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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,498

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This is the grave of the traitor Edmund Kirby Smith.

Born in 1824 in St. Augustine, Florida, Smith grew up elite. His father was one of the first Superior Court judges in Florida after the Spanish sold it to the U.S., probably realizing that nothing good would ever come from there, as has proven out. Like any good Southern family, Smith’s parents prioritized slavery and fighting more than anything else. Years later, his mother, still alive and living in Jacksonville during the Civil War, became a Confederate spy after the Union took the city, stealing mail and delivering it to the Confederates. Nice family.

So whereas many top sons of northern families went into business, as this series as explored repeatedly, in the South those sons went to military schools. Smith was sent to a military school in Virginia and then was on to West Point. He graduated from there in 1845, became a second lieutenant the next year, and then went to Mexico to support the theft of over half that nation as part of the Polk administration’s plan to expand slavery.

In Mexico, Smith served under Zachary Taylor at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. He later was under Winfield Scott at Cerro Gordo, Contreras, and Churubusco. His brother Ephraim fought with him, but was shot and killed. One less Confederate fifteen years later at least. After the war, Smith was promoted to captain and mostly assigned to Texas, where the Comanches still functionally ruled in much of the state. Smith’s father had raped his slave and had a son by her. That son was Smith’s personal slave through all these years, despite them being half-brothers. You know, just in case you needed a reminder of the horrors of slavery. Smith was shot by the Comanche in 1859, but survived that.

Then when the South committed treason in defense of slavery, Smith was 100% all in. He joined the Confederate army as a major in March 1861. He was in the Shenandoah Valley for awhile under Joseph Johnston and was promoted to brigadier general in June. Let’s talk more about his slave. The Confederacy incentivized officers to keep slaves with them as they fought by giving them greater pay. Theoretically, this was supposed to help take care of the slave, but you know. In fact, even the U.S. military did that for “servants.” So Kirby Smith’s half-brother/servant was actually a kid with him all the way back in Mexico and then was with him for the Civil War too. Crazy stuff.

Unfortunately, Smith proved to be a very good officer. He was at First Manassas and was seriously wounded. Unfortunately, he didn’t die. He was back by 1862, when he played a big role in the Heartland Offensive by the Confederates to take Kentucky. That failed pretty strongly, but no one thought less of Smith for it. So in early 1863, Smith was named the commander of the treason armies in the Trans-Mississippi Department and for the rest of the war, he would be the key southern general in these western states. His first major actions here was to try and stop Grant’s siege at Vicksburg. That very much did not work. After Grant took that city in July 1863 and the Union took complete control of the Mississippi River, Smith was pretty much on his own.

The Union never did really prioritize military actions in that part of the Confederacy. The goal was to win the war after all and everyone knew that did not depend on actions in east Texas or Arkansas. Once the Mississippi was taken and all that food and cotton couldn’t get to the heartland of the Confederacy, the Union could focus on taking Richmond and then later, when that proved fleeting, to raise hell through Georgia and South Carolina under Sherman to try and force the Confederates into submission.

What that meant is that for a couple of years there, Smith was effectively the ruler of the western half of the Confederacy. He was the top Confederate official out there. People later referred to that areas as Kirby Smithdom, only somewhat tongue in cheek. There was military action out there occasionally, as the Union did not totally ignore it. In the spring of 1864, the Union tried to force Smith into submission during the Red River Campaign. Confederates were able to use Shreveport as a way to get material to the Gulf thanks to the rivers that connect to it. So while Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan had worked to perfection, pretty much, there were some gaps in the system and that was the intent here. Nathaniel Banks commanded Union troops. However, despite in-fighting among Smith and his fellow officers, the Confederates managed to hold Shreveport.

Smith was the ultimate Confederate die-hard. He really did not want to surrender. So his were the last forces in the field for the traitors. He did not surrender his forces until June 2, 1865, when they were hopelessly surrounded in Galveston, Texas. Smith then got out of the country entirely. Expecting to be tried and executed for treason–which he absolutely should have been–he fled to Mexico and then ended up in Cuba.

However, the North did not have the stomach for actually punishing treason in defense of slavery, which opened the flood gates of white supremacist terrorism and another century before the government could get up the will to do anything to support the Black freedom struggle. So his wife, who stayed in the country, worked out the terms of his return.

After Smith returned to the U.S., he just became a standard Gilded Age business guy, part of the attempts of the old plantation elite to adjust to the new America. He both went into business and science. He worked for the railroads and the telegraph companies. He also taught math at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, that institution of the Old South that still does everything possible to maintain those traditions today. He also became a fairly important botanist and had some pretty significant plant collections that he later donated to the University of Florida. He lived in Sewanee and his sons were football players at what was then a dominant team.

Smith died in 1893 of pneumonia. He was 68 years old.

For those of you who celebrate both Christmas and Treason in Defense of Slavery, here’s a nice Edmund Kirby Smith tree ornament for you. What a country. And of course in 1922, Florida chose Kirby Smith to represent it in the National Statuary Hall of Fame.

Edmund Kirby Smith is buried in University of the South Cemetery, Sewanee, Tennessee.

If you would like this series to visit other traitors in defense of slavery, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. P.G.T. Beauregard is in New Orleans and James Longstreet is in Gainesville, Georgia. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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