Gustavus Woodson Smith: Army Commander for a day

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series Confederate Generals Officers

General Gustavus Woodson SmithAmong the many generals in either army who had a strange and varied career Confederate General Gustavus Woodson Smith was among a unique group who went from the high of high command to the low of being replaced after one day. His career was all downhill after that.

Smith’s Antebellum Career

Gustavus Woodson Smith (also known as G.W. Smith) was born in Georgetown, Kentucky in 1821. A distant cousin of John Bell Hood, he preceded him at West Point, graduating in 1842 8th in a class of 56. Because of his academic excellence, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the elite Corps of Engineers joining such luminaries as Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan,n 1846 graduate.

Smith served in the Mexican War and was brevetted two or three times for gallantry (depending on your source). After the war he returned to West Point as a professor. He resigned his commission in 1854 and entered civilian life as a civil engineer. THe start of the war found him working as a street commissioner for New York City.

Smith’s Civil War Service

He was delayed in coming South until September 1861 by a stroke that caused temporary paralysis. It was a harbinger of things to come. Arriving in Richmond, he was immediately commission as a major general by Jefferson Davis. Smith was assigned as a division commander in Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the Potomac which had merged with the Army of the Shenandoah.

At the time the Confederate armies were organized with the division rather than the corps being the highest formation. Johnston would later reorganize the army with two corps. the First Corps was under Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard and Smith was given command of the Second Corps. On March 14, 1862 the Confederate Army of the Potomac was renamed the Army of Northern Virginia.

At the start of the Peninsula Campaign Smith was assigned to command the Reserve force of the army which consisted of five infantry brigades with a total of 23 regiments, a considerable number of troops. The Texas Brigade was commanded by his cousin Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood.

At the Battle of Eltham’s Landing on May 7, 1862 G.W. Smith and his 11,000-man Reserve force was assigned to protect the road to Barhamsville used by the Confederate supply trains. Smith assigned the division of Brig. Gen. William H. C. Whiting and Hampton’s Legion, under Col. Wade Hampton, to the task. Hood led the advance with Hampton on his right. The fighting was inconclusive but the Union Army missed an opportunity to cut off the Union retreat from Williamsburg.

The Battle of Seven Pines

The two armies fought a series of skirmishes as both armies maneuvered for the advantage. The Union force sought to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond while the Confederates fought on the defensive. At the Battle of Seven Pines (also known as Fair Oaks) parts of both armies engaged in furious combat on May 31st.

Johnston realized that he would have to go over to the offensive since he was running out of room and had been backed up to the outskirts of the city. His plan was to attack with the bulk of his army against two corps of the Union Army.

Johnston’s plan was too complex and was mismanaged from the start. He gave Longstreet, who was in command of the offensive, verbal orders that were barely understandable. He neglected to inform the generals under Longstreet’s command (who outranked him) that he was in command. Longstreet directed his forces on the wrong roads, which not only delayed the advance, but limited the attack to a narrow front with only a fraction of its total force. Meanwhile, a thunderstorm the previous night made the roads a sea of mud.

In the dusk of May 31st General Johnston had ridden forward to inspect his front lines when he was struck by shrapnel in the chest. He fell off of his horse and broke his shoulder and two ribs and was evacuated to Richmond. Smith as his second-in-command assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia.

A concerned President Jefferson Davis, who considered himself the general-in-chief, rode out to talk to Smith about his plans for the rest of the campaign. He found a shaken man who was partially paralyzed and unable to “endure the mental excitement.”  An aide of Davis’ said that Smith’s condition was not a fear of safety but a fear of failure. It appears that the strain of commanding large bodies of troops was too much for him.

Davis then made the most important decision of the war on the Confederate’s side by appointing his military adviser, Robert E. Lee, as the new commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee, whose previous service in western Virginia and with the coastal defense force had been lackluster, used  the month-long pause in McClellan’s advance to fortify the defenses of Richmond and extend them south to the James River at Chaffin’s Bluff, a 30-mile defensive line. FRom June 25th to July 1st, the two armies clashed in the Seven Days Battles.

The Rest of the Story

Meanwhile, Smith was evacuated to Richmond where he eventually was given command of the defenses, a position that was well suited to his civil engineering skills. This post was expanded to become the Department of North Carolina & Southern Virginia in September. In addition, he acted as interim Confederate States Secretary of War from November 17 through November 21, 1862.

In February 1863, Smith resigned his commission and and became a volunteer aide to General P.G.T. Beauregard for the rest of that year. Smith was also the superintendent of the Etowah Iron Works in 1863 until June 1, 1864, when he was commissioned a major general in the Georgia state militia and commanded its first division until the end of the war.

After his parole Smith moved to Tennessee to become an iron manufacturer from 1866 to 1870. He moved back to his native Kentucky to become Insurance Commissioner until 1876, and then moved to New York City and began writing. Smith wrote a number of books about the Confederate side of the war and one about the insurance industry. Smith died in New York City in 1896 and is buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery in New London, Connecticut.


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