"Our Kirby:" Colonel Joseph L. Kirby Smith and the 43rd Ohio at the Battle of Corinth

Colonel Joseph Lee Kirby Smith, 43rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Died of wounds October 12, 1862 at Corinth, Mississippi
"Our Kirby"

Colonel Joseph Lee Kirby Smith was born July 25, 1836 in New York, New York into a military family- his grandfather Joseph L. Smith served as a Colonel during the War of 1812 and his father Ephraim Kirby Smith (known as E. Kirby Smith during his lifetime) was killed during the Mexican War while serving as a Major in the 5th U.S. Infantry. Joseph entered West Point from the state of New York in 1853; he graduated sixth of the class of 1857 and entered service with the topographical engineers. The onset of the Civil War deepened the fissure already present in his family. His uncle was the notable Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, who like his older brother, was an old Army regular and veteran of the Mexican War. Joseph bore a deep dislike of his uncle as Edmund took the name of E. Kirby Smith following the death of Joseph’s father; Joseph felt that his uncle had stolen his father’s good name and furthermore linked it with treason. “If I could meet him in battle with force enough to thoroughly beat him, it would do my soul good,” he reportedly said to his brigade commander Colonel John Fuller.
Their "Kirby"
Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith, C.S.A.

“Our Kirby” (as John Fuller referred to him) was stationed at Detroit serving under Captain George G. Meade (later commander of the Army of the Potomac) when the Civil War began in April 1861. Smith soon was assigned to staff duty in the east, first with General Patterson then with Nathaniel Banks. In the rush to arms, governors sought out men with professional military experience to lead new regiments and “our Kirby” was no exception. He declined command of a cavalry regiment because he “could not shoe a horse” but accepted the proffer of the 43rd Ohio Infantry in late 1861 from Ohio Governor David Tod, accepting the commission September 28, 1861. He set out to make the raw volunteers that comprised his regiment a model of discipline and efficiency. Smith proved to be a superb instructor, and the 43rd Ohio developed a stellar reputation for its efficiency at drill. Private James E. Graham of Co. C proudly wrote that as the regiment left the state “on February 21, 1862, Colonel Smith rode at the head of what admitted to be one of the best, if not the best equipped and drilled regiments that ever left the state of Ohio.”

Smith, unusually among West Pointers, developed a genuine fondness for his volunteer soldiers, and they reciprocated the feeling. “He was a master of tactics, a prince of a disciplinarian, as brave as the bravest, with a heart as tender as a woman’s,” wrote a private. “The true soldier of the line found in him an unswerving friend; the laggard had better have been in some other place.”
Colonel Smith as depicted in Whitelaw Reid's
Ohio in the War Vol. I
The 43rd Ohio took part in the operations against Island No. 10 along the Mississippi River, then joined General Halleck’s large army that besieged Corinth in May 1862. Following the evacuation of Corinth by the Confederates, the regiment remained in the area on garrison duty. Corinth was a hot, dry, and dusty place in the summer, and the lack of good water in the region felled more Union soldiers than had been lost in Halleck’s supremely careful campaign against the city.

In September 1862, two small Confederate armies under General Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price rendezvoused at Baldwyn, Mississippi and marched towards Corinth with the intent of driving Union forces out of western Tennessee. This move was done in support of General Braxton Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky, and was part of the broad Confederate offensive that occurred at the end of the summer of 1862. And like these other efforts, this one would end poorly for the Confederacy.

The Battle of Corinth was fought over a period of two days (October 3-4, 1862) and the engagement on the 4th is our primary concern in this post. As a necessary preliminary to telling that story, suffice it to say that the Confederate army had approached Corinth from the northwest, moving along the Memphis & Charleston Railroad and had driven back Union forces from the outer works of Corinth on October 3rd. The fighting, like the heat, was brutal. Fuller’s brigade was ordered to entrench along a ridge parallel to Battery Robinett on the northwest side of Corinth: the 63rd Ohio occupying the ground to the right of the battery, the 27th Ohio on its right, the 39th placed on the brigade right flank, while the 43rd Ohio was placed perpendicular to the left face of Battery Robinett facing west.

It was a sleepless night for many of the men in the 43rd Ohio as they listened to the sounds of their enemy dragging artillery into position atop a ridge along the Chewalla Road directly north of Battery Robinett. Just before dawn, the regiment was moved to the left of Battery Robinett, facing west. Soon thereafter, Rebel cannon opened fire on the Union lines. The following account of the bombardment was penned by a soldier in Co. F of the 43rd Ohio who signed his name F.C.L.:
“We were waked up about 3 o’clock in the morning and took arms and moved closer to the fort on our right. We had not been standing more than five minutes when boom went a cannon, and away went a shell over our heads. We then laid down together while the Rebels poured shot and shell over us like rain. It was awful.
One of our company who lay right next to me was struck in the hip with a piece of shell; I helped carry him away. Pretty soon another of our company was struck in the forehead. The Rebels had planted one of their batteries within a few hundred yards of us during the night and now they were trying their best to shell us out of our position. It was dark yet, and we could trace the course of every shell, nearly all of which burst directly over us. Well, they kept it up for nearly two hours, and it was terrible beyond description. They had our range complete at every shot, and if we had been standing, we would have been cut to pieces. As it was, we only lost 15-20 men during the whole cannonade, most of their shots passing over us and falling in the rear. The Rebels fired grape, canister, shell, solid balls, etc. Our batteries kept up a constant fire on them but could not silence them so we had to lay and take it.
Colonel Smith was up and walking around, telling how to act and what to do all the time while they were firing on to us. He did not seem to mind the iron hail that was passing over him any more than he would snowflakes. A little after daylight, the Rebels ceased firing on us. Colonel Smith then told us to look steady to the front; he thought they had ceased firing in order to make a charge on us.”

Charles H. Smith of the 27th Ohio noted that “the Union troops, although without blankets, had not been allowed fires during the night, which was a cold one, and they had no breakfast the next morning, for not a man was allowed to leave ranks to get rations because of the nearness of the enemy. The day opened clear and hot- it must have been 95 degrees.”
Confederate sharpshooters from Arkansas
proved their effectiveness at Corinth.
Confederate sharpshooters stationed themselves in nearby trees and opened a hot fire on Fuller’s brigade, especially on the 43rd Ohio. “Their fire became so destructive that Colonel Smith ordered one of the guns of Battery Robinett to be fired upon them. The second shot brought them down. This was one of the most trying positions our brigade was placed in during the war,” wrote Charles Smith.

The attention of the men turned to the right for a time as they witnessed the assault of General Price’s division on another part of the army, but soon had more pressing matters to occupy their attention. Around 10 A.M., two Confederates brigades under General Dabney Maury stormed towards Battery Robinett with the aim of overrunning the bastion, and breaking the Union left flank. The Confederate force included General John C. Moore’s brigade consisting of the 42nd Alabama, 15th and 23rd Arkansas, 35th Mississippi, and 2nd Texas; General Charles W. Phifer’s brigade consisted of three dismounted cavalry regiments (3rd Arkansas, 6th Texas, and 9th Texas) and some Arkansas sharpshooters. Arrayed behind a series of breastworks protected by abatis, the men of Fuller’s brigade gasped in astonishment at the sight unfolding before them. “Their columns moved in almost unbroken lines, their battle flags flaunting in the clear sunlight. No sight like this had ever before greeted the eyes of the soldiers,” commented Charles Smith. It was a picture book image of war, and one soon to be blasted into oblivion like so many other fantasies of youth.
Battle of Corinth as depicted by Hal Jespersen (www.cwmaps.com)
Colonel John Fuller described the onset of the Rebel attack on Battery Robinett. “Their banners waved gaily, and on reaching the edge of the woods, they halted a few seconds as if to perfect their formation and then bore down on us. The column in the road, meeting little or no obstruction, was soon far in advance of the others.” Charles Smith noted that the brigade held its fire until the Confederates were just a few yards from the fort, then three regiments (27th, 43rd, and 63rd Ohio) “rose en masse and simultaneously delivered a tremendous volley of musketry fire and went at them. The guns in the hands of our trained soldiers told with terrible effect upon the advancing foe. After the long practice in the use of arms, the men of the brigade could load and fire in the shortest possible time, but after each discharge the time necessary to ram the charge down and fire again seemed unusually long. This was especially so when the gun barrels became so hot after repeated firing that they could hardly be held.”
Colonel John W. Fuller of the 27th Ohio led the
brigade at Corinth and for much of the war. 
Fuller continues: “Captain Lathrop of my staff was sent to order Colonel Smith to ‘change front forward.’ This maneuver Smith proceeded to execute just as if his regiment was on parade, aligning his right company on the markers before giving the order for the other companies to advance. This movement was not fully completed when Smith was shot down. A column which advanced along the west side of the road got close to the battery and the men, sheltering themselves behind stumps and logs, were firing sharply. ‘Those fellows are firing at you, Colonel,’ said one of the 43rd Ohio’s men. ‘Well, give it to them,’ answered the colonel and immediately thereafter he fell from his horse.” (Fuller, “Our Kirby Smith, MOLLUS Ohio, Vol. 2)

Musician David Auld of Company B was just behind the ranks when Colonel Smith ordered the regiment to change position. “Colonel Smith mounted his horse, drew his sword, and in the same loud clear voice we had so often heard, commanded, “Attention Battalion! Fix bayonets! Change front forward on the first company. By company, right half wheel…” The command was never finished. A ball passed through his head.”

The ground over which the 43rd Ohio was endeavoring to maneuver into position was obstructed with logs and brush which served to break up the lines; fire from the rapidly advancing Confederate force to the left of the Chewalla Road raked the regiment.

F.C.L. continued: “We began to fire on them immediately. I aimed at them and pulled the trigger- the cap only exploded and my gun didn’t go off. (The 43rd Ohio was equipped with Enfield rifles at Corinth- editor note)  I put on a fresh cap and was about to try it again when I saw Colonel Smith fall off his horse, and almost the same time Adjutant C.C. Heyl of Columbus was struck. Some of the boys helped him off his horse before he could fall. They were both within a few steps of me when they were hit. Lieutenant Colonel Swayne rode up and told some of us to carry the Colonel off; as I was close to him, I helped two or three of our boys to carry him off. When we picked him up, we all thought he was dead as he did not move a muscle. He was struck on the upper lip, the ball coming out under the right ear.”
The 43rd Ohio defending Battery Robinett as depicted in Smith's History of Fuller's Ohio Brigade from 1909
Colonel Fuller was busily engaged with bringing up the 11th Missouri to support the 63rd Ohio when he glanced over towards the 43rd Ohio’s lines. “I saw some men picking up a wounded officer whose face was stained with blood. I did not then know it was Colonel Smith but directly after I saw his Adjutant Heyl ride up to that group and with a futile effort to steady himself by grasping his horse’s mane, fall also to the ground.” (Fuller, MOLLUS, pg. 174) F.C.L wrote that “we took Colonel Smith to a hotel near the depot that was being used as a hospital- it was about one fourth of a mile from where he fell.”
Another print from The History of the Fuller Brigade depicting the defense of Battery Robinett; the 43rd Ohio is on the left of the picture.
In the meantime, Whitelaw Reid wrote that “the 43rd and 63rd stood firmly at their posts, and succeeding in staggering the assaulting column and in hurling it back, at a time when our lines were broken and our troops were seen flying from every other part of the field.” The 27th Ohio and 11th Missouri counterattacked and broke the Confederate assault; in the process, Private Orrin Gould of the Co. G, 27th Ohio seized the colors of the 9th Texas Cavalry from beneath the dead body of a Rebel color bearer. Smith described the flag as having “a red ground with blue cross bars and twelve stars. The dark spots on it are the blood stains.”
A depiction of Private Orrin Gould of Co. G, 27th Ohio (at center) capturing the battle flag of the 9th Texas Cavalry (dismounted). The flag made frequent appearances at reunions for many years before being mistakenly returned to Georgia in 1972. 
Musician Auld admired his foe’s bravery: “The men composing a large part of these attacking columns were rough riders from Texas and the southwest, enlisted as cavalry but serving as infantry and armed with breech loading Sharps’ rifles. These Texans, noted for bravery and marksmanship, fully sustained their reputation.” Colonel Fuller remembered a scrappy Texan who plucked a fallen Confederate battle flag from the ground, lifted the staff over his shoulder, and ran zigzagging and ducking across the field, escaping back into Confederate lines amidst a hail of Federal bullets. “Some of the boys who missed him gave him the cheer that was due a hero.”
The valor and bravery of the Confederates who charged to the top of the ramparts at Battery Robinett drew admiration from even their opponents. "These Texans, noted for their bravery and marksmanship, fully sustained their reputation," noted one Federal soldier. 
Once the battle was over and Auld was relieved of his duties, he assuaged his boyish curiosity by climbing out over the north face of Battery Robinett and walking amongst the carnage of battle. “Of all the sights my eyes ever looked upon, this was the most ghastly and depressing. Great heaps of men piled in every conceivable shape, the deep wide ditch being heaped with this frightful waste of war; many smooth faced boys, almost children, touched my heart, and many hardened faces that did not. Many badly wounded were held fast in the mass by the weight of the dead. I with other willing hands helped carefully to untangle this mass of misery. I have seen many bloody battlefields, but none ever caused the tumult in my brain that this one did, and on no other have I ever seen in so limited a space the great numbers that were strewn and piled at Robinett and its vicinity.”

The battle of October 4th was equally short and ferocious: in fighting reminiscent of Antietam, both Union and Confederate troops had displayed remarkable courage, and paid the butcher’s bill in full in red ink. The Ohio Brigade lost 331 out of the approximately 1,000 men engaged (the 39th Ohio was held in reserve and suffered a loss of 15, mostly due to shell fire): the 43rd Ohio lost 16 killed and 74 wounded out of 450. The 27th Ohio, better protected by the abatis and fort, lost 78 men out of 250. The 63rd Ohio, the most exposed due to their position, lost 132 out of 275, or nearly half their number in defending Battery Robinett.
One of the most gruesome pictures of the war: Confederate dead littered the ground in front of Battery Robinett. Musician David Auld recalled that no battle "ever caused the tumult in my brain that this one did."

For simple farm boys from Ohio, scenes like this simply had no parallel in their experience. 
Confederate losses totaled 4,233, with nearly 1,800 men captured; Federal losses came to 2,520. Van Dorn’s splendid army had lost one man out of five who had marched on Corinth the day before; in the face of such devastating losses, Van Dorn withdrew that afternoon.

The battle was over, but Colonel Joseph L. Kirby Smith lay struggling for life in a hospital in Corinth. “It was nearly an hour after he was shot when Smith became conscious, and word came to us from the hospital that his wound was not mortal,” remembered Colonel Fuller. “I jumped upon a fallen tree in the rear of the 43rd and sang out to them that Colonel Smith was not killed, but would recover. This was repeated by Swayne and others, and the cheer which followed, taken up by the men of other regiments also, would have gladdened our Kirby’s heart.” (Fuller, MOLLUS, pg. 176)
Another less distinct view of the Confederate dead at Robinett. 
Later that evening, Colonel Fuller and General Stanley visited “our Kirby” in the hospital and discovered that Kirby had received the same wound that had killed his father many years before in Mexico. “A shot entered just under the right nostril, passing somewhat upward until deflected by a bone, when it passed out at the left ear,” Fuller stated. Although Kirby could not speak, his first question (written on a memorandum book offered by Fuller) was to ask about his beloved 43rd Ohio. “How did my regiment behave?” he asked. General Stanley replied, “most gallantly,” and this remark “seemed to please Smith greatly and he at once acknowledged it with one of his graceful salutes.”

The Federal army departed the following day to pursue the retreating Confederate army, and “our Kirby” remained convalescing in the hospital. While on the march, Colonel Fuller received frequent reports that Kirby was improving, even starting to walk around his room. However, when he returned on October 12th and visited Kirby, he found that his condition had badly deteriorated. “I saw almost at a glance that all hope of his recovery must be fast fading out. I was greatly surprised to find him so feeble, so cold, so drowsy.” Kirby weakly held out his hand to Fuller, who grasped it, and in response to a question as to how he felt, wrote to Fuller that he was “utterly exhausted.” Kirby soon fell asleep, and the troubled Fuller was consoled by the regimental surgeon who proffered that Kirby would improve. It was not to be.

Later that evening (October 12, 1862), Lieutenant Colonel Wager Swayne appeared at Colonel Fuller’s tent to report that Kirby was fading. The two men sent for Surgeon Thrall and rode over to the hospital, but “we were too late. As we entered, we noticed that the room had been freshly swept, and we saw a white sheet covering something on the cot, now moved back against the wall, which told us that he was gone,” wrote Colonel Fuller. (Fuller, MOLLUS, pg. 177-179)

Second Lieutenant John W. Thompson of Co. G spoke for many in the regiment. “He was mourned by every man in the regiment. He was manly, noble, and brave, admired by all, cool when all was excitement, brave when dangers were imminent; his soul seemed to gather strength and nobility of purpose as difficulties increased,” he wrote. “Yet he fell and we especially mourn his loss; for we knew his worth by intimate acquaintance that made him doubly dear to us. Time never can obliterate from our minds the name of one of the noblest patriots that has ever fallen for our common country.” (‘Interesting History of the 43rd Ohio Regiment,’ Steubenville Weekly Herald, June 17, 1863, pg. 1)

The loss of “our Kirby” was profoundly felt not only in the regiment, but by his superior officers. His division commander David Stanley lamented that he had “not the words to describe the qualities of this model soldier, or to express the loss we have sustained in his death. The best testimony I can give to his memory is the spectacle witnessed by myself in the very moment of battle as stern, brave men weeping as children as the word passed, ‘Kirby Smith is killed.’ By his side fell his constant companion and Adjutant, accomplished young Heyl.” General Alpheus S. Williams, who knew Kirby Smith from the outset of the war when he was stationed at Detroit, wrote that Kirby Smith was “my beau-ideal of a young man. Cheerful, religious, faithful, and sincere; frank, brave, affectionate, and dutiful, he combined all the severer virtues of mature age without illiberality, prejudice, bigotry, envy or malevolence. His heart was so given to the cause of his country and he was free from selfish considerations.”
Lieutenant Colonel Wager Swayne of the 43rd Ohio accompanied the body of his friend and comrade home for burial in Syracuse, New York. 
Colonel Smith’s body was returned to Syracuse, New York, accompanied by his friend Lieutenant Colonel Wager Swayne. The mortal remains of “Our Kirby” rest there today, beneath a shared stone at Oakwood Cemetery that also commemorates his father Ephraim Kirby Smith. But his memory lives on in the hearts of the soldiers from his adopted state of Ohio.
Gravestone of "Our Kirby" at Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse, New York (Find-a-grave)
Next week’s blog post will continue on with the theme of the Ohio Brigade at the Battle of Corinth, but with a twist: I will be both reviewing Brad Quinlin’s new book “For My Grandchildren: The Civil War Journey of Pierre Starr” and providing an excerpt from the book which gives a “behind the scenes” look at the Battle of Corinth, giving the perspective of a Federal surgeon at this bloody western theater battle.
"The Blood-stained Flag" of the 9th Texas Cavalry captured by Private Gould at Corinth was sent to Governor David Tod in October 1862 and resided in the relic room of the Ohio Statehouse for many years. The silk ANV-style flag originally was more of a rose red or pink color and has faded to this cream color with age. It was mistakenly returned to Georgia in 1972.  (Photo by Ron Brothers- http://gen.1starnet.com/civilwar/9cvflag.htm)


  1. Fantastic stuff as always! Side note: One of the defensive positions built in northern Kentucky to defend Cincinnati was names after Smith. Battery J.L. Kirby Smith occupied a position on the far west of the line, very close to the Ohio River, in a section of low ground between the river and Battery Coombs on higher ground to the southeast. Nothing remains of the position today.

  2. Hi, You may be interested to know that today (August 29th, 2020) I acquired an image of an unidentified Federal colonel at an auction in Lafayette, Indiana for a relative pittance. Using the gallery stamp on the back ("N. E. [LE]WIS, MT. VERNON, OHIO"), and your fine site, I was able to quickly ID the officer as none other than Colonel Joseph L. Kirby Smith, 43rd OVI! The image is identical to the one posted at the top of your page albeit cut down and placed inside an oval metal locket-style frame. Needless to say, I was surprised and delighted with my inexpensive acquisition. I have no idea how the image ended up in Indiana, but it's possible the photograph was once a keepsake of a 43rd OVI veteran Sometimes we get lucky, don't we?


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