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The text that follows is reproduced from (the report of the) Twenty-Eighth Annual Reunion of the Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy, June 10th, 1897.
The grandparents of General G. W. Smith were born in Louisa County, Virginia, and moved more than a century ago to that part of Kentucky County now forming Scott County, in the State of Kentucky, in which county his parents were born. His grandfathers and father were prosperous farmers of more than average education, and each held, at various times, important public offices.
Gustavus W. Smith was born in Scott County, on January 1, 1822. His early boyhood was passed on a farm, and he obtained his education, until sixteen years old, from the schools of the county. He entered the Military Academy as a cadet July 1, 1838. When home on furlough, in 1840, he startled the family by stating very positively, that, from what he had seen, at the North, of the opposition to slavery, and from what he knew to be the feeling in its favor at the South, war, on that issue, between the two sections was inevitable within the next twenty years. In less than twenty-one years from that day the predicted war had begun and Fort Sumter had been captured. He was graduated July 1, 1842, and promoted Brevet Second Lieutenant, Corps of Engineers. He served as assistant on the construction of fortifications for the harbor of New London, Conn., until in 1844 he was ordered to the Military Academy as Acting Assistant Professor of Engineering, and held that position until September 24, 1846, having been promoted to Second Lieutenant January 1, 1845.
The Chief of the Corps of Engineers had tried for years to persuade Congress to add to our regular army at least one company of engineer soldiers. Though not successful, our government was induced to send — by permission of the French government — a Captain of our Corps of Engineers on professional duty p14to the French School of Application for the Artillery and Engineers, at Metz, France. Captain Alexander J. Swift, an able officer of the corps, son of General Joseph G. Swift, the first graduate of the Military Academy, was selected for this duty. Upon his return, he was sent to that institution as Instructor of Practical Military Engineering.
On March 15, 1846, an Act of Congress was passed authorizing the recruiting of a company of engineer soldiers to form part of the regular army.
Captain Swift was assigned to its command and, at his request, Second Lieutenant G. W. Smith reported as Senior Lieutenant, and Brevet Second Lieutenant George B. McClellan as Junior. Brevet Second Lieutenant John G. Foster joined the next year as third officer. The company was ordered to the army of General Taylor in Mexico, and not long after it reached the Rio Grande, in October, 1846, Captain Swift was taken ill and the command fell to Second Lieutenant Smith. Captain Swift rejoined the company at Vera Cruz, about March, 1847, more feeble than when he left it; persisted in being with it at the landing of General Scott's army, on the 9th of March, 1847, on the beach near that city, but the next day, after a few hours exposure to the sun, was struck down unconscious, put on board a vessel, and sent by the first steamer to New Orleans and died there soon after his arrival.
Second Lieutenant G. W. Smith was, therefore, practically the commander in the field of this company, from the time it reached the Rio Grande. During the campaign, from the landing at Vera Cruz to the capture of the City of Mexico, inclusive, the engineer company made for itself a gallant and distinguished record, as may be seen from the following extracts from the official papers of the War Department.
The Chief Engineer, General Joseph G. Totten, in the annual report, 1848, specifying the services of engineer officers in Mexico, states: "Lieutenant G. W. Smith was in command of the engineer company in the march from Matamoras to Tampico, p15and in the siege at Vera Cruz, and in all the battles in General Scott's march to the City of Mexico." In report of operations against Vera Cruz, he writes: "The obligation lies upon me also to speak of the highly meritorious deportment and valuable services of the Sappers and Miners (engineer company) attached to the expedition."
In official report of battle of Cerro Gordo, General Scott says: "Lieutenant G. W. Smith led the engineer company, as part of the storming force (under Colonel Harney), and is noticed with distinction." Harney reports: "Lieutenant G. W. Smith, of the engineers, with his company, rendered very efficient service in his own department, as well as in storming the fort." General D. E. Twiggs, in report of that battle, says: "Lieutenant G. W. Smith, of the engineers, with his company of Sappers and Miners, joined Colonel Harney's command in the assault on the enemy's main work, and killed two men with his own hand." As to the battles of Contreras and Churubusco, General Persifor Smith reports: "Lieutenant G. W. Smith, in command of the engineer company, and Lieutenant McClellan, his sub altern, distinguished themselves throughout the whole of the three actions (19th and 20th at Contreras, and at Churubusco). Nothing seemed to them too bold to be undertaken, or too difficult to be executed; and their services as engineers were as valuable as those they rendered in battle at the head of their gallant men. Lieutenant Foster being detached from his company during the action at Contreras, did not fall under my notice, but in the action on the 19th, and at Churubusco, he was equally conspicuous for gallantry." General Twiggs' report on Contreras, states: "To Lieutenant G. W. Smith, of the engineers, who commanded the company of Sappers and Miners, I am under obligations for his services on this and other occasions. Whenever his legitimate duties with the pick and spade were performed, he always solicited permission to join in the advance of the storming party with his muskets, in which position his gallantry and that of his officers and men, was conspicuously displayed at p16Contreras as well as Cerro Gordo."
General W. J. Worth, in report on the operations, at the City of Mexico, on the 13th and 14th, September, 1847, says: "Lieutenants I. I. Stevens, G. W. Smith and G. B. McClellan, Engineers, displayed the gallantry, skill and conduct which so eminently distinguished their corps."
Second Lieutenant G. W. Smith was made Brevet First Lieutenant April 18, 1847, for gallant and meritorious conduct in the battle of Cerro Gordo, Mexico, and Brevet Captain August 20, 1847, for gallant and meritorious conduct in the battle of Contreras, Mexico.
General Scott, in an official letter dated January 27, 1854, writes: "I have never known a very young officer so frequently and so highly distinguished as Captain G. W. Smith was in the campaign of Mexico." General Scott had requested for him a third brevet as Major, and adds: "I was afterwards surprised to learn Smith's name had been stricken off by the Secretary of War and President, on the ground that no Second Lieutenant could be allowed to hold three brevets at once, no matter what his merits or services."
After the Mexican war was over, Captain Smith, in 1848, obtained a leave of absence, at the end of which he was relieved from direct duty with the engineer company.
He was Principal Assistant Professor of Engineering at the Military Academy, from November 1, 1849, to December 18, 1854. He was, during that interval promoted, March 3, 1853, First Lieutenant, Corps of Engineers. He resigned his commission December 18, 1854.
General J. G. Totten, Chief Engineer, U. S. Army, writing under date December 26, 1854, to Captain Smith about his resignation, says: "I am parting, in the present case, with an officer whose services in the field have, by their marked gallantry and high professional character, added to the reputation of the corps and the army. These considerations strengthen my regret at the loss we are now sustaining."
p17 After leaving the service, in 1855, under the Secretary of the Treasury, Captain Smith was Superintendent of the extension of the U. S. Treasury Building, Washington, D. C., of repairs of Branch Mint, and construction of Marine Hospital, New Orleans, La. In 1856 was Chief Engineer of the Trenton Iron Company, N. J., agent of London Bankers for the examination of land grants for railroads in Iowa in 1857‑8, and made Street Commissioner of New York City in 1858. This officer is now called Commissioner of Public Works. In 1860, while Commissioner, he was a member of the board to "Revise the Programme of Instruction at the Military Academy."
As Chairman of the National Democratic Committee of the city and county of New York, Captain Smith had, in the Presidential campaign of 1860, worked most actively and earnestly against Mr. Lincoln, because he believed that his election on the platform, and principles adopted by his party, would lead to the secession of some of the southern states, and, consequently, to war. After the election he continued attending to the duties of Commissioner, and served out the term for which he had been elected. His administration of the office had been very able and honest, and had given great satisfaction. He held over, awaiting with anxiety the appointment of a successor. Owing to overwork, about two weeks before active hostilities actually began at Fort Sumter, Charleston, Captain Smith was struck down by paralysis and confined closely to his room for some months. When recovered sufficiently, he went to his friends in Kentucky. At a later day he learned it was the intention of the U. S. authorities at Washington to arrest and imprison him, and he proceeded to Richmond, Va., in September. About this time he resigned the office of Street Commissioner of New York City.
On September 19, 1861, he was appointed Major-General in the Confederate States Army; was ordered to Fairfax Court House, Va., and given command of the Second Corps of General Joseph E. Johnston's army, the First Corps being under General p18P. G. T. Beauregard. These officers believed the best war policy for the Confederacy was to increase that army at once by ten thousand or more of the available trained soldiers of the South, cross the Potomac and make the death struggle for their independence on Northern soil before the North was fully prepared to resist. At a consultation with President Davis, in which the plan was discussed, he settled the matter by stating he could not then give any reinforcement of the character desired. In a conference at Richmond, early in 1862, in regard to the occupation of the line of the Warwick for defense by Johnston's army, Smith argued strongly against the project running again counter to the views of President Davis who ordered the army to that line.
After General Johnston had abandoned the Yorktown line and his army had moved to the vicinity of Richmond, a part of General McClellan's army following, crossed the Chickahominy. When a good opportunity offered, it was the intention of the Confederates to strike this isolated force. Hence, on the 30th of May, 1862, General Johnston ordered General Longstreet to attack on the 31st, with the right wing of the Confederate army, this body in the vicinity of Seven Pines, hoping to crush it before reinforcements could be sent and reach it from the rest of McClellan's army on the north side of the Chickahominy. General Smith in command of the left, turned it over temporarily to General A. P. Hill, and joined General Johnston on the 31st, and was with him, without any specific command on the field, to render any service that might be needed. When late on that day the reinforcements sent by McClellan were pressing General Whiting's command, and the latter was in danger of being forced back and expose the left flank and rear of General Longstreet to attack, Smith ordered a brigade and a regiment of another, in reserve, to the extreme front line in support of Whiting, and went with them into close action. The three brigade commanders on this part of the line were soon disabled, and he remained in command until night, when firing ceased. He learned soon after p19that General Johnston had been wounded severely and taken from the field. This event put General Smith in command of the Army of Northern Virginia. That night, as soon as the state of affairs on the right could be ascertained, it was decided to resume the fight the next morning, at as early an hour as possible, and orders to that effect were given General Longstreet. While this battle on June 1st was progressing, about two o'clock in the afternoon, by order of President Davis, General Robert E. Lee relieved General G. W. Smith of the command of the army. The next day he had an attack of paralysis.
In August, when able to report for duty, he was for a time put in command of three divisions of the army; afterwards was given charge of the defenses of Richmond and of North Carolina, including Wilmington; then in addition to these duties, was appointed Secretary of War ad interim. When relieved from the duties of the War Department, he took the field in North Carolina against the U. S. forces, acting there in December, 1862, and in January, 1863. He was then ordered back to Richmond by the Secretary of War. Soon after this, on account of the want of harmony between himself and President Davis, he felt that the best interests of the Confederacy made it his duty to yield his position to some one who had the full confidence of that high official. Hence he sent in his resignation, which was accepted February 17, 1863.
General Smith immediately joined General Beauregard at Charleston, S. C., as a volunteer in the defense of that city, and remained with him until after the attack of the iron clad fleet on Fort Sumter had been repulsed.
Going thence to Georgia, he became President of the Etowah Manufacturing and Mining Company; was made Aide-de‑Camp to the Governor of Georgia, and as such, directed the construction of fortifications at important points in the state; was elected by the Georgia militia — a body some three thousand strong, organized from the civil and military officers of the state — Major-General of that command. This militia afterward increased p20in numbers, did good service in the trenches and battles about Atlanta, at Griffin, Forsyth, East Macon, Augusta, Macon and Savannah. At Honey Hill, S. C., near Grahamville station on the Charleston and Savannah railroad, a force of Georgia militia, with some two hundred Confederate troops, under the command of General Smith, the only Confederate general officer present, after a sharp fight of several hours, repulsed an expedition of U. S. troops, sent in November, 1864, to seize the railroad. That night several thousand Confederate troops arrived to protect this road. This affair of the Georgia militia at Honey Hill secured to the Confederates full communication with Savannah. During the defense of this city against General Sherman's army, the Georgia militia occupied a portion of the lines opposed to two corps of that army.
General Hardee, commanding the Confederates, had intended to rely solely upon steamboats to withdraw his command from Savannah, but General Smith, after urgent appeals, finally obtained orders which enabled him to build a bridge across the Savannah river, by which the Confederate forces retired, with the militia as rear guard. Had it not been for the bridge Hardee's command would have probably been captured. In April, 1865, at the end of the war, General Smith, with part of his militia, surrendered at Macon, Ga.
In 1866 he became General Manager of the South Western Iron Company, Chattanooga, Tenn; was made Insurance Commissioner of Kentucky in 1870, and held that position until 1876. The first National Convention of the Insurance Commissioners, twenty-eight states being represented, was held at New York City in 1871, then, and annually thereafter, General Smith from his knowledge of the subject of life insurance, from his sound judgment and strong character, at these re-unions, had great influence. A New York journal, referring to him, states: "For many years he was a practical and forcible writer upon the subject of life insurance, contributing to various journals and issuing several books. * * * His two works — Notes on Life p21Insurance, and Legal Net Values — have become standard and will always hold a high place in insurance literature."
In 1876 he returned to the City of New York and made it his home. He held no public position thereafter, and was for several years engaged in private business, but in 1883 his health had failed so far, from a complication of incurable diseases, as to unfit him for active physical exertion.
After retiring from business pursuits, he wrote several works which were published. Among others, a volume entitled: "Confederate War Papers;" a volume on "The Battle of Seven Pines," and one "Generals J. E. Johnston and Beauregard, at the Battle of Manassas, July 2, 1861." Various articles from his pen, relating to battles and incidents in the Secession War, were published in the Century Magazine and in the Century War Book. Shortly before his death, a paper by him, entitled: "Company 'A,' Corps of Engineers, U. S. A., 1846‑48, in the Mexican War," was published by the Engineer Battalion Press.
In the meantime he carefully prepared for the press, and caused to be put in type-written copy several "papers" which have not yet been published. Among these are: "Memoranda — Longstreet — Gettysburg;" "Memoranda — Longstreet — Chickamauga;" "A Great Captain at the Battle of Seven Pines;" "McClellan, Commander of the Army of the Potomac;" "Notes on the Battle of Honey Hill," and "Retrospective Glances at the Causes of the Secession War."
While on duty at West Point, General Smith married, October 3, 1844, Miss Lucretia Bassett, daughter of Captain Abner Bassett, of New London, Conn., who was formerly of the house of Bassett & Claghorn, in Savannah, Ga. Mrs. Smith was with her husband more or less during the war, sharing in its privations and dangers. They had no children.
More than a generation ago General Smith, while engaged actively in politics as well as in business, was well acquainted with many of the ablest and most distinguished men in our country then in civil, political and military life. Judges, Senators, Governors p22and Representatives, most of whom are now dead, knew him, and his ability and strong character won their respect and friendship.
At an earlier date, it was my lot to be associated with General Smith for several years on duty, and thus to become much attached to him. He was a very able man, self-reliant, clear headed, of sound judgment, saw quickly the strong points of a subject and could express his views thereon very forcibly and very positively; there was no mistaking his meaning. He was a strong disciplinarian, knew his own rights and maintained them fearlessly at all times with due regard to the rights of others. He soon saw what was in a man and knew how to get it out of him. His decision, firmness, justice and tact enabled him always to retain the confidence of those under him. He was a hater of shams and shammers
Wherever he served he left his impress on the work done. His standard was high, his integrity unquestioned. He was prompt, full of energy and resources, and the duties of the various responsible offices held by him were performed honestly and efficiently.
Personally, he was a generous, warm hearted genial friend, and the ties by which he held his intimates was very strong. His good deeds, not few in number, were done quietly.
Within a few years past, after a separation of over thirty years, we met again in New York City. He was the same friend as in the olden time. His mind was still as clear and active as ever, but the physical weakness due to the inroads made by his many chronic diseases was marked. Each year this debility increased, in spite of all medical skill until, after an illness of eight months on June 24, 1896, from heart disease, this strong man among strong men fell quietly asleep in New York City. On the 27th of the month, what remained of Gustavus Woodson Smith, was placed near the grave of his wife in the cemetery at New London, Conn.
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