Thomas Alfred Smyth is often identified as the best Irish-born Union combat General of the Civil War. His wartime career is an impressive one, tinged 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 Maull publication remains the only book-length biography of this remarkable Corkman. This is a situation which Jef Feeley, long-time student of the General’s service, hopes to rectify. Jef has kindly agreed to provide a Guest Post on the elusive Irishman, and also takes the opportunity to issue an appeal to any readers who may have additional information on Smyth.
Historians have tagged Thomas Alfred Smyth as ‘an unsung Irish hero of the Civil War.’ (1) My goal is to help sing General Smyth’s song for a modern audience.
Born in the tiny village of Ballyhooley in County Cork, Smyth brought to life the classic American-immigrant story with his rise to brevet Major-General by the time of his death in April 1865. The few sources of information about Smyth’s boyhood note that his father was a farmer and Smyth helped him work the family plot until he emigrated in 1854. He had only limited education, but did benefit from travel to Scotland, England and France. (How a poor farmer’s son did so much traveling is one of the mysteries I’m seeking to unravel.)
Once in America, Smyth took the time-honored route of working with a relative to get his start. The relation, an unnamed uncle, worked as a carriage maker in Philadelphia. (2) Like many young men of his era, Smyth craved adventure, so he signed up with Gen. William Walker’s Filibusters and travelled to Nicaragua in 1855 as part of the original band of mercenaries who tromped through the central American jungles in search of fame, fortune and glory.
By 1858, Smyth had returned to Philadelphia to marry Amanda M. Pounder of that city. That year, the couple moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where he plied his trade as a carriage maker. Their only daughter, Emma, is born in Wilmington. While in the Diamond State, Smyth is one of the founders of an Irish militia company known as the ‘National Guards.’ Smyth rises to become a captain of this Wilmington-based outfit.
When Lincoln issues the call for 75,000 volunteers in the spring of 1861, Smyth and his compatriots are ready for action. Because of delays in forming Delaware’s state regiments, Smyth and about 50 of his companions join up with the 24th Pennsylvania Infantry, an all-Irish unit recruited from Philadelphia’s docks and workshops. Smyth and his men spend the first three months of the war with the 24th and then signed on with the First Delaware Infantry Regiment in October 1861.
Smyth stays with that unit through the occupation of Norfolk, the Peninsula campaign, the battle of Antietam and the bloodbath at Fredericksburg, rising to the rank of colonel. He wins acclaim for his coolness under fire at Antietam and his steadfastness as he led the regiment to the killing fields in front of Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg. He is promoted to brigade command in 1863 and at Gettysburg, his unit is placed along the stone wall during Pickett’s Charge. Smyth gets hit in the face during the engagement and jokes he’d gladly trade his nose for victory.(3) Smyth continues to gain notice for bravery and leadership abilities and, at one point, is tapped to refit and rejuvenate the Army of the Potomac’s Irish Brigade.
After leading the Irish Brigade in the battle of the Wilderness, Smyth returns to lead his Second Corps brigade throughout the remainder of the war. (At several times, he was named as interim commander of the Army of Potomac’s Second Division while regular commander Gen. John Gibbon was ill.) After a long delay, Smyth is promoted to brigadier general in October 1864.
His meteoric rise in the Army paralleled his rise in another organization — the Fenian Brotherhood. By late 1864, Smyth has been ‘commissioned’ as the head circle of the Fenian group within the Army of the Potomac and some historians believe that had he lived, Smyth would have been the general to lead the Fenian invasions of Canada in 1866 and 1867. He was elected to the Fenian Counsel in January 1865, but withdrew from the board due to the press of his military duties a month later.
Smyth was wounded by a sniper at an engagement near Farmville, Virginia on April 7, 1865. He died two days later, just hours before Lee signs the surrender papers at Appomattox. Smyth is the last general to die during active hostilities in the Civil War. He was 33.
After spending more than a year researching Smyth’s life, I’ve found there are major gaps in the historical record. Through the help of friends and relatives in Ireland, I’ve launched a search for any Smyth family records and have come up empty. The same is true for his pre-Civil War life in Philadelphia and Wilmington. (We can’t even identify the uncle he worked with in the city of Brotherly Love or where he worked in Wilmington.) I’ve also found only traces of his connections to the Fenians (from scant references in his diaries for 1864 and 1865 and other sources.)
I write at the suggestion of Damian Shiels (whose wise counsel has helped guide my research efforts in Ireland) to ask if any readers of this site have material on Smyth or his family. If so, I’d be eternally grateful if they’d share it with me. I can be reached by phone in the U.S. at (302) 494-4869 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Baton Rouge, La., Louisiana State University Press, 1964. Print.
(2) Conyngham, David Power, and Lawrence Frederick Kohl. The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns. New York, Fordham UP, 1994. Print.
(3) Maull, David W. The Life and Military Services of the Late Brigadier General Thomas A. Smyth. DE: H. & E.F. James, Printers, 1870. Print