis of beech trees beyond so arranged as to render it possible, on receiving the order "Companies into line," to form regimental front. Protecting themselves as well as possible, the troops were enabled, after receiving terrible damage, to silence the enemy's fire from the fortifications. In this position we remained several hours without being able, on account of the timber and the conformation of the ground, to see or hear from our brigade, centre or right. It so happened that when Colonel Smith reached the felled timber he struck a narrow path, left by the enemy in the abatis, when, waving his sword over his head and pointing to an opening in the works, cried out: "Follow me in!" Then, yielding to the hazardous impulses of his knightly nature, he rode straight forward, to be shot from his horse in the narrow space between the abatis and the fortifications. Our Lieutenant Colonel, James Bullard, a brave old man, had fallen on the extreme right of the regiment, just as we reached the matted mass of beech, he and his horse torn to pieces by canister shot.
The Forty fourth Mississippi, which, when the attack was made, was left in reserve on the crest of the hill, was soon ordered to advance to the support of the Tenth. Reaching the felled timber, and taking shelter behind stumps and logs in the interval to the right of the Tenth, they, too, succeeded in silencing the enemy's fire in their front. Its brave commander, Lieutenant Colonel Moore, fell mortally wounded in the vain effort to reform his men in this inextricable mass of felled and pointed timber.
After the lapse of several hours from the time the Tenth made its charge, and during a lull in the firing, soon following the withdrawal of the troops from and near Fort Craig, a white flag was seen emerging from behind the enemy's fortifications in the immediate front of the Tenth regiment. It proved to be a flag of truce, and was borne out by a young Captain in an Indiana regiment, directly facing the position of my company (K), and was met by me about midway between our lines. I was then informed that General Chalmers, under a flag of truce, sent in on our right, had demanded the surrender of the Federal troops; that the demand had been refused, but that an armistice for the purpose of removing the dead and wounded had been agreed to, and that ten minutes' notice would be given before the flag was withdrawn. These facts were communicated by me to our men, who at once began to remove the dead and wounded, together with their guns and accouterments, and continued until everything of value had been carried to the woods, from whence we commenced the attack. On retiring with the withdrawal of the flag, and reaching our men in rear, I found that the dead were being hastily buried, and the living were preparing for a speedy return to Cave City.
Two days later General Bragg moved up with the greater part of his army and surrounded these troops, then reinforced and commanded by Colonel C.L. Dunham. For this purpose he crossed a part of Polk's corps to the north side of Green river, and upon the eminences there had placed a number of field pieces completely commanding the fortifications below, with instructions to open fire at early dawn the next (17th) morning. Surrounded by overwhelming numbers, and realizing their utterly hopeless condition, Colonel Dunham, who had reached there with his regiment after the fight on the 14th, superseding Colonel Wilder in the command, yielded before day on the morning of the 17th to the demand of General Bragg for their surrender. The troops surrendered consisted of the Seventeenth, Forty third, Sixty seventh, Sixty eighth and Sixty ninth Indiana Regiments, a company of Louisville calvary, a part of the Fourth Ohio and a section of the Thirteenth Indiana battery, amounting in all to about 4500 men and ten guns, together with a large supply of Quartermaster and Commissary stores. At an early hour on the morning of Wednesday, the 17th of September, just twenty two years ago today, the Tenth Mississippi regiment, in return for and in compliment of its gallant fight on the 14th, was marched in to receive the surrender of the troops and take possession of the forts. Our brave foes, who had been accorded very reasonable terms, were on the same day marched back to the lines of General Buell and paroled. Thus ended the battle and surrender of Munfordsville, which we have today gathered to recall, and to embalm in memory and perpetuate in marble the deeds of our heroes who fell in that rash, ill advised and sacrificial fight -- heroes as noble as ever gave their lives for "country or honor."
On our retreat from here the evening of the 14th, Colonel Smith was carried to a house in the neighborhood and left in charge of his body servant Henry, the Sergeant Major, William French, and his brother in law, Captain Dodson, of his regiment, and lived until after the surrender on the 17th, his last thoughts reaching out for the welfare and concern of his men. His remains were temporarily interred near the scene of his death until the following March, when the loving care of a sister and nephew, who, by permission of the authorities came through the lines and removed them to the admiring fellow citizens of his adopted city, where they were finally deposited with honor and reverence. In the beautiful Cemetery at Jackson, Miss., can be seen a circular plot of ground surrounded by a tasteful iron railing, inclosing a Scotch granite shaft with the following inscription: "Erected to the memory of Colonel R.A. Smith, of the Tenth Mississippi regiment, Confederate States army, a native of Edinburgh, who fell mortally wounded in the battle of Munfordsville, Ky., September 14, 1862, while gallantry leading in the charge. Aged twenty six years. Erected by his fellow citizens." In Dean cemetery, Edinburg, Scotland, a similar monument with almost like inscription can be seen, which a brother's love erected as a tribute of his grief and reverence.
Having been first the color bearer, then adjutant of his regiment by appointment of Colonel Smith, and at the time of his death Captain commanding a company under him, and from our entry into the service, personal and intimate friends, I am prepared to sympathize with that brother's grief, and to add that in my opinion the loss of that brave and intrepid soldier and true man was the greatest blow to the Mississippi troops of any that happened during the Kentucky campaign. To the Tenth Mississippi the loss was irreparable. The star of their destiny had been extinguished, and its brave men could never afterwards, in following another, feel the same soldierly pride or patriotic hope. Perhaps it will be said that his dash and bravery when in action were now uncommon traits of the Confederate soldiers; that under the "stimulus of excited physical faculties and of the moving passions," the same was true of thousands of those who fell in or survived the late war. That is so, but no one who had known Colonel Smith, or had observed him well, could fail to discover that his was a different character and of a more earnest type than was that of most soldiers who were equally brave and dashing. We need portray him only as he was looked upon by his troops -- brave, earnest, single minded and unassuming -- a devotee to duty, "who softened its asperities to others," causing those who knew him best to admire him most. "Self restraint, which has been termed the highest form of self assertion," is a marked characteristic of the race from which Colonel Smith spring, and was possessed by him in an eminent degree. He never gave way to "moods," and only when the necessities of discipline demanded, would he inflict upon the disobedient or unworthy the pain of his frown, and even then his better nature would soon assert itself in the charms of his favor. No man, woman or child could be more tender when deserving ones sought his sympathy. No warrior could be more stern when duty prompted reproof. The refinements of his nature would not brook the slangs and abuses of speech, nor tolerate evil words or evil surmises. His devotion to the care and welfare of the men under him was intense, and he was always ready to sacrifice his own pleasure, his time and labor to them.

This was compiled from the Address of Major Sykes at the dedication of the Memorial at Munfordsville