“During the war father was saddened often over the death of many who had been associates either at West Point or in the army,” Frederick Dent Grant wrote in 1899, “but I think his greatest grief, and perhaps his greatest disappoint [sic], were occasioned by the accidental death of General Smith.” On the night of March 12, 1862, General Charles Ferguson Smith tripped and slashed his leg as he climbed into an awaiting rowboat on the Tennessee River. The fall caused Smith to rip the flesh from his shin down to the bone. The onset of an infection, combined with dysentery, led to his sudden death a little more than a month later on April 25, 1862.
In his authoritative biography titled, Teacher of Civil War Generals: Major General Charles Ferguson Smith, Soldier and West Point Commandant, Allen H. Mesch stated that Smith influenced Grant throughout his military career. Smith’s sudden demise “forced Grant to mature into a capable field commander and to forge an alliance with William T. Sherman that would ultimately win the Civil War.” Not only losing one of his best subordinates, Grant lost a mentor, role model, and friend in a period during the Civil War when he was most vulnerable.
Charles Ferguson Smith graduated from the United States Military Academy in July 1825. After serving in several garrisons, he returned to the USMA four years later in 1829. During a thirteen-year tenure, Smith served as an assistant instructor of infantry tactics, adjutant to the superintendent, and lastly, as commandant of cadets. Grant, Sherman, Hancock, Longstreet, and one hundred other Civil War generals passed through the academy under Smith’s tutelage.
Smith served with distinction after leaving the academy. For his services in almost all of the major battles of the U.S.-Mexican War, Smith was brevetted from major to colonel for gallant and meritorious conduct. After the war, Smith severed in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Utah. He commanded the Department of Utah for one year leading up to the Civil War. He earned a reputation for his sound judgment, intrepidness, professionalism, and devotion to duty during these thirteen years after leaving the USMA.
By the outbreak of the American Civil War, few active army officers—in good health and able to take the field—could surpass Smith’s thirty-six years of military experience. The fifty-four-year-old Pennsylvanian was commissioned a brigadier general of volunteers on August 31, 1861. Colonel (later general) Lew Wallace of the 11th Indiana Infantry was apprehensive about meeting his new commander rumored to be a brute. By the time he left his first meeting with Smith, Wallace revered him:
He was very tall, erect, broad-shouldered, a symmetrical figure in a well-fitting uniform. He held his head high; long, white mustaches trailed below his chin shading his lower face; perfect health left its morning colors on his cheeks, and his blue eyes, bright with invitation, negatived the reputation he bore for sternness.
This description is elaborate, I know; and if one asks wherefore, the answer is ready—the man before me was by odds the handsomest, stateliest, most commanding I had ever seen, the one who has since remained in memory my ideal of a general officer. Probably better cannot be done than to add that his appearance always helped me to a perfect understanding of the impression Washington is said to have left upon all who came near him.
Smith took command of a division under one of his old students, the recently promoted Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant. In their first meeting during the war, Grant described his former teacher as “tall, slender and ramrod-straight, with pink cheeks and clear blue eyes, and great white mustachios dropping down either side of his chin.” Grant felt uneasy about giving orders to the person who had trained him on everything he knew about soldiering. “It does not seem quite right for me to give General Smith orders,” Grant wrote, “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.”
Smith could have easily turned out to be a difficult and jealous subordinate. Instead, he revealed a trait that made him such an outstanding officer. Smith put his work before his sentiments. “General, I appreciate your delicacy,” Smith wrote to Grant detecting the awkwardness, “I am now a subordinate and I know a soldier’s duty. I hope you will feel no awkwardness about our new relations.” He would work with Grant, not against him. The bond shared between the two would be a mutual respect for each other’s modesty.
Smith played an instrumental role in Grant’s victory at Fort Donelson in February 1862. Smith’s division penetrated the Confederate rifle pits, securing a foothold in the Confederate defenses. “I was nearly scared to death,” a terrified volunteer taking part in Smith’s successful assault wrote, “but I saw the old man’s white mustache over his shoulder and went on.” Due to Smith’s successful assault, the Confederate garrison lost its will to continue and capitulated. When Grant asked Smith how he should reply to the Confederate terms of surrenders, he barked, “No terms to the damn rebels.” Grant abated it to his famous reply: “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.”
On March 5, 1862, Major General Henry Halleck yanked Grant from his command. Halleck, favoring Smith over Grant, placed him in command. “General Halleck unquestionably deemed General C. F. Smith a much fitter officer for the command of all the forces in the military district than I was,” Grant concluded after the war, “It is probable that the general opinion was that Smith’s long services in the army and distinguished deeds rendered him the more proper person for such command. Indeed I was rather inclined to this opinion myself at that time, and would have served faithfully under Smith as he had done under me.” General William T. Sherman wrote after the war that from February to July 1862, Grant remained “under a cloud,” and that “Had C. F. Smith lived, Grant would have disappeared from history after Donelson.” Halleck changed his mind (luckily for Grant) and restored him to command eight days later.
Smith again showcased his humility and loyalty during this period of turmoil. He sent a letter of reassurance to Grant: “I wrote you yesterday how glad I was to learn from your letter of the 11th that you were to resume your old command, from which you were so unceremoniously and, as I think, unjustly stricken down.” Smith suffered the fatal injury to his leg the day Grant was restored.
Smith remained bedridden at the two-story Cherry Mansion as the Battle of Shiloh raged. It must have been unbearable for Smith. General William H.L. Wallace led Smith’s division during the battle and fell mortally wounded. “Had General Smith been on the ground prior to the battle, and able to participant in it,” Augustus L. Chetlain, colonel of the 12th Illinois Infantry, wrote in 1885, “I have no doubt the partial surprise of the early morning of the 6th would have been avoided, and a decisive victory gained by four o’clock of the first day.” General Smith lost consciousness and died eighteen days after the battle on the afternoon of April 25.
“He combined the qualities of a faithful officer, an excellent disciplinarian, an able commander, and a modest and courteous gentleman,” Halleck wrote on the day of Smith’s death, “In his death the Army has lost one of its brightest ornaments and the country a general whose place it will be difficult to supply.” Chetlain felt that Smith’s death was “a severe and almost irreparable loss” to the Army of the Tennessee. The man affected the most in the Army of the Tennessee was probably Grant.
Grieving from his loss, Grant had his wife Julia save the last letter he received from his old mentor and friend on April 21, 1862. In the letter, Smith stated that he doubted they would see one another again. “But I trust you will believe to the fullest extent my sense of appreciation of the kindness and consideration I have ever received at your hands during our service together in this land of Egyptian darkness…still success attend you in that or any other line you may desire.” Writing to Smith’s widow the day after his death, Grant admitted that, “Where an entire nation consoles with you in your bereavement no one can do so with more heartfelt grief than myself.”
Had Smith lived, it can only be speculated what role he would have played beyond 1862. Some historians dislike the “what ifs” of history, but this is one “what if” that can’t be ignored. What role could have he played in Grant’s or Sherman’s future campaigns? Could have Smith been Grant’s right-hand man instead of Sherman? Could have he come east with Grant in 1864 to take command of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps? While these questions are certainly thought-provoking, Smith will always be remembered as the general who perished from cutting his leg on a rowboat and the war’s biggest disappointment.
Smith’s remains were transported to Philadelphia. His body “lay in state” in Independence Hall before it was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery on May 6. A barely legible marble tombstone marks his grave, a sad legacy for the man idolized by Ulysses S. Grant.
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