Standing just inside his house, a wealthy Southern gentleman shoots at trespassing Yankee soldiers, then sends his family away, joins the Confederate army, and, soon thereafter, sacrifices his own life. It may sound like the plot for a cheap Civil War novel (Mr. Smith Goes to War!), but it is a true tale as seen in a report from the January 28, 1863 Cincinnati Enquirer.
From the Chicago Post
From Grand Junction - A Lamentable Tragedy - Army Depredations the Forerunner of Evil
Grand Junction, Tenn., January 14, 1863
To the Editor of the Post:
It is with no ordinary regret that I lay the following sad tale before your readers.
A few evenings since, the residence of Robert Smith, a well-to-do planter, about four miles from here, was the scene of a tragic and deplorable rencontre. Smith, in spite of the edict of Jeff Davis, raised a good crop of cotton, and willingly sold it for “green-backs” to one of the Northern cotton-buyers. It was rumored around his neighborhood that he had ten or twelve thousand dollars in his house. During the day the soldiers encamped near him, and busily helped themselves to the store of provisions that he had for himself and family. He did not complain of their demands for something to eat; but he firmly gave them to understand that they should not come into his house. After nightfall he locked his doors and forbade regress or ingress to any person. A gentlemen who was in the house is my authority for what happened.
About nine o’clock P.M. half a dozen soldiers came to the door and demanded admittance. He asked who they were and what was their business. They replied, in a gruff voice, to open the door, and not ask any d——d questions. He informed that he would not open it, and warned them of the consequences if they attempted to make a forceable entry. They commenced to batter the door, when he again warned them to desist, or if they did not, he would shoot the first man who crossed his door. ‘You will, eh,” says one who immediately fired at Mr. Smith. He (Smith) thereupon fired and killed the foremost of the gang. Immediately the other five fired, but did not do any harm. Smith fired again and wounded another. They immediately left, but did not remove their dead comrade. The matter was reported to General Hamilton, who, I understand, has said “served them right; I wish he had killed them all.”
If the case is as it has been told to me, and I am compelled to believe it, as the gentleman who informed me is a man of truth and firm integrity, I am sure there is but one sentiment, and that is Smith did right. It is high time to stop the growing spirit of lawlessness and insubordination that is perceptible in our army. If we can not protect the Union man - the man who has voluntarily taken the oath of allegiance - the man who has dared to deft the edicts of the Richmond junta, and to show by acts that he is opposed to the iniquitous regime of Davis, I think it is time to move our army a little further north, in order that the persecuted cotton grower, and enemy of Secession, may not be humbugged by the shadow of a protection that is as unsubstantial as the fabric of a vision.
That was the entirety of the story as this article presented it, but an online search uncovered a genealogy website which provides more details, including Smith’s wealth in both land and slaves. It also describes the above-mentioned affair:
During the winter of 1862 and 1863 some Yankee looters came to his house demanding food. Robert told them he had given them all he had and that they should return to camp. They tried to force their way into the house and in the ensuing scuffle, Robert killed at least one of them. Robert immediately sent his wife and small children to neighbors and went to join up with his son John’s unit. (Originally in the 13th Tennessee Infantry, CSA., John had since joined the 18th Mississippi Cavalry, in which he became Lieutenant Colonel. Two of his brothers, Richard and Marion, also served in this unit.)
That night the Yankees returned and burned his house. Robert was made Captain of the 18th Mississippi Cavalry. (The Soldiers and Sailors website does show a Robert W. Smith as a captain in Company D of the 18th Mississippi Cavalry.)
One noteworthy tidbit was that John, while in the 13th Tennessee, was injured at the Battle of Richmond on August 30, 1862.
An additional source that provides perspective on this story is Hardeman County, Tennessee: Family History, Volume 2. (I tried to link to the page with this story on it.) It includes more details, claiming that the soldiers were stragglers from Grant’s army who also burned other buildings on the plantation. (This was during the period when Union General Ulysses S. Grant was trying to figure out how to capture Vicksburg.) It does mistakenly place this episode in February, after the story had been printed in the January newspaper. This book also states that a few days later, Smith tried to form a company to join Nathan Bedford Forrest’s men. A fight with Union troops ensued, and the only casualty of this skirmish was R. W. Smith, who received a mortal wound and was leaning against a tree when his son, Marion, found him and placed him on the ground. He died shortly thereafter and was carried back to the plantation where he was buried.
The genealogy page linked above states: Robert was killed in a battle on Yellow Rabbit Creek just south of Ashland and near what is now the border of Benton and Tippah County (Mississippi) 1 May 1863. This matches the death date on his headstone, but the book’s version of when he died - seemingly in February - contradicts the May 1 date. One possible explanation for the apparent difference might be that the book describes the same fight in which Robert met his demise, but just inaccurately portrays its time frame. Both sources agree that the cemetery where he lies in rest is on land from his plantation. (That skirmish seems to have been too small for appearance in modern records though here is a link to water quality information about that creek, so at least its existence is confirmed.)
A fair question about both the family history account and the book is what their sources were. Maybe period newspapers from that region gave them the information they published, but family oral history or other books may have contributed as well.
Another possible misunderstanding shows up in the original newspaper story. That article called Smith a “Union man” and "enemy of Secession." Smith was likely not such a person, certainly after this event, but probably not beforehand either, given his sons’ Confederate service. Whether that misinterpretation came from the source who witnessed the event, the individual who wrote to the journal or an editor at the Chicago Post is unclear, but it appears that someone tried to use this incident as propaganda to portray the Union army as hurting people it was supposed to protect, perhaps basing this on Smith’s alleged willingness to sell cotton to northern buyers. The author of the newspaper version of the story did not include details like the burning of the other buildings or Smith joining the army. Maybe that was a timing issue - writing the letter before learning of those things - but maybe the author omitted Smith’s reaction as it was not that of a Union supporter. (On the other hand, it may be unlikely, but is not completely inconceivable that he was a Southern Unionist before this incident, even with at least one son in the Confederate army, as divided family loyalties did exist. Perhaps the behavior of the Union soldiers did actually change his viewpoint.Without further information, it is difficult to know Smith’s original sentiments.)
This post started as a simple transcription of a period newspaper account, but as the family and county history sources added more intriguing detail and context, even with reasonable questions about some details, it evolved into a fascinating tale of a small but devastating affair. Episodes like this do not receive much attention but still show that even minor events often had major consequences. A death in a fight like this pained surviving family members just as badly as did a death at Gettysburg, Shiloh or Antietam. How many other wartime incidents were similar to this, but are unknown today? Hopefully historians and genealogists continue to find, record, and share such stories to help others understand the magnitude of the entire war, not just the famous battles.
This entire story is intriguing, from the discovery that four members of the same family (a father and three sons) served in one regiment to one man’s finding his mortally-wounded father (a natural part of that novel, of course.) It also provides another study of why soldiers fought - in some instances, like this one, their motivation literally was to protect home and family and/or to seek retribution against the enemy, both rationales that people even more than 150 years later can still understand.
Robert W. Smith’s headstone, per genealogy site linked above