Thursday, October 8, 2015

Mesch: "TEACHER OF CIVIL WAR GENERALS: Major General Charles Ferguson Smith, Soldier and West Point Commandant"

[Teacher of Civil War Generals: Major General Charles Ferguson Smith, Soldier and West Point Commandant by Allen H. Mesch (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2015). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:282/341. ISBN:978-1-7864-9834-5 $39.95]

Though a widely recognized figure to serious students of the Civil War, Charles F. Smith was one of those unfortunate generals of high rank, ability and reputation who died too early in the conflict to make an indelible mark in the popular imagination. Though his Civil War service was one of unrealized potential, Smith's antebellum army career was a long, eventful and important one worthy of close examination. Allen Mesch's Teacher of Civil War Generals: Major General Charles Ferguson Smith, Soldier and West Point Commandant certainly does that and is the first full length military biography to appear in the literature.

Mesch's discussion of Smith's early life is even briefer than that typically found in books of this type, dispensing with Smith's upbringing in mere paragraphs before launching into future general's appointment to West Point at the age of 13 (his family lied about his age). Born in Philadelphia in 1807, Smith was the son of an army assistant surgeon who eagerly pressed his eldest son's case for a West Point education. Not a brilliant student, Smith was forced to repeat his first year but steadily improved his standing, graduating in 1825 ranked 18th in his class and earning a 2nd lieutenancy in the 2nd Artillery. After four years of garrison and arsenal duties, he returned to West Point as a tactics instructor and became so highly regarded there that he was elevated to the coveted post of Commandant of Cadets in 1838.

A strict but fair disciplinarian in his four years as Commandant of Cadets, Smith earned the respect of students and colleagues alike although he would run into occasional problems when attempting to punish some of the more politically connected cadets. Mesch credits Smith with sharpening and regularizing the initiatives pioneered by Sylvanus Thayer that were designed to improve all areas of soldierly conduct and discipline. As instructor of tactics at the academy, Smith would also positively influence many future Civil War generals (the list is a lengthy one). More than one of these men would describe him as the "ideal soldier."

At the outbreak of war between the United States and Mexico Smith was a captain leading Company K of the 2nd US Artillery regiment. Earning several brevets, he distinguished himself both with Taylor's army in northern Mexico and with the army of Winfield Scott operating from Vera Cruz into the Mexican interior. In the battles fought around Mexico City Smith would capably lead a light infantry battalion. After returning home, Smith continued to suffer from the chronic bowel maladies not uncommon to Mexican War veterans but he steadily climbed in rank and in between extended sick leaves was able to contribute to a new artillery manual. In 1855, he was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the newly formed 10th Infantry Regiment and the following year led a military expedition up the Red River in Minnesota, his dual mission to warn off the large number of British subjects hunting and trapping illegally in the U.S. and to establish a new military post in the area. After that, Smith served as one of the highest ranking officers on the Utah Expedition. He was on leave from his duties there when war broke out with the Confederacy. The book offers detailed accounts of all of the above mentioned events from Smith's distinguished antebellum military career.

In 1861, while en route to his new post as commandant of New York's Fort Columbus, Smith was temporarily appointed to command the Department of Washington defenses. According to Mesch, Smith was given little credit for energetically organizing the capital defenses during the very brief time he was in charge there and left the city under some cloud of suspicion, which the author blames on unsubstantiated rumors floated by reporters dissatisfied with access to the commander. After almost despairing of gaining an active command, Smith got his wish in August with orders to go to the Department of the West, where he would be placed at the head of the District of Western Kentucky with headquarters at freshly seized Paducah.

It would be at Paducah where Smith's tight adherence to regulations and his regular army ideas of discipline would endanger his career. His strict orders protecting private property and forbidding maltreatment of civilians of all political persuasions placed him at odds with chief subordinates Eleazer Paine and Lew Wallace, who conspired against him. Smith, unlike many of the more politically astute high ranking Union officers, also failed to cultivate any support among the newspaper reporters hanging around the district, earning their ire by actively blocking access. Mesch carefully documents how accusations and rumors regarding Smith's loyalty (none of which had any foundation in truth) nearly cost him his promotion to brigadier general.

All armies are rife with command jealousies but the Civil War armies offer legions of examples whereby professional army officers of long service and proven ability were leapfrogged in rank within the new volunteer forces by both political appointees and fellow officers of far inferior antebellum grade. The highly esteemed Smith's apparently cheerful subordination to the then lowly Grant is one of the great exceptions. Though one might reasonably wonder whether the traditional story holds up to scrutiny, Mesch apparently didn't discover any evidence casting doubt on the oft repeated analysis of the cordial Grant-Smith relationship. The only negative words about Grant from Smith's pen were those (expressed in a private letter to his wife) that were critical of Grant's Belmont operation. Throughout the book, Mesch makes good use of Smith's papers and the insights they offer into the general's private thoughts at various up and down points in the war and his relationship with his family.

The book presents a thorough treatment of Smith's role in the campaign that seized forts Henry and Donelson. At Donelson, Smith's division would be placed on the far left of Grant's investing army. While this would be the least likely battlefield sector to see action if the Confederate garrison tried to escape (which it did, of course), it was the position directly astride the Union line of communications and thus a place to be held by a trusted subordinate. When the Confederate breakout stalled, Smith's division attacked the weakly held enemy right and captured the outer defense line in its front. Though eventually contained, Smith's advance went some way toward convincing the Confederates that their overall position was untenable.

After Donelson, Halleck, who trusted Smith as much as he distrusted Grant, placed Smith is charge of operations to further penetrate the river line into Tennessee. On March 12, after a meeting with Wallace, Smith badly scraped his shin (apparently down to the bone) on a seat edge. Only able to perform light duties from his office he was promoted to major general on March 21. While it pained Smith to miss leading his men at Shiloh, it pleased him to learn that his men fought gallantly. Sadly, Smith's infected wound only worsened and he died six weeks later on April 25.

It's impossible to predict how much impact Smith might have had in the war had he lived, and Mesch does not delve into alternative history, but there's little doubt that as a Grant and Halleck favorite he would have risen far in the Union high command. Many biographers overstate the historical impact of their subjects but Mesch's study powerfully argues that Smith's lengthy military career has been underappreciated. Decades of exemplary service in the field combined with a key role in the development of the officer corps of the United States during the antebellum period comprise a significant legacy, one documented in fine form in Teacher of Civil War Generals.

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