Remembering Joseph L. Kirby Smith (1836-1862), first colonel of the 43rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, 1861-62. From “Our Kirby Smith” – a Paper Read before the Ohio Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, March 2, 1887 by Companion John W. Fuller:
Col. Smith’s service in the field covered merely eight brief months and he was but twenty-six years old when he fell in battle. So young, that only a few could realize that a born soldier had been lost; so soon, that only his kindred and a few who loved him would keep his memory green.
West Point, class of 1857
Our Kirby was born in Syracuse, N.Y., on the 25th day of July, 1836. He entered the Academy at West Point in 1853. He had less than the usual trouble in conforming to the discipline of the school, as he had long been taught both the propriety and the necessity of obedience. That other attribute, without which we should have no true soldier, viz., loyalty, was born in him. He graduated sixth in his class in 1857.
Offered command in 1861
When command of the 43rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry was offered to him by Ohio Governor Dennison, he promptly and gladly accepted. On reaching Camp Chase, near Columbus, he found a mere squad of men. He removed headquarters to Mount Vernon[Camp Andrews]. Speedily the ranks were filled, and so thoroughly were the men drilled, that the 43rd was soon known as one of the finest regiments Ohio sent into the field—and this is saying a good deal.
New Madrid, Missouri, Feb. 1862
It was about the last of February, 1862, when I first met Colonel Smith. He, with his regiment, joined the Army of the Mississippi at Commerce, Missouri, where General Pope was organizing his forces preparatory to the movement upon New Madrid. Smith’s regiment and mine both belonged to the First Division of that army, commanded then by General Schuyler Hamilton.
I did not see Smith during the first day’s operations at New Madrid, when the enemy’s gunboats made so much noise, as his regiment was held in reserve; but General Pope soon after gave him an order to make a reconnaissance with his regiment, to learn more of the enemy’s strength and position. He discharged this duty very satisfactorily to General Pope, and he did it in such a fearless manner as to attract the enemy’s attention; for when we captured the Rebels, some weeks thereafter, some of them inquired particularly after the officer who that day rode the white horse, and were loud in their commendations of his gallantry.
The Ohio regiments that originally formed the First Division became the First Brigade of the First Division by April 1862. In July, Col. Fuller became the brigade commander.
On Oct. 2, 1862, Colonel Smith was ordered with his regiment and a section of artillery to Kossuth; but during the night, Gen. Rosecrans, now satisfied that Corinth was Confederate Gen. Van Dorn’s objective, ordered everything to concentrate there.
Oct. 3, 1862
[On the night of Oct. 3], Colonel Smith’s regiment was formed on the left of Battery Robinet, facing to the west; the other regiments of the Brigade (27th, 39th and 63rd Ohio) were to the right of the Battery facing to the north, [to await the next day’s battle.] During the night, I called Colonel Smith to accompany me while making the rounds, to suggest anything which might have been overlooked, to guard against any surprise. The chat we had together that night was the last I enjoyed with him. He was cheery as ever, and joked in low tones with as much unconcern as though the Rebels were miles away. “Colonel,” he said, “where did you get forage for your horses to-night? I don’t know whether mine smells the battle afar off, but he keeps singing out, ‘Hay! Hay!’ and I think he made a remark about oats.”
Oct. 4, 1862
[Amid the battle], an enemy column which advanced along the west side of the road got close to Battery Robinet, and the men of the 43rd, sheltering themselves behind stumps and logs, were firing sharply.
“Those fellows are firing at you, Colonel,” said one of the 43rd’s men.
“Well, give it to them,” answered the Colonel, and immediately thereafter fell from his horse.
While I was bringing up the 11thMissouri, glancing over my left shoulder, I saw some men picking up a wounded officers whose face was stained with blood. I did not then know it was Col. Smith…That regiment seemed dazed, and liable to confusion; but Lt. Col. Wager Swayne immediately galloped up just in time to help.
In Gen. Stanley’s official battle report, he stated, “I have not words to describe the qualities of this model soldier…The best testimony I can give to his memory is the spectacle I witnessed myself, in the very moment of battle, of stern, brave men weeping like children, as the word passed, ‘Kirby Smith is killed!’”
It was nearly an hour after he was shot when Smith became conscious, and word came to us from the hospital that his wound was not mortal. I jumped upon a fallen tree in rear of the Forty-third and sang out to them that Col. Smith was not killed, but would recover. This was repeated by Swayne and the cheer which followed, taken up by the men of other regiments also, would have gladdened Kirby’s heart.
After the battle
That evening I went with Gen. Stanley to the hospital. It will be readily understood that the nature of Kirby’s wound prevented speech; but as soon as he saw us he indicated a desire to write. I took out a memorandum book and pencil, when he immediately wrote: “How did my regiment behave?” Gen. Stanley commenced to write a reply, when a quizzical look of the Colonel’s reminded us he could hear well enough, and Stanley answered, “Most gallantly.” This seemed to please Smith greatly and he at once acknowledged it with one of his graceful salutes.
The 43rd OVI suffered 25% casualties on Oct. 4, 1862 at Corinth.
I sat down at Kirby’s side. Would he like to have me write to his mother? A nod said “yes.” Was there any one else he wished me to write? He made no sign in response, but seemed hesitating about something he felt loth to drop, and kept looking at me with a steady gaze.
“Shall I write to Miss –?” naming the lady to whom he was betrothed. A pleasant smile and nod together was his answer, and I said I would do the best I could.
During the eight days we were absent, frequent letters advised us that Col. Smith was better, walking about the room a little, making people laugh at the quaint things he wrote, and the comical gestures he made; in short, seemed like himself again.
When the Brigade returned, I rode to the house where the Colonel was lying, and saw, almost at a glance, that all hope of his recovery must be fast fading out. I was greatly surprised to find him so feeble, so cold, so drowsy. I could hardly suppress my disappointment. Poor Kirby, however, did not observe much. He put out his hand before I could reach his cot, and grasping mine, made a feeble effort to shake it. In response to my question, “How are you, my dear fellow?” he took a pencil and in my memorandum book slowly scrawled two words, “Utter exhaustion.”
Just after supper that evening, Col. Swayne came to my tent and said Col. Smith was worse. We rode over to see if, in any way, we could contribute to his comfort. We were too late. As we entered we noticed that the room had been freshly swept, and we saw a white sheet covering something on the cot, now moved back against the wall, which told us that he was gone.
Col. Joseph L. Kirby Smith died of his wounds on Oct. 12, 1862.