Fourth in a six-part series
Ashbel Smith had an avid interest in military affairs. When the U.S. declared war with Mexico in 1846, he served for a short time with the Texas Volunteers under “Old Rough and Ready,” the Army’s nickname for General and future President Zachary Taylor. President Paradas of Mexico had threatened to march all the way to New Orleans and when his army was defeated at Monterrey early in the war, President Polk sent a letter of thanks to Gen. Taylor from the U.S. Congress. The letter was presented at a reception given by a delegation from Louisiana attended by Ashbel and Texas Gov. J.P. Henderson, who had taken a leave of absence from the governorship to command a Texas cavalry division. Toasts were presented at the reception and Ashbel gave “American Independence - It was proclaimed and maintained by the heroes of ’76. It was confirmed again upon the plains of Chalmette in ’14-’15. It was again asserted and maintained in 1836 at the battle of San Jacinto, and in 1846 will be thoroughly established throughout the whole extent of Mexico.” This war gained for the United States the territories of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, parts of Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma, and established the southern border of Texas as the Rio Grande rather than the Nueces River.
Texas joined the Confederacy in March 1861. The following month, 55-year-old Ashbel formed the Bayland Guards comprised of boys from east Harris and west Chambers counties, and conducted training exercises at his Evergreen plantation. This had to have been a trying time between Ashbel and his brothers. Living in Memphis, both Henry and George were staunch Union supporters and George successfully defied conscription into the Confederate Army. The Bayland Guards was attached to Col. John Creed Moore’s 2nd Texas Regiment as Company C in September and housed in a cotton warehouse in Galveston, spending their time training and awaiting deployment. They were wined and dined by the local population and were supremely confident of victory. Sam Houston, whose son was in the company occasionally visited the drills and warned the young Texans that the North’s resources were almost limitless and would wear them down. Capt. Smith observed “he might as well had been giving advice to the inmates of a lunatic asylum. We knew no such word as fail.”
Ashbel was awkward with horses, and the noise resulting from the rattling of his sword, canteen, and spurs while riding led the men to call him “Old Jingle Box.” He was devoted to his men and the feeling was mutual. However this did not prevent them from executing schemes to bring on his “crazy spells” as they called them. These bursts of anger soon passed but while they lasted, as Ralph J. Smith later wrote in his memoirs, “the Colonel danced, swore, jingled his sword and denounced the object of his wrath in words that burned holes in the surrounding atmosphere.”
The Bayland Guards were deployed to the Mississippi Valley Campaign in March 1862. Ashbel was a Junior Captain standing next to Jeremiah Proctor from Cedar Bayou when he was shot in the arm at the battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. As the bullet hit his arm, Proctor heard him exclaim, “god damn it!” Hastily recovering his poise, he prayed “Lord, forgive me.” After recovery, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and reassigned back to Texas to enroll conscripts to replace troops lost at Shiloh. On this return home he had to inform Mary Jones that her son Samuel had been killed. Sam Houston’s son was wounded and captured in the same battle but released a few months later. Col Smith was still in Texas when the 2nd Texas engaged Gen. Grant at Corinth, Mississippi. With the death of Col. W. P. Rogers in that battle, Ashbel was promoted to full Colonel. At Vicksburg the entire 2nd Texas Regiment was under his command. The regiment was assigned to a moon-shaped fort on the Confederate defense line which became known as the Second Texas Lunette. They had just finished making improvements to the fort when five Union regiments attacked their position. Wave after wave of troops followed and in one of the attacks, some cotton bales they were using for cover caught fire. By nightfall the ground in front of the lunette was covered with dead Union soldiers.
By this time Grant had received reinforcements and ordered a siege of the city and for the next six weeks the defenders suffered from daily bombardment, sickness, and starvation. Col. Smith was cool under fire and really enjoyed reading. He was observed by his men reading Greek and Latin classics while under bombardment during the siege. The city surrendered on July 4, 1863 as the prospect of starvation became imminent. Under the terms of surrender, the Confederate troops were given paroles on condition they could not perform military duties against the United States until properly exchanged. In November, a prisoner exchange was made, and the regiment was reformed in Texas where they spent the remainder of the war assigned to the defense of Galveston. Although Col. Smith had an unusual leadership style, he was respected by the troops he commanded. When one of his subordinates refused to obey an order, calling it foolish, he gave the man his card and offered to settle the matter with a pistol duel. The subordinate then backed down because he knew Colonel Smith had the reputation of being an expert shot.
In the closing months of the war, tactical defeats, yellow fever, inadequate rations, and lack of pay contributed to low morale throughout the Confederacy. When Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, most of the men decided the war was lost and headed home. A month later Ashbel was ordered by Gen. McGruder to meet with Federal forces in New Orleans to negotiate terms of the surrender of Texas and afterward to Washington to develop a plan to return Texas into the United States.
Next week, Ashbel Smith the Educator
Baytown resident Chuck Chandler is retired from the Exxon Refinery and serves as Vice President of Baytown Historical Preservation Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org