Thomas Benton Smith, The Boy General

At the Battle of Nashville, on 16 December 1864, the Tennessean’s brigade, fought valiantly, but Brigadier General Thomas Benton Smith soon found himself surrounded on three sides by Federal troops. A bullet had pierced the skull of Colonel William M. Shy, the commander of Smith’s original regiment, the 20th Tennessee Infantry. He had fallen, fighting to the last, and holding the line at all hazards. The situation was hopeless. A member of Smith’s staff wrote, “More than half the brigade were killed, wounded or captured in a hand-to-hand struggle, prominent among the killed being Colonel Shy.” The fighting was so close, in fact, that Shy had been killed at point-blank range. Eyewitness accounts tell of powder burns to Shy’s face. Smith had no choice but to wave his white handkerchief, order his men to cease fire, and surrender himself and the band of battle-weary survivors with him.

Smith and his men were captured and summarily marched, along with 1,533 others, through the Federal dead and wounded, who lay thick on the steep slopes of the Overton hills. The Union soldiers realized the Confederates had surrendered and, according to one Illinois soldier, began “shouting, yelling, and acting like maniacs for a while.” Apparently, this revelry must have angered the exasperated Smith. As he was being marched to the rear, eyewitnesses reported he allegedly exchanged words with Federal Colonel William L. McMillen. Two fellow prisoners, Monroe Mitchell, a private of Company B and Lieutenant J.W. Morgan of Company F, 20th Tennessee Regiment, recounted that McMillen appeared drunk. Whether the man was intoxicated or inflamed from the recent bloodshed, his temper overcame him, and he began verbally assailing Benton Smith, cursing and abusing him.

Mitchell and Morgan said Smith’s only reply was, “I am a disarmed prisoner.” At that remark, McMillen struck the twenty-six-year-old Smith over the head with his saber three times, each blow cutting through Smith’s hat, the last driving him to the ground, and fracturing Smith’s skull, inflicting serious damage to the brain. Observers believed McMillen would have continued the brutal assault had his own men not pulled him off Benton Smith.

The dashing “Boy General,” of the 20th Tennessee was told by a Union Surgeon, “Well you are near the end of your battles, for I can see the brain oozing through the gap in the skull.”

The surgeon was correct in his assumption that Smith’s war career had come to an end, however, Smith would survive, only to remain a victim of a horrible cowardly attack for the remainder of his life.

Smith would never fully recover from McMillen’s dishonorable attack. For the remainder of his days, he would suffer from bouts of depression and mania which resulted in his spending much of his life in the Tennessee Central Hospital for the Insane. Such was the tragic fate of the man described as the “beau ideal of a soldier.”

Thomas Benton Smith was born in Rutherford County, Tennessee, near the Triune community, on February 24, 1838. Smith’s father, James M. Smith, was a veteran of the War of 1812, and worked as a carpenter who made and sold cotton gins. The family owned 105 acres and other property. They lived in a log house consisting of two rooms and a side porch.

Smith was described, by Dr. Deering Roberts in his biographical sketch included in A History of the Twentieth Tennessee Regiment, C.S.A, as “the physical embodiment of a magnificent soldier, with mental attainments and inclination that made him admired and respected by all who came in personal contact with him. Splendidly built, on grand proportions, a little over six feet tall, muscular, erect as an Indian, of a somewhat dark complexion, deep gray eyes, quiet and courteous in demeanor, cool, calm, and collected on all occasions, whether in genial conversation or in the thickest storm of shot and shell, with a most kindly interest in every man of his command, at all times approachable by any subaltern or private in the line, yet commanding the respect and esteem of those superior to him in military rank . . .”

He was a bright young man and at the age of 15, he received a patent for a locomotive pilot. In railroading, a pilot is the device mounted at the front of the train to deflect obstacles from the track. It is more well known as a cowcatcher. He attended a local public school and at the age of 16, became a student at Western Military Institute in Nashville. Upon graduation he was given a Lieutenant’s commission.

At the outbreak of the War of Northern Aggression, 23 year-old Benton was working on his parents’ farm. He enlisted in the Zollicoffer Guards, of the Twentieth Tennessee Regiment, and was sworn in at Triune on 17 May 1861. Smith’s brother, John M. Smith, also joined the Confederate forces. As members of Company B, under Colonel Joel Battle, Benton and his brother, John, entered the service as privates. He was soon made its second lieutenant. Smith first saw action in January, 1862, at the Battle of Fishing Creek. The Confederate forces were defeated, and their commander, General Felix Zollicoffer was killed. The former Nashville newspaper editor was extremely nearsighted and accidentally rode into Federal lines where he was summarily shot.

At the battle of Shiloh, the regiment lost 187 killed and wounded out of approximately 400 men. Their colonel, Joel Battle, was captured, on the second day, and imprisoned. When the company regrouped at Corinth, Mississippi, the popular Smith was elected Colonel. The regiment was in former vice-president, John C. Breckenridge’s, Division and spent the remainder of the summer and fall campaigning in Mississippi and Louisiana before returning to Tennessee, in the fall of 1862.

Often, soldiers’ camps were visited by the neighboring families who brought rations and came to keep the soldiers company. Apparently, the unmarried and dashingly handsome, Benton Smith was one of the most popular, at least with the ladies. While camped near Murfreesboro, on 20 November 1862, Captain Tod Carter wrote, under his pen name, Mint Julep, in his correspondence for The Chattanooga Daily Rebel, “Now and then a bevy of pretty girls pay us a strolling visit, but a handsome friend at my elbow, wreathed and glittering with gold lace, claims they have come to see him. At any rate, I can always tell when they are about by his borrowing my white shirt. I never could persuade any of the dear creatures that I am handsome, and I don’t know why. It is curious, very curious. Our Colonel, Thomas Benton Smith, who is young and who thinks he is good looking, has cut loose from the Commissary Department altogether. Baskets and pretty notes are daily occurrences around his quarters.”

On 31 December 1862, Smith led his men at Murfreesboro. W. J. McMurray, in his regimental history of the 20th Tennessee, recalled: “We formed in an open field, and moved forward under heavy shelling until we struck a picket fence. Only the Twentieth Tennessee Regiment came into contact with that fence, when Colonel T. B. Smith gave the command, ‘By the right flank, tear down that picket fence, March!’ This command caused a great deal of laughter among the boys of his Regiment, but it was the last laugh that many of these brave fellows ever had.”

Confusion ensued when Smith was seriously wounded, taking a bullet through the breast and left arm, and also due to the death of the color bearer, Smith’s only brother, John M. Smith. Command devolved to Major Fred Claybrooke, who soon rallied the regiment. Murfreesboro was one of the bloodiest battles of the war, with both sides suffering approximately 25% casualties. Though the Confederates fought valiantly, they were forced to retreat southward to Tullahoma, Tennessee.

While quartered in Tullahoma, the 20th Tennessee was presented with a flag made by the wife of General Breckenridge and other Kentucky ladies. The red and white flag was composed of fabric from Mrs. Breckenridge’s wedding dress. In an elaborate ceremony, the 20th was given the flag in front of the entire division. Upon receipt of the flag, Colonel Benton Smith raised the colors and made a brief acceptance speech, in which he said, “This compliment, unexpected as it is, is doubly pleasing; coming as it does from Kentucky, the land of chivalry, and from the noblest of her daughters.. . . Her women are as lovely as her mountain flowers. For my officers and soldiers, I thank you.” The ladies, of whom he spoke, were at the presentation, and no doubt, had much influence over which regiment received the flag. The honor, however, must have been bittersweet for the young colonel, with the memory of his recently fallen, only brother.

Shortly after the ceremony, an enlisted man in Company A, Bailie P. Harrison, challenged Smith to a duel to the death. Details of the event are sketchy. Smith ignored the challenge and charges were dismissed against Harrison, however, the man was transferred on 15 July 1863.

General, Braxton Bragg, commander of the Army of Tennessee, was flanked out of middle Tennessee in June of 1863. The army would not stop its rearward movement until September, 1863, just south of Chattanooga. On September 19, the Confederates attacked the Federal army, commanded by General William Rosecrans, at the Battle of Chickamauga. (The largest Confederate victory and second only to Gettysburg, as the largest battle of the War of Northern Aggression.)

According to Dr. William J. McMurray, who was standing near Smith, on the first day of the battle, General Bate rode up, on his single-footing sorrel, and said, “Now Smith, I want you to sail on those fellows like you were a wild-cat.” Smith gave the command and the brigade moved as one. The 20th Tennessee went into the battle with 140 men. Of these, 98 were either killed or wounded.

Benton Smith was wounded in the arm, again, at Chickamauga, but continued on to fight at Missionary Ridge. When the brigade commander, Brigadier General B. C. Tyler, was wounded, Smith assumed command of the brigade, known as Tyler’s Brigade, and led it until the Battle of Atlanta. On 29 July 1864, he received his commission from Richmond as Brigadier General, making him the youngest brigadier in the Army of Tennessee. Under his leadership, Tyler’s Brigade was actively engaged throughout the Atlanta Campaign, including Rocky Face, Resaca, New Hope Church, Pine Mountain, Kennesaw Mountain, Peach Tree Creek, and Jonesboro.

One eyewitness, Jim Bennett, reported in Confederate Veteran, of the Battle of Jonesboro: “It was at Jonesboro. We were going forward in line of battle and Bob (Allison) was carrying the flag, when he was shot through the body, and as he went down, he took the old flag and pulled it around him, saying: ‘Jim, let it be my winding sheet.’ I said, ‘All right, Bob; you may have it.’ Just then Colonel Smith said: ‘Bring the flag along, Jim Bennett!’ I said, ‘Colonel, Bob wants it for his winding sheet;’ but the Colonel commanded, ‘Bring it along!’ and I had to pull it loose from Bob’s dying hands. I can never forget how he looked as I left him. I wish I could.” Bennett continued: “Next day we came back, and Bob was dead. We buried him. You know how we had to bury them in a trench. The colonel explained afterwards that it wouldn’t do to let the flag go down in a fight; but it was mighty hard to refuse Bob Allison’s request.”

On 13 November 1864, the brigade crossed the Tennessee River at Florence, Alabama, along with Generals Hood and Forrest, and marched to the ill-fated Battle of Franklin. After leading a bold charge on the Federals, Captain Tod Carter was struck with a bullet, above the eye and fell, wounded, only a short distance from his boyhood home. As dawn ascended, Thomas Benton Smith rode to the Carter house and discovered one of Tod’s relatives, Alice McPhail Nichol, who later wrote an account of the event. “Just before day I was standing out on the back porch, when General Benton Smith rode up on his horse. I can see him now as he saluted and said, ‘Sissie, is this where Squire Carter lives?’ and I told him yes, and he said, ‘Tell him Captain Carter is severely wounded on the battle field, and I will show him about where to find him.’” The family took up lanterns and followed Smith to the locust grove where Tod lay wounded. Unfortunately, young Tod slipped away, despite Dr. Deering Roberts’ efforts to save him. Upon his death, his sister whispered, “Brother’s come home at last.”

A young schoolgirl, Frances McEwen, who had sought shelter in her family’s cellar and who witnessed the Battle of Franklin and its aftermath, recalled an encounter with Benton Smith in Confederate Veteran. “Our hearts jumped into our mouths, and what joy when we learned that our own soldiers were in possession of the town! We didn’t stand on ceremonies getting out of the cellar. Our doors were thrown wide open, and in a few minutes a big fire was burning in our parlor. The first man to enter was General William Bate, all bespattered with mud and blackened with powder, but a grand and glorious soldier under it all. I will not attempt to picture the meeting between him and my father, who had been a life-long friend. Next came General Tom Benton Smith, with the impersonation of a chivalric, gallant soldier, wearing under the mud and dirt, his recent hard-earned honors.” Young Frances described the aftermath of the battle as well. “In the afternoon, December 1st, some of us went to the battlefield, to give water and wine to the wounded. All of us carried cups from which to refresh the thirsty. Horrors! What sights that met our girlish eyes! The dead and wounded lined the Columbia pike for the distance of a mile.”

Although Franklin is considered a Confederate victory, the soldiers who fought it knew that it was, in reality, a defeat. Frances McEwen saw General John Bell Hood at a Franklin home and said, “In Mrs. Sykes’ yard, General Hood sat talking with some of his staff officers. I didn’t look upon him as a hero, because nothing had been accomplished that could benefit us.” Yet, with no hope for reinforcements, the battle hardened veterans marched on despite all odds.

After Franklin, the Division was ordered to Murfreesboro, where many of the men were from. Several of them took “French leave,” and did not return. A second battle of Murfreesboro was lost because Bate’s division did not have enough men to fight. Additionally, the remaining soldiers were poorly clad. It was December and many were either barefoot or had their feet wrapped in rags.

What was left of the brigade was ordered to Nashville where they fought valiantly, but to no avail. It was here that Benton Smith suffered the wounds that nearly ended his life, ironically, after he had surrendered to the battle-crazed McMillen, who would later be relieved of his official position as postmaster in New Orleans because of the dishonorable attack. W. J. McMurray, in his book, History of the Twentieth Tennessee Regiment, wrote of the men who fought with Benton Smith: “In every important battle of the Army of Tennessee, . . . the Twentieth Tennessee was prominent, and be it said to the glory of the regiment, that when on the right of you, or the left of you, when the battle raged and thundered, it was comforting to know that the Twentieth was there. This regiment commenced with 1165, and ended with only 34 men. The great State of Tennessee and the Confederacy will ever look upon the deeds of such sons with the pride of a father, who recurs to the acts of his boy with the glad plaudit of ‘Well done.’

After the incident, Smith was taken to the Tennessee State Prison in Nashville, which was being used as a hospital. Following his miraculous recovery from the horrendous head wounds, he was shipped north to Fort Warren prison, in Boston harbor. After his release, life in the Reconstruction Era South was not easy and was made more difficult by Smith’s physical and emotional trauma.

A family friend, Vernon K. Stevenson, the president of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, offered him a position with the railroad in recognition of the fact that Smith had made his son a member of his staff in 1864. Smith worked first as a brakeman, then as freight conductor and later was promoted to the position of passenger conductor, working for the railroad for a period of ten years. No doubt, the injury Smith sustained prevented him from assuming the inventive and self-assured life he had led prior.

There were bright moments in the post war years for Benton Smith. Amazingly, in 1870, he ran for Congress as a candidate to represent Middle Tennessee, but was unsuccessful.

Smith returned to the Triune community where he lived with his widowed mother, Martha Smith. Shortly after her death, Benton began to succumb to frequent bouts of depression and mania brought on by the severity of the brain damage he sustained at the close of the War of Northern Aggression. In 1876, his sister, Mrs. Johnson Wood, had no choice but to commit Smith to the Central Hospital for the Insane after he painted himself up as an Indian, declared he was chief, and, with bow and arrow, rode naked up and down the Pike, whooping like a savage. When his cousin, a diminutive hunchback named Jason Page, tried to interfere, Smith fired an arrow into his thigh, nearly killing Page. Smith was deemed dangerous to himself and others and placed in the care of Dr. Callender at the insane asylum, where he remained, off and on, for the remainder of his life.

Benton Smith’s medical records will not be available until, 2023, a century after his death. However, a similar case occurred in 1848, when a railroad employee, Phineas Gage, survived a brain injury, due to an accidental explosion, which sent a 3 foot long tamping iron through the man’s skull. Like Smith, Gage recovered enough to resume work. Gage, however, was not given his former job as foreman. Those, who knew him, said that before the accident, he had been a most capable and efficient foreman, one with a well-balanced mind, and who was looked on as a shrewd smart business man. After the accident he became fitful, irreverent, and grossly profane, showing little respect for fellow employees. He became impatient and obstinate, yet impulsive and indecisive, unable to accomplish any goals he set for himself. The injury also caused him to have epileptic seizures. Perhaps Smith suffered similar maladies.

Smith was allowed trips outside the asylum and enjoyed the annual reunions of the Twentieth Tennessee Regiment of Confederate Veterans which were held at Centennial Park in Nashville. Each year, he journeyed to Mount Olivet to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers. One veteran, John Lealand Jordan, attended a Confederate reunion at the Concord Church in 1883. He recalled of Smith: “. . . a fine figure, tall, erect, sociable and friendly, and put his old regiment through a number of drill movements.” Confederate Veteran’s commemorative essay on Smith stated, “The survivors of the old 20th Regiment will miss the cheerful presence of their old commander when they next meet in annual reunion in Nashville, for these annual gatherings were to him most enjoyable, and he was always present to call the roll of his old company, which he could give from memory.”

Another Confederate Veteran account of Smith’s appearances at the reunions stated: “At a recent reunion of the 20th Tennessee Regiment at Nashville, Tennessee, in the beautiful Centennial Park where was held the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897, General Thomas Benton Smith, an early commander of the regiment, who has been in the Tennessee Insane Asylum nearly ever since the war, from a saber cut on the head after he surrendered in the battle of Nashville, was in command from a drill and short parade. The regiment was formed as a company, and the drill master, though now somewhat venerable, although he is said to have been the youngest brigadier general in the Confederacy, carried the men through the manual of Hardee’s tactics as if half a century were half a year. General Smith was self-poised, as full of the animation of the old days as could be imagined. When they stood at ‘Right dress! Eyes right!’ he said: ‘Throw them sticks down; you don’t need them!’ A picture of that scene and a repetition of all he said would be most pleasing. General Smith has times of deep depression, and is sad over his long imprisonment, but he is always happy at Confederate gatherings, and is still a magnificent specimen of Confederate manhood.”

Thomas Benton Smith passed away, on Monday 21 May 1923, at the asylum where he had spent most of his life, from a heart condition, after complaining of not feeling well before supper. He was eighty-six years old and had outlived all but two Confederate generals. When Tennessee Governor, Austin Peay, was informed of Smith’s death, he assigned John Trotwood Moore and General John P. Hickman to arrange for public services to be held in his honor. The body was placed in the senate chamber in the Tennessee Capitol building so that people would have an opportunity to pay a last tribute to the distinguished soldier. An honor guard of Confederate soldiers and a squad of the Tennessee National Guard were in attendance during the time the body lay in state. The Reverend R. Lin Cave conducted the memorial service in the House of Representatives. He was interred in the Confederate Circle in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Nashville.

The Confederate Veteran (Vol. 31) June, 1923, summed up Smith’s life. “It is a coincidence that General Smith, who suffered the most melancholy fate of all – a mind beclouded for nearly fifty years – should be the last to go. He began his military career as a second lieutenant and ended it a brigadier, but young enough to be called ‘The Boy General.’”

About Jeff Wolverton

Jeff Wolverton is a native of Indiana who graduated from Chattahoochee Technical College in Marietta, Georgia. Though he worked for 22 years as a software engineer, Jeff has always maintained a passion for the written word, and his work—on subjects ranging from Southern history to holistic medicine for dogs—has appeared in various publications. In addition, Jeff has written articles for his church bulletin and book reviews for Amazon.com. The historical fiction novel Love of Two Worlds is his first book. Jeff is now a resident of Temple Terrace, Florida, where he lives with his wife, Lorrie, and their beagle, Annie. When he's not writing, Jeff enjoys reading, studying history, and traveling. More from Jeff Wolverton

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