This month marks the 150th anniversary of the surrender of the Confederacy’s Trans-Mississipi Department to federal forces, effectively ending the Civil War. The Confederate general in charge of the department was Edmund Kirby Smith, who is one of two Floridians honored in the U.S. Capitol in Statuary Hall.
Of course, symbols of the Confederacy are in the news in the wake of the Charleston shooting. Unlike South Carolina, the Florida Capitol grounds don’t include the Confederate flag since then-Gov. Jeb Bush removed it to a museum back in 2001. But there are plenty of reasons to remove Kirby Smith from Statuary Hall that have nothing to do with race relations or slavery.
Born in St. Augustine in 1824, Kirby Smith is pretty obscure, even among Civil War buffs. Wounded at the first battle of Bull Run early in the war, Kirby Smith re-emerged in 1862 to play a prominent role in the botched Confederate invasion of Kentucky, which climaxed at the battle of Perryville. Kirby Smith led his forces to a Confederate victory at the battle of Richmond during the Kentucky campaign, but while he did not blunder as much as fellow Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, he did not exactly cover himself with glory, either.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis placed Kirby Smith in charge of the Trans-Mississippi Department -- most of Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and parts of Missouri -- in early 1863. Kirby Smith could do little to help Confederate efforts to stop Ulysses S. Grant’s army at Vicksburg and, by early July 1863, the Union had firm control of the Mississippi River -- leaving Kirby Smith and the Trans-Mississippi cut off from the rest of the Confederacy.
Kirby Smith was certainly in an unusual position, something Davis recognized. Writing Kirby Smith in July 1863, less than two weeks after Vicksburg fell, Davis pointed out to the general what he now faced.
“Your department is placed in a new relation and your difficulties must be materially enhanced,” Davis wrote. “You now have not merely a military, but also a political problem, involved in your command.”
Kirby Smith became the Confederacy’s de facto leader in the Trans-Mississippi, even as Davis urged him to work with the various state governors and gave him economic advice. Pretty soon, the region was being called “Kirby Smithdom.”
As the Union went on to take Atlanta and pin Robert E. Lee’s army down in Petersburg in 1864, Kirby Smith did little to turn the tide. While he managed to hold off an invading federal force during the Red River campaign, Kirby Smith authorized having Sterling Price make a last ditch attempt to take Missouri. After the other Confederate armies gave up, Kirby Smith negotiated the surrender of the Trans-Mississipi and hightailed it to Mexico and Cuba. He spent the rest of his life in business efforts and, much more successfully, in higher education.
Along with John Gorrie, generally considered the father of air conditioning, Kirby Smith is one of Florida’s two contributions to Statuary Hall. Kirby Smith had little in the way of connections to Florida once he left to head to West Point.
Liberals, of course, would not want to honor Kirby Smith for his role in the Confederacy. But conservatives should also be troubled by Kirby Smith being included in Statuary Hall. Even in wartime, Kirby Smith held far too much power, far beyond the extent of his office and his authority from Davis. Kirby Smith also did not deal with challenges when called out on it from the various Confederate generals and even Gen. Richard Taylor, his most talented subordinate, the son of Zachary Taylor and Davis’ brother-in-law. Kirby Smith’s power gave ammo to Davis’ Confederate critics -- ranging from reluctant Vice President Alexander Stephens to fire-eaters who led the charge to get the South out of the Union like Robert Rhett -- who thought the Confederate president bore all the makings of a tyrant.
Historians and scholars are conflicted on Kirby Smith but most of them have generally found him not up to the tasks he confronted. To his credit, like Lee, Kirby Smith eventually turned to the future, leading and teaching at colleges in Tennessee. But, whatever his merits as an educator, Kirby Smith did little to impact Florida. There are far better choices than Kirby Smith to honor in Statuary Hall: Henry Flagler, Osceola, Mary McLeod Bethune, Father Francisco Pareja and plenty of others.
Kirby Smith left Florida after his childhood and he certainly did not epitomize the best parts of the Sunshine State. The general should be removed from Statuary Hall.
Reach Kevin Derby at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @KevinDerbySSN