The Last to Fall: Thomas Alfred Smyth at Farmville

Thomas Alfred Smyth was born a farmer’s son in Ballyhooly, Co. Cork on Christmas Day 1832. He emigrated to the United States at the age of 21, taking part in William Walker’s Nicaragua expedition before settling down to life as a coachmaker in Wilmington, Delaware. When war broke out he quickly became an officer, first in the 24th Pennsylvania and subsequently the 1st Delaware Infantry; he became Colonel of the latter unit in February 1863. He was promoted to Brigadier-General on 1st October 1864, and it was with this rank that he participated in the series of battles between 29th March and the 9th April 1865, known as the Appomattox Campaign.

On 6th April 1865 Brigadier-General Smyth wrote in his diary: ‘orders to march at 5 A.M. and at 6 o’clock to assault the enemy’s works’. It was to be his final entry. His brigade was part of the Federal II Corps under Major-General Humphreys, and the assault was to be against Confederate positions at High Bridge over the Appomattox River, Virginia. On the morning of the 7th April, as the rebels desperately attempted to fire the bridge, the II Corps attacked and managed to capture the structure substantively intact. This allowed a direct pursuit of the Confederate’s across the river in the direction of Farmville, where crucial rations were being kept for the beleaguered Army of Northern Virginia.

Brigadier-General Smyth’s brigade led the advance, coming under artillery and sharpshooter fire a short distance from Farmville. As the formation halted in the rain, Smyth went to assess the situation with his staff. He had a habit of riding close to the action, and this occasion was no different. At around 11 o’clock he approached his skirmish line as an irregular fire was being kept up between the opposing forces. Suddenly the General slumped to the right side of his horse, with his staff quickly discovering he had been hit by a sharpshooter. He was removed on a stretcher to a nearby farmhouse where the Corps Hospital was positioned. Smyth had been shot in the left side of the face, with the ball removing a tooth on its passage through to his neck, where it drove a fragment of cervical vertebra through his spinal cord, paralysing him.

Smyth had a conversation with his surgeon about his prospects for survival, which he was told were slight. To this he remarked ‘now, Doctor, you know I am no coward, and that I am not afraid to die’. On the 8th April it was decided to take him by ambulance to Burkesville Station, a journey of some 12 miles. However, with some 2 miles still to go the General began to visibly fail, and he was instead taken to the house of Colonel Burke. Smyth told the men  to stop there, as it was all over for him and there was no use in going any further. He was taken inside and thanked the Burke’s for their hospitality. At 4 o’clock on the morning of 9th April 1865 Brigadier-General Thomas Alfred Smyth died. Less than twelve hours later Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House; the farmer’s son from Cork was to be the last Union General killed during the American Civil War. He is buried with his wife at Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery, Wilmington, Delaware.

References

Maull, David W. 1870. The Life and Military Services of the Late Brigadier General Thomas A. Smyth

Warner, Ezra J. 1964. Generals in Blue

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Categories: Battle of Farmville, Cork, Irish Brigade, Pennsylvania, Thomas Alfred Smyth, Virginia

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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4 Comments on “The Last to Fall: Thomas Alfred Smyth at Farmville”

  1. Matt Gross
    August 21, 2010 at 2:26 am #

    As the descendant of a Union soldier, and an Irish-American, I am proud of the service that a native of the Emerald Isle provided in the defense of the Union. However, it bears mentioning that General Smyth was in fact, the second-to-last Union general to have died from wounds received in combat. While he was certainly, the last to have been mortally wounded while holding the rank of general, it was to another officer in blue, that the honor of being last, remains. His name was Brevet Brigadier-General Francis Washburn. Ironically, Washburn was wounded during the previous days fighting, when the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry, under his command, along with two infantry regiments, had tried to burn the bridge that Smyth would later be wounded, trying to save. However, Washburn’s Union bridge burning party were hemmed-in and overpowered by Confederate cavalry. At the time of this first Battle of High Bridge, Washburn, then a Colonel, was mortally wounded as he led a desperate cavalry charge. Hearing of his bravery, General Grant had him breveted a Brigadier-General. Unfortunately, Washburn died on 22 April 1865; thirteen days after Smyth had expired. Sadly, Washburn was not a Hibernian…but like Smyth, he laid down his life for the Union.

    References:

    Phisterer, Frederick. Statistical Record of the Armies of the United States. Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1883.

    Crowninshield, Benjamin. A History of the First Regiment of Massachusetts Cavalry Volunteers. Riverside Press: Cambridge, MA, 1891.

    • August 21, 2010 at 2:14 pm #

      Hi Matt,

      Many thanks for passing on that research! It shows how quickly the necessities of war can change, that a bridge is ordered destroyed one day and is to be guarded the next. Do you have details of your own ancestor’s time in the Civil War?

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. Matt Gross
    June 21, 2011 at 3:27 am #

    Hi Damien,

    Sorry about the late response to your enquiry regarding my ancestor’s Civil War service. I just stumbled upon your website again and noticed that you had replied to my response to a posting that you had made (10 months ago). My great-great-grandfather’s name was Richard Augustine Cunningham. He was born at Drybridge, Drogheda, County Louth, Ireland, on 23 April 1837. He arrived in the United States at the tail end of the Irish Famine, on 9 November 1850 with his older brother Michael. Richard settled in Somerville, Massachusetts, prior to the war and found work as a glass blower. On 30 November 1861, he enlisted with Company “I”, 3rd Battalion, 1st MA Cavalry. His battalion was later detached from the 1st MA Cavalry and became the Independent Battalion, Massachusetts Cavalry. Shortly after he reenlisted on January 1, 1864, his battalion was made a part of the newly recruited, 4th Massachusetts Cavalry. He was in the North Florida Expedition of 1864 and fought at the Battle of Olustee. He later served in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign; fighting at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff. He served in several engagements along the Richmond-Petersburg front during the siege, including the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, Second Deep Bottom, Darbytown Road, and the final assault on Petersburg, 2 April 1865. During Lee’s retreat, he was one of an 80 man cavalry squadron of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry sent to burn High Bridge, over the Appomattox River, in order to cut-off the retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia. However, the cavalrymen of the 4th Massachusetts were in closer proximity to the head of the Confederates, than had first been supposed. His squadron wound up being surrounded by two brigades of Rosser’s and Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry. They tried desperately to cut through the Confederate troopers and save the small infantry force that had accompanied them. However, they were overpowered and several officers and men of the regiment were either killed or wounded. According to his own G.A.R. account, Richard Cunningham was “the only man (of the 4th Massachusetts) to escape capture on the occasion of the High Bridge affair.”
    Three days later, Private Cunningham was present for the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox Court House. He later settled in Lynn, Massachusetts, where he became an active member of General Lander Post No. 5, of the Grand Army of the Republic. He lived into his 90s; passing away in 1928. The military tradition which he started has continued through his descendants. Two of his sons served during WWI, several grandchildren served during WWII, a great-grandchild served during Vietnam, and multiple great-great-grandchildren have served in the more recent conflicts in the Persian Gulf and Iraq.

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  1. Thomas Alfred Smyth: Researching a Neglected Irish General | Irish in the American Civil War - November 25, 2011

    [...] with the tragedy of his mortal wounding just as the conflict drew to a close (see a previous post here). Despite his wartime prominence and activities in the Fenian ranks, a brief 1870 David [...]

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