“A.J. Smith’s Veterans” or was it non-veterans?

by Ned B. on July 12, 2012 · 4 comments

Recently, while reading about the 1864 Red River campaign, a few things written about the detachment from the Army of the Tennessee commanded by General A.J. Smith left me scratching my head.

The first thing that caught my eye was a statement by Craig Symonds in Lincoln and His Admirals wherein Symonds calls Smith’s men “the best fighting troops” among the US forces in the campaign.1   I’m puzzled how this conclusion was reached.  How is “best” measured in this case?

The second thing I noticed was that Smith’s command had more men at the end of the campaign than at the beginning, despite tough fighting and marching.  During the month of April they participated in battles, skirmishes, and some tough marching.  Smith reported 98 killed in the battle of Pleasant Hill.2  Yet the number shown as present on April 30 report was 995 larger than the number shown on March 31, with no change in units which composed the force.3  Is this some sort of new math?

Which leads me to the third thing I noticed: how often they are referred to as “Smith’s veterans”.  While poking around in some unit histories I was surprised to learn that several of the regiments were composed of non-veterans.  In the spring of 1864 the Army of the Tennessee conducted a furlough program that allowed veteran soldiers to go home for a month.  In mid-March many of the veterans went home such that several of the units that went with Smith up the Red River were composed of non-veterans.   Sherman would later write “when General Banks asked for 10,000 men for one month on Red River we made up the force by using troops, non-veterans, and availed ourselves of the lull to furlough the veterans.”4   The return of some of the veterans from furlough could explain the increase in numbers mentioned above.


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Eric B. July 12, 2012 at 11:46 am

Having not digested Symonds’ work, I cannot comment directly on his use of the identifier “veteran.” All I can do is surmise that he used the term to connotate not those who had re-enlisted as Veteran Volunteers, but rather those men who had seen combat prior (as opposed to strictly garrison duty). While many regiments within Smith’s command were indeed fresh from non-combat stations prior to Red River, an equally large contingent was composed of heavily experienced units. Almost all of the First Division and several in the Third Division of the Sixteenth Corps had seen fighting all through the Shiloh, Corinth, and Vicksburg campaigns.

Sherman’s usage of the terms “veteran” and “non-veteran” I take to connotate the opposite – nothing more than re-enlistment in the spring of 1864 or, in the case of the “non-veterans,” riding out one’s service term into the summer and then accepting a discharge. It should probably be noted that many of the men who opted not to re-enlist (thus never receiving the official title of “veteran”) were true veterans in their own right and heartily sick of the bloodshed. Thus perhaps it might be said with equal accuracy that many of those still in the ranks during the campaign (having never been furloughed) were indeed at least just as worthy the title of “veteran” as those who accepted the chevron and went home.

I agree that the discrepancy between aggregate strengths could have something to do with the return of Veteran Volunteers from furlough (those can get very shady as each regiment typically furloughed at different moments as opposed to entire brigades all at the same time).

As to the idea of Smith’s troops being the “best,” I honestly think we can thank Shelby Foote for the popular avowal of Smith’s “Gorillas.” Those that had served under fire at Vicksburg and then converted that experience into the wrath of the Meridian Campaign served him well to progress the narrative. It appears unfortunately many might have taken it slightly too much at face value?

Eric B.

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Ned B. July 12, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Eric,

To be clear, only my first point — the use of the qualifier “best” — was directed specifically at Symond’s book. Identifying Smith’s command as “veteran” is something I have found in multiple books.

You raise some good points about how those called “non-veterans” from an enlistment perspective in the spring of 1864 could still be veterans by experience. Still there are aspects of the “veteran” qualifier that bother me. First is that the qualifier is not equally used to describe other commands who had as much or more combat experience — for example when reading about the Red River campaign one does not read of “Ransom’s Veterans”, only of “Smith’s veterans”. Secondly, as you point out, Smith’s command was a mix of units some of which had a lot of experience and some with little experience. Yet the standard account treats it like a homogenous force.

– Ned

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Eric B. July 12, 2012 at 11:52 am

Just for the sake of clarification, though it might be pedantic, all of Smith’s Shiloh veterans were within the Second Division (Sixteenth Corps). All of the regiments of First Division (Sixteenth Corps), with the possible exception of the 8th Minnesota which had been stationed on the Minnesota Frontier during the Dakota War, had seen combat in one form or another by Red River.

Eric B.

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Ned B. July 13, 2012 at 6:23 am

Yet Smith’s force also contained units like the 178 NY, 117 IL and 119 IL which had yet to be in a battle.

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