Thursday, December 31, 2009

Colonel William Smyth


William Smyth was born in the year 1824. England, Scotland and Ireland are all represented among the Iowa colonels. Colonel William Smyth is the Irish representative.

His history, so far as I know it, is briefly as follows: He was born in Ireland, and emigrated to this country about the year 1838. A year or two later, he settled in Linn county, Iowa, where he has made his home ever since. He is one of the oldest residents of that county. He came to the State ignorant and poor; but educated himself, and is now wealthy and one of the ablest lawyers in Iowa. He was at an early day district judge of what is now the Eighth Judicial District. He was also one of our Code Commissioners. He is reported as being the only able and responsible man in his part of the State who has no enemies.

William Smyth entered the service as colonel of the 31st Iowa Infantry, one of the twenty-two infantry regiments organized in the State in the summer and fall of 1862. His commission, like those of eleven other Iowa colonels, bears date of the 10th of August, 1862. At the time of entering the service, he had, I am told, no military knowledge or training: he was made a colonel on account of his worth.

The services of the 31st Iowa, up to the arrival of Sherman at Savannah, can be learned in the histories of the 4th, 9th, 25th, 26th and 30th Iowa regiments. It joined these regiments at Helena, late in the fall of 1862, and has served with them ever since. The expedition to Chickasaw Bayou; that up the Arkansas River to Arkansas Post, and also that to near the Yazoo, known as the "Deer Creek raid;" the march to the rear of Vicksburg, and the protracted and exhausting siege of the city; the return march of Sherman to Jackson, Mississippi, in pursuit of Johnson; the movement of Sherman's Corps from the Big Black up the river to Memphis, in the fall of 1864, and thence to Corinth, and the march from Corinth to Chattanooga; the brilliant campaign of Sherman from Dalton to Atlanta; the pursuit of Hood to North Eastern Alabama, at the time he began his disastrous raid north; and, finally, the grand marches from Atlanta to Savannah, and from Savannah to Raleigh, are all embraced in the record of the 31st Iowa regiment.

There is little in the march from Atlanta of special interest; for, previous to the time it was begun, the rebel forces had become so scattered as to make resistance, on their part, feeble and ineffectual. With the exception of the cavalry, the Federal troops marched with little molestation, and with an abundance of supplies. It was rather an agreeable campaign than otherwise. On the other hand, the march from Savannah to Goldsboro was one of great hardship. The advance was made in the face of a foe too feeble, it is true, to offer much serious resistance, and yet strong enough to occasion much anxiety. In addition to this, much of the country over which the march lay, presented strong natural obstructions. One who accompanied General Sherman in his last grand campaign, gives the following picture of one of the advancing columns; and the experiences of all were nearly the same:

"If the head of the column is checked by bad roads, it masses and goes to work with a vengeance, assisting the pioneers. The object is to get the roads in such condition that the artillery-trains can pass. If the bottom be good and the water not sufficiently deep to damage the ammunition in the wagons, and the swamp not more than one mile across, we always bulge through. If our column is checked by the enemy, it deploys into position and fights a little, while other troops push ahead and flank the enemy. If several columns are checked, we deploy into position, (nicest maneuver in the world) press the enemy closely at all points, and, if no advantage occurs, pitch in and whip them like h—1. General Sherman never bothers us upon such occasions, unless we are getting a little too far round, or not quite far round enough, or a little too brisk; for he knows precisely what we are going to do. But if we get a little too fast, he always modestly makes his appearance and says: "Hold up a little there, boys, d—n it! wait till the 14th gets fairly in;" or words to that effect. To be sure, he does not say this so that we can hear him; for he speaks through the regular channel; but then we all know what General Sherman says.

"Advancing in line of battle through woods, brush, over logs, through swamps, down embankments, and over woodpiles, is easily done, because we all know how. We never think of keeping step, or touching elbows — pshaw! Each man knows just where he ought to be, and keeps his eye upon the spot where, theoretically, he is until he gets there. This may cost him a dozen flank movements on his own hook."

Though the above is a facetious picture of General Sherman's progress through the swamps and timber of South Carolina, it has in it less of fiction than of history.

When Sherman left Atlanta, his plan was, to use his own words, "to leave an army in the West, under Major-General G. H. Thomas, of sufficient strength, to meet emergencies in that quarter, while he conducted another army, composed of the 14th, 15th, 17th, and 20th corps and Kilpatrick's Division of cavalry, to the Atlantic slope, aiming to approach the grand theatre of war in Virginia, by the time the season would admit of military operations in that latitude." Hardee abandoned Savannah during the night of the 20th of December, and, twenty days later, the 15th and 17th Corps began embarking at Port Thunderbolt for Beaufort, South Carolina, preparatory to marching "to the grand theatre of war in Virginia." Near Beaufort, the 31st Iowa remained in camp with its brigade till the 27th of January, when it begun the march inland. The grand army moved in three columns, the 17th Corps on the right, the 15th in the centre, and the 14th and 20th Corps and Kilpatrick's Cavalry on the left. As already stated, Colonel Stone's Iowa Brigade, to which the 31st Iowa belonged, was attached to the 15th Corps, whose line of march was nearly due north till arriving at Columbia, after which it was directed north-east toward Fayetteville and Goldsboro, North Carolina. On this march, the 31st Iowa with its brigade met the enemy at three different points — on the Little Congaree Creek near Columbia, at Columbia, and near Bentonville, North Carolina.

The first engagement occurred on the 15th of February, 1865. That morning the 2d Brigade of the 1st Division, Colonel Calleson, led the advance and encountered the enemy soon after leaving camp; but they made little resistance till arriving at the Little Congaree, where, having taken up a strong position, they brought the head of the column to a halt. Next in rear of Colonel Calleson's Brigade was Colonel Stone's, which was at once ordered to the front and deployed in line of battle. The enemy were soon flanked without serious loss, and a crossing over the Little Congaree secured. With little delay, the march was continued in the direction of Columbia, where the army arrived in the afternoon of the 16th instant. Columbia, the South Carolina Capital, situated on the north bank of the Congaree and just below the junction of the Broad and Saluda Rivers, was one of the prettiest cities in all the South. It was formerly the centre of South Carolina politics and South Carolina wealth. When, in marching upon the high ground south of the river, the sight of the boasted city first greeted the eyes of the soldiers, they were filled with wonder at its beauty. Immediately in their front was the Congaree, hidden from view by a broad belt of pine timber; but over the tops of the tall, waving trees were plainly to be seen the handsome buildings and the beautiful surroundings of Columbia.

Only the 15th and 17th Corps marched on the city. The 14th and 20th crossed Broad River at Zion Church, and marched through Alston, destroying the road, and proceeding thence in the direction of Winnsboro. Of the two corps before Columbia, the 15th held the left and the 17th the right. The 3d Brigade, 1st Division, of the 15th, was the first organized command to cross Broad River. It was to the same command that Columbia was formally surrendered by the rebel mayor, on the morning of the 17th of February.

On the afternoon of the 16th instant, General Logan had effected a crossing of the Saluda, and pushed a portion of his command to near the west bank of Broad River. George A. Stone's Brigade was sent forward to the river bank, with instructions to cross the stream that night in pontoons, and cover the crossing of its corps the next morning — perhaps, to move on the city; for that is what was done. "The point determined on for crossing, was about one mile above the wreck of the bridge, and two miles above the city. It was expected to have effected a crossing by mid-night; but the current of the river was so very strong, the engineer did not succeed in getting a line across till three o'clock of the morning of the 17th instant. At ten minutes before four, I sent over two boat-loads of sharp-shooters under Captain Bowman of my staff, with instructions to have them placed as skirmishers, with the centre of the line opposite the landing, and at least seventy-five yards distant. He had particular instructions to keep his men quiet, and not to reply to any firing of the enemy, unless satisfied they meant an attack before the column could cross. I went over with the advance — the 31st Iowa — and made a personal reconnoissance of the ground."

The landing was effected on a crescent-shaped island, one or more bayous separating it from the main land. Here Colonel Stone assembled his command, or all except a portion of the 4th Iowa, which had not yet crossed, and at day-light charged the enemy. The struggle lasted but a few moments; for the main rebel army had already abandoned the city, leaving only a few regiments to delay the crossing. Colonel Stone marched directly on the city, and when near the suburbs, met a carriage flying a flag of truce, and bearing the rebel mayor, Goodwin. Terms of capitulation were tendered and accepted, when the Iowa Brigade, of the 15th Corps, entered and occupied Columbia. It was the proudest day these gallant troops had seen since entering the war.

Of the capture of Columbia, General Sherman says, in his official report:

"Under cover of this brigade, [Stone's] a pontoon-bridge was laid on the morning of the 17th. I was, in person, at this bridge, and at eleven A. M. learned that the mayor of Columbia had come out in a carriage, and made a formal surrender of the city to Colonel George A. Stone, 25th Iowa, commanding 3d Brigade, 1st Division, 15th Corps. About the same time, a small party of the 17th Corps had crossed the Congaree in a skiff, and entered Columbia from a point immediately west."

The night following the capture of Columbia, the greater portion of the city was burned; not, however, by the Federal soldiery, but by that rebel wretch, Wade Hampton, who had, for this very purpose, flooded the place with cotton. A high wind and bad whisky were the confederates of his wicked scheme. The sight was heart-rending. Decrepit old men, and helpless women and children, rushed wildly from their burning dwellings, and cried most piteously for help; but, though the soldiers exerted their utmost, it was long before they could stay the devouring element.

From Columbia, the line of march of the 15th Corps lay through Cheraw and Fayetteville, and thence to Goldsboro and Raleigh; but in all this distance the 3d Brigade of Wood's Division failed to meet the enemy, till arriving near Bentonville, on the route from Fayetteville to Goldsboro. In the battles that were fought near Bentonville, on the 20th and 21st of February, the Iowa Brigade took an important part. These were the last battles of the campaign, and decided the fate of General Johnson's army, if, indeed, it had not been decided before. In the march to Goldsboro, near which place the armies of Sherman and Schofield formed a junction, the Iowa Brigade held the post of honor — the rear-guard of its division and corps.

The results of the campaign, as regards Colonel Stone's Brigade, are summed up as follows:

"This brigade has been in four engagements, with the following loss: killed, seven; wounded, sixty-four; and missing, twelve. We have captured and turned over to the provost-marshal one hundred and forty-five prisoners of war. In the capture of Columbia, South Carolina, we took about five thousand stand of arms, immense quantities of ammunition and ordnance stores, and released forty Federal officers confined there. We have marched four hundred and eighty-five miles, built fifteen thousand and thirty-seven yards of corduroy road, and destroyed three miles of railroad."

The following is from the history of the regiment:

"Colonel William Smyth commanded the regiment from the time of its organization till the 13th of August, 1863, at which time, Lieutenant-Colonel Jenkins being at home with wounds received at Vicksburg during the charge of May 22d, the regiment was commanded by Major Stimming, until August 22d, 1863, when Lieutenant-Colonel Jenkins rejoined his command, and commanded the regiment from that date to February 1st, 1864. Lieutenant-Colonel Jenkins then taking command of the brigade, Major Stimming commanded the regiment from that date to March 10th, 1864. Lieutenant-Colonel Jenkins then commanded it to March 20th, at which time he went home on leave of absence, and Major Stimming again commanded to April 20th, 1864. Lieutenant-Colonel Jenkins returning, he commanded until May 1st, 1864, when Colonel Smyth, having rejoined the regiment, commanded from May 1st to September 26th, being then detailed to command the brigade. Lieutenant-Colonel J. W. Jenkins has been in command from that date to the present time. * * The regiment was first armed with Prussian smooth-bore muskets; before taking the field actively, it was armed with Enfield rifle muskets. September 28th, 1864, it was armed with Springfield rifle muskets.

Colonel Smyth resigned his commission after the arrival of his regiment at Savannah. Accordingly, in the march from Beaufort, the 31st was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel J. W. Jenkins, who, during the campaign, was thrice complimented by his brigade commander for gallant conduct.

Colonel Smyth is a large man and rather portly. In his deportment he is kind, candid and dignified. His merit as a soldier consisted in his kind care for his men, and in his great bravery. He was not an apt tactician. I am told he would sit quietly upon his horse under a sharp fire of the enemy, while determining upon the proper command to be given to his regiment for some designated movement. Not long after entering the service, he was ordered by his brigade commander, while drilling his battalion, to throw it into a certain position. Not remembering the proper command, he rode up to his adjutant and enquired: "Lieutenant, what shall I say?"

SOURCE: Addison A. Stuart, Iowa Colonels and Regiments, p. 467-74

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