Tattoo It On Your Forehead

4 01 2011

Here’s a thoughtful post by Dmitri Rotov on how we have come to understand – or rather, “know” - what happened to Confederate general Gustavus W. Smith after he took command of the army outside of Richmond in June 1862.  The opening sentence says it all:

Common knowledge is the curse of Civil War history.

Post title courtesy of Jeffrey [The Big] Lebowski.

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16 responses

5 01 2011
Dick Stanley

Funny how these academic historians make up things to suit their narratives. Almost, you might say, like journalists.

Glatthaar, OTOH, says Smith had suffered the “paralysis” before the war, when he was street commissioner in New York City. “A bout with paralysis forced him south for treatment. The Federal government misconstrued his intentions and deemed him an enemy, so Smith offered his services to the Confederacy.”

Glatthaar also indicates that Davis knew that Smith “had never commanded troops in battle at any level” other than his division command in the late fiasco at Seven Pines. That might have influenced Davis more than the paralysis.

5 01 2011
Harry Smeltzer

Interesting – now that you mention it, I vaguely remember that…there it is on pages 121-122. Davis said he told Lee he was going to put him in Smith’s place after the initial meeting with Smith after Johnston’s wounding.

Apparently Smith and Lee disagreed in their opinion of what Smith wanted to do, Smith saying he wanted to fight and Lee saying Smith wanted to fall back.

5 01 2011
Craig Swain

So Smith was replaced (I think that would be the proper term for the formality) not because of any physical impairment, but rather because of the preferences of Davis. The armchair generals will say that Davis lacked confidence in Smith and/or Smith’s plans. That implies of course that Davis had confidence in Lee and his plans. Or, was it that Lee was more amenable to what Davis wanted? i.e. an aggressive defense if not outright offense.

5 01 2011
Craig Swain

But in the end, does anyone address the real question on the subject? Usually when command is not devolved (as was the case between Johnston and Smith), justification for an “outsider” is offered. Perhaps doubly needed in the case of Lee, considering his performance up to that time.

And how many times is it repeated that Lincoln offered Lee “command of THE Union Army” before the war broke out?

And the fingernails on the chalk board to me, how Sherman placed Howard at the lead of the AotT outside Atlanta, only because of his dislike of political generals.

5 01 2011
Harry Smeltzer

There are dozens of similar examples:

Cleburne was denied corps command because he proposed arming slaves;
Bragg and Davis were “friends”;
McClellan wanted to be president while in command of the AotP;
Howard deliberately misrepresented the July 1 fighting to Hancock and Meade.

The list goes on.

6 01 2011
Craig Swain

My point is those are all “dog bites man” stories. If an author is going to mention dog bite as a topic, then why not discuss why the dog got angry, and why the man offered up his hand?

5 01 2011
Dick Stanley

Bragg and Davis weren’t friends? Davis certainly supported him when Longstreet, et al, tried to have him removed after Chickamauga.

5 01 2011
Harry Smeltzer

But the truth of one does not prove the truth of the other.

5 01 2011
Ken Noe

Bragg resigned from the army in 1855 after an ugly quarrel with Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Later, during the Kentucky Campaign, Davis consistently favored Kirby Smith, when he paid attention at all. Davis then gave Joe Johnston the option of taking command of the AofT in the summer of 1863. The ultimate appeal of Bragg after Chickamauga was that he wasn’t Johnston or Beauregard.

6 01 2011
scott smart

I looked at the WC Davis bio of J Davis, and he provides some info re Smith’s problems, but on first reading at least it seemed a little like the “Davis must have known” sort of thing. There were some notes so I looked at J Davis’ “Rise and Fall of the Confederate Govt v2″ and Davis lays out the timeline pretty clearly: Afternoon of 31 May he was riding along the lines with Lee and learned Johnston was out of action. He told Lee that he was to take command of the army and to make plans that evening (31 May/1 Jun). The next day (1 Jun) Davis returned to the lines and found Gen Whiting who pointed out he location of Smith’s HQ. Davis writes that he rode up to Smith to tell him he would not take command prior to Lee’s arrival to spare both embarrassment. It isn’t clear the exact embarrassment, but I guess subsequently Smith being next in seniority to Johnston, assumed he would be appointed commander and came to dislike Davis on account of this apparent slight. At any rate, Davis says Lee arrived some time later and met with Smith after Davis had left, eventually catching up with Davis and they rode together to Longstreet. Davis is clear that Lee is in command at this point. Davis makes no mention of the reason for bypassing Smith, but gives the impression that he had determined on Lee from before Johnston was wounded.

Postmaster Gen John Reagan “Memoirs” also was cited, and Reagan generally substantiates J Davis’ account. Reagan writes that when Davis (who Reagan had met) saw Johnston go by on a stretcher, he “at once gave General Lee verbal direction to take command of the army”. He then goes on to write that archives of the Dept of War show that Smith had command of the army for three days, but states this was in error and reflects the date of the written orders.

Now WC Davis gives some material on the supposed unfitness of Smith, and says that it was discussed by J Davis, W Preston Johnston and Ives the evening of the 31st which I imagine could have happened as after-the-fact of Davis’ order to Lee to take command. WC Davis references Preston Johnston’s letters to his wife which might be the place to look for comments on Smith’s mental or physical condition. At least what I could find showed no concern about Smith up to the point that Johnston was wounded, and if the timeline of J Davis and Reagan is correct, the decision was made before Smith could react to Johnston’s wounding. I have no idea of the reliability of J Davis or Reagan’s post-war writings though.

7 01 2011
Dimitri Rotov

Scott:
Very interesting, will cross post on my own site. Russell Bonds has sent details to flesh out some of your points, which I’ll also post. My question for you is whether in your sources the sequence of events you outline in para 1 of your comment have timelines attached to them. As stated in para 1 above, they agree with Smith’s own sequence of events and confirm them (except they don’t necessarily confirm Smith’s given times).

6 01 2011
Ned

For what its worth, I think Dimitri is misreading what Smith meant when he wrote “no symptom of which was manifested within eighteen hours after Lee relieved me of command of the Army”. Dimitri interprets this to mean that Smith recovered at the 18 hour mark and was symptom free after that, the symptoms having occurred earlier. However, I think Smith meant the exact opposite: that for 18 hours after Lee took command, Smith was fine and only then, when the battle was over and Lee was fully in charge, did Smith suffer his paralysis. Smith is trying to separate the illness from the change in command and defend himself from the crappy history found at Wikipedia. Se also Smith to Johnston printed in OR Series 1 – Volume 51 (Part II) page 593.

6 01 2011
Ned

Meant to add See OR Series 1 – Volume 11 (Part III) page 685 for when Lee gets informed of Smith’s illness.

7 01 2011
Dimitri Rotov

This is squishy and I suspect I may have gotten it wrong.

In the papers of Jeff Davis he says (June 2) Smith has gotten sick *this morning.*

On the same day (no time indicated) Smith’s asst adj gen reports to Lee that Smith is sick and unfit – but notes the paralysis per se has not set in yet.

Gullain-Barre originates with virus and manifests in tingling/weakness of the limbs followed by general paralysis. This coincides with the progressive deterioration Smith’s aide was reporting to Lee as he expected Smith to be spared the next phase (paralysis) if he could have downtime.

There’s more to disentangle…

7 01 2011
Lyle

Makes you wonder why Jefferson Davis ever supported the commission of G.W. Smith as a Major General with his lack of experience.

7 01 2011
Dimitri Rotov

That’s worth a post in itself. You should see the acerbic quality of their 1861 correspondence.

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