Esteemed General Cut Down During Civil War Fighting

Esteemed General Cut Down During Civil War Fighting

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Among a galaxy of famous Civil War generals, one has been all but forgotten. His story has much to teach us: about leadership, about character and about soldiering. As we mine the history of America’s Army for insights into command, in peace and war, we can learn much from the story of Maj. Gen. C.F. Smith.

Charles Ferguson Smith was born in 1807 in Philadelphia, the son of an Army surgeon. Graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1825, at age 18, he was commissioned in the artillery.

In a time when many graduates left the service quickly for more lucrative employment as engineers, professors or businessmen, Smith remained in uniform. Promotions came slowly then, and he endured many years of obscure duty in administrative posts, including 13 years at the academy. There he met, taught and mentored a constellation of future generals who, decades later, would lead U.S. armies in the greatest conflict in American history.

Introduction to Combat

Smith first came to prominence as a captain in the Mexican-American War, where he served with distinction in the battles of Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Monterey, Contreras and Churubusco. In an Army that included Robert Lee, Ulysses Grant, Thomas Jackson, George Thomas and many other superb officers, few surpassed Smith as a combat leader. Earning brevet promotions to major, lieutenant colonel and colonel, Smith emerged from the war with an Armywide reputation for professionalism and excellence.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Smith was an officer of proven competence and reputation, with more than 35 years of experience and a resume few could match. Commissioned as a Regular Army colonel and brigadier general of volunteers at the age of 53, Smith exuded drive and vigor, and many expected him to rise quickly to the top. Somehow, in the press of wartime promotions that saw dozens of generals commissioned from civilian life, Smith found himself serving under Grant, who had been a cadet when Smith was commandant at West Point many years before.

Conscious of Smith’s vast seniority and experience, Grant could be forgiven for feeling uneasy. As he wrote at the time, “It does not seem quite right for me to give General Smith orders, for when I was a cadet at West Point, he was its commandant, and we all looked upon him as one of the ablest officers of his age in the service.”

Service First

In an age when generals were renowned for their sensitivity about seniority and dates of rank, Smith showed himself to be a model of tact and professionalism. When the good of the service in time of war depended on willing cooperation and selfless service, he showed his quality. “General, I appreciate your delicacy,” he wrote to Grant. “I am now a subordinate and I know a soldier’s duty. I hope you will feel no awkwardness about our new relations.”

As a division commander serving under Grant, Smith performed brilliantly at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, personally leading his raw troops to victory under heavy fire. Envious of Grant’s success at Donelson and its sister fort, Fort Henry, his commander, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, suspended Grant from command and replaced him with Smith.

Other commanders might well have used the opportunity to sideline a rival, but Smith’s strict conception of duty and strong loyalty precluded it. Refusing to campaign for promotion, he cheerfully reverted to willing subordinate when President Abraham Lincoln intervened to restore Grant. In a personal note, Smith wrote “how glad I was to learn … that you were to resume your old command, from which you were so unceremoniously and, as I think, unjustly stricken down.”

In one of the great tragedies of that war, Smith was injured just days later. He would die from the resulting infection. His death was mourned by the Army and across the country. None felt it more keenly than Grant. Writing to Smith’s widow, Grant admitted, “Where an entire nation consoles with you in your bereavement no one can do so with more heartfelt grief than myself.”

Paying Tribute

In his memoirs, many years later, Grant eulogized Smith: “I would have served as faithfully under General Smith as he had done under me. … His death was a severe loss to our western army. His personal courage was unquestioned, his judgment and professional acquirements were unsurpassed, and he had the confidence of those he commanded as well as of those over him.”

Before he died, Smith left a legacy to inspire many generations of leaders. Approached in 1861 by a subordinate seeking counsel, he said, “Battle is the ultimate to which the whole life’s labor of an officer should be directed. He may live to the age of retirement without seeing a battle; still, he must always be getting ready for it as if he knew exactly the hour of the day it is to break upon him. And then, whether it come late or early, he must be willing to fight. He must fight!”

Today, we live in an era of persistent conflict and great-power competition. High-intensity conflict has returned, and the Army must be ready to fulfill its mission to fight and win our country’s wars on land. Much has changed since Smith wore a general’s stars and campaigned to save the Union.

Still, much remains the same. Today’s leaders must and will be servant leaders—leaders of character, selfless and committed to their soldiers, the nation and victory. Let’s remember C.F. Smith for that.

Col. R.D. Hooker Jr., U.S. Army retired, is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C. A career infantry officer, he commanded a parachute infantry battalion in Kosovo and the Sinai, and a parachute brigade in Baghdad. A former dean of the NATO Defense College, Rome, he also served as aide-de-camp to the secretary of the Army. His latest book is The Good Captain: A Personal Memoir of America at War.