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.
Maull, David W. 1870. The Life and Military Services of the Late Brigadier General Thomas A. Smyth
Warner, Ezra J. 1964. Generals in Blue