Edmund Kirby Smith

A review of General Edmund Kirby Smith C.S.A. (LSU Press, 1992 (1954) by Joseph H. Parks

This biography is a must read for any student of the War for Southern Independence in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. It is an informative broad overview of Smith’s life and career, while also humanizes the man who was often subject to heavy criticism during and, especially, after the War, even to this day.

Edmund Kirby Smith was the most famous commander of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, which was dubbed “Kirby Smithdom” after it was practically cut off from the east following the fall of Vicksburg, MS and Port Hudson, LA in July 1863 and the total loss of control of the Mississippi River.

Smith was assigned to his command on February 9, 1863 and endorsed the surrender of his department on June 2, 1865. The surrender arrangements were made on May 26, 1865, by subordinates, pending his approval.

This biography was first published in 1954. Therefore it is refreshingly free of the modern day blight of presentism as it relates to social issues, and of cancerous critical race theory that seemingly worms its way into almost every historical work written today. The purpose of this biography is to present an informative story of a man’s life, beginning to end, without heaping judgement upon a 19th century person for not having the same views and sentimentalities as people in the 21st century. Historians used to understand that not so long ago.

The first several chapters rely heavily upon personal family correspondence, which was preserved in a large collection by some of Smith’s children.

As Smith didn’t take command of the Trans-Mississippi Department until early 1863, the first half of the book is about his boyhood in Saint Augustine, Florida, schooling in Virginia and at West Point, his military career before the War (in which he actively served in the Mexican War, where his older brother was killed in action), and his Confederate service in Virginia, east Tennessee, and Kentucky. The last two chapters are about his post-war life.

However, the meat of the biography, a full eight chapters, deals with Smith’s command of the vast Trans-Mississippi Department, an assignment he neither sought nor desired, but applied himself to with a deep devotion to duty toward his new nation.

Smith was faced with a Goliath-sized challenge in defending a vast territory west of the Mississippi River while perpetually short on  men, supplies, and ordnance. After the Union gained full control of the Mississippi River, effectively cutting the Confederacy in two, the Trans-Mississippi Department was on its own to provide for itself in pretty much everything.

Logistical problems aside, Smith found himself performing a constant balancing act as part military commander, part civil administrator, part diplomat, and part father figure, dealing with multiple district commanders jealous of their own territories, strong willed governors, an often dissatisfied civilian populace, contractors, foreign agents, and demanding subordinates with strong personalities.

The Trans-Mississippi Department, while having some talented general officers, has been characterized as a dumping ground for underperforming generals from the Eastern and Western Theaters. Although this might be somewhat of an exaggeration in my opinion, it was true to a degree, and Smith’s job wasn’t made any easier because of it. Before Smith and General Richard Taylor fell out, he considered Taylor as the only district commander he had full confidence in.

Smith was also under constant pressure by Richmond to help relieve forces east of the Mississippi River by either directly sending troops he was already short on as it was, or by launching offensive actions that he didn’t always have the numbers to successfully execute. After the Union took full control of the Mississippi River, crossing troops in any large number was practically impossible, but Richmond continued to request divisions from the Trans-Mississippi as late as 1865.

One of my pointed reasons for buying this book in the first place was to specifically read of Smith’s handling of the 1864 Red River Campaign, one of my special personal interests.

The book offers a fair argument for Smith sending most of the infantry to Arkansas to face the advancing Frederick Steele instead of leaving it in Louisiana to destroy Nathaniel Banks’ retreating army, following the decisive Confederate victory at Mansfield, LA and the tactical draw at Pleasant Hill, LA. As it was, Maj. General Richard Taylor could mostly just harass Banks – and Admiral David Porter’s gunboats – with cavalry and light artillery. With more infantry he might have completely destroyed Banks, and Steele also ended up getting away with his own army intact anyhow. The book presents Smith’s reasoning for his decision, while criticizing the mistakes that were made, which can be appreciated.

As to the bad blood between Smith and Taylor following the Red River Campaign, Parks’ book does not disappoint in jumping right in on Smith’s side, as expected, which is fascinating because some other works regarding that issue seem to swing toward Taylor. Parks acknowledges that Smith made some errors, but he is more critical of Taylor. In fact, he is rather severe on him.

Nobody is ever strictly objective. Authors are human and therefore have personal opinions that will always bleed through in writing. So while it may be expected that Parks’ biography on Smith would lean toward his side of the matter, even the books that assume the cloak of total objectivity regarding the Smith-Taylor fued aren’t 100 percent pure and free of personal bias. I don’t think Parks pretends not to be biased, even if other historians sometimes do.

I admire Richard Taylor as much as any Southerner, but I was glad to see Parks advocate for Kirby Smith, which is just what I had hoped for. I would also hope that a biography on Richard Taylor would present an equally persuasive case for his side of the matter.

Parks also vigorously defends Smith’s integrity and capability in the closing days of the war, parrying the post-war attacks by his critics and pushing the known evidence of Smith’s intentions and conduct, not only as he wrestled with the difficult decision of whether to surrender or to continue the fight in the Trans-Mississippi, but also of his general performance throughout his tenure as commander of the Department.

Incidentally, Smith never doubted the ultimate success of the Confederate cause until late 1864 and the pending fall of Atlanta. His private views on the replacement of Joseph E. Johnston with John Bell Hood, both of whom he personally knew very well, and had served with, are interesting. Even still, Smith didn’t lose complete faith in ultimate victory, even if it must be by foreign intervention, until late May 1865 when a majority of his forces disbanded on their own and went home.

The conclusion of the author is that Smith wasn’t perfect, that he made mistakes, but that he was largely undeserving of much of the criticism he received. He also presents a picture of a Christian gentleman, a dutiful son, and a loving and devoted husband and father.

Whether you’re interested in the often ignored Trans-Mississippi Theater as a whole, Kirby Smith in particular, the Kirby Smith-Richard Taylor animosity (and what lead up to it) specifically, or just a good read about a Southern historical figure, I recommend this book.

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