The UNIVERSITY MEMORIAL: SUMMERFIELD SMITH


THE UNIVERSITY MEMORIAL.

VOLUME IV--1864.


SUMMERFIELD SMITH, M.A.,

Captain, First Regiment Engineer Troops.


SUMMERFIELD SMITH Was born on the 5th of August, 1836, at Leesburg, in Loudoun county, Virginia. Like his celebrated namesake, John Summerfield, he gave early promise of more than ordinary talents. To those who marked his brief career, this promise seemed to be fully verified. Entering the University at the age of nineteen, he obtained in three sessions, and not without considerable distinction, the highest academic honor of the institution; receiving his degree as Master of Arts on the 29th of July, 1868, to which time the session had been prolonged because of an interruption in its coarse by an epidemic. The three years immediately following were spent in teaching; first in the school of his brother, Edward B. Smith, now Professor in Richmond College, and then, for two years, as assistant to one who had been his instructor at the University, the late Dr. Gessner Harrison. Several of his summer vacations were at the same time pleasantly and profitably spent in making geological explorations partly in the hill country of his native State, partly amidst the mountains of Vermont and eastern New York. To one such tour especially, made in company with a select party, among whom were Professor Clarke, of Columbian College, and Professor Brush, now of Yale College, and led by Colonel Jewett, he often afterwards referred as having combined in an eminent degree the healthful recreation needed by a tired teacher, the social pleasure of congenial company, the intellectual enjoyment of Scientific pursuit, and the practical knowledge of the world derived from seeing men under all circumstances.

In September, 1861, in company with his younger brother Howard, he volunteered as a private in the famous Rockbridge Artillery, then commanded by Captain McLaughlin, and attached to the Stonewall Brigade. With this battery he served through Jackson's memorable winter campaign, including the forced marches over ice-covered roads, and amidst sleet and snow and bitter cold, on the expedition to Bath and Romney. His health, frail from early childhood, broke down under the long-continued exposure and privation. He never fully recovered from the effects, though he soon considered himself fit for duty; and on the 23d of March following participated in one of the most brilliant actions of the war--the battle of Kernstown--in which his company with their field-pieces literally charged the enemy's infantry, and held for some time, without support, the advanced position.

Some months Subsequent to this event he was detailed as an engineer at the request of Captain, afterwards Colonel, Alfred L. Rives, acting Chief of the Bureau, who had then a high opinion of his attainments, and who, upon farther acquaintance with him, became warmly interested in his promotion to the position for which his ability and devotion to duty plainly fitted him. He was some commissioned a Lieutenant in the corps of engineers. Engaged at first mainly in making topographical surveys, he was soon entrusted with the more important and difficult problems of location and construction. Among the works successfully accomplished under his supervision was a bridge across the James, near Drury's Bluff, built on piles, and fitted with a draw to allow the passage of gunboats and of the steamers engaged in exchanging prisoners. This structure, adapted as it was to all tides, as well as the other works on which he was engaged, abundantly prove that one who brings to such duties a mind liberally and thoroughly trained, may soon equal and then rapidly surpass those whose education has been exclusively technical and professional. So highly were these services appreciated that when it was determined to organize for the Army of Northern Virginia a regiment of engineer troops, he was commissioned a Captain, and assigned to the division which had been led by Jackson, then by Ewell, and was now commanded by Major-General Edward Johnson. We are indebted for most of the facts and incidents which follow to a diary kept by one who had been his class-mate at college, and was henceforth his Lieutenant and mess-mate in the field.

On the 4th of June, 1863, Captain SMITH reported for duty to General Johnson, and was assigned to command the pioneer corps of the division until a company of mechanics and others suitable for engineer troops could be selected and detailed from the different regiments. The next morning the whole Army of Northern Virginia was in motion for the expedition into Pennsylvania. During this march we find but few incidents worth recording. On Saturday, June 13th, appears in the diary above mentioned this entry :--

"Moved at dawn with three days' rations. Rodes had taken the right the evening before, Early turned to the left towards Newtown; Johnson moved straight forward, the Stonewall Brigade being by request in front. Our order of march was, first a regiment which some miles from Winchester deployed as skirmishers, then the pioneers, then Carpenter's battery, then the rest of the division."

The next day Winchester was captured, and the army moved on again. On the 18th we find Captain SMITH with his pioneers engaged through a severe thunder-storm, and up to twelve midnight, on the approaches and crossings of the Potomac and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal behind Shepherdstown, Virginia, and Sharpsburg, Maryland--a work with which the General next day "expressed himself as highly pleased." From the record of the next two weeks, during which the army was moving without obstruction on macadamized roads, we make a few brief extracts, which seem to indicate the spirit of the times:--

"21st. . Couldn't help laughing aloud at seeing groups of men in citizen's dress. . .

"23d. . Foraging is profitable, as everything is plenty, and one need give only so much money as he chooses. . .

"24th. . The people know nothing, and in politics are nothing. Some complain feebly. Three men only we have found who were really glad to see us--they had just been conscripted. . .

"26th. . Spent in camp. . Engaged in selecting men to fill out the company. . .

"27th. . Approaching Carlisle. . The citizens are terribly frightened, though few depredations are committed. One old fellow got off a joke about our 'coming into the Union,' but most of them tremble as they speak." . .

In the terrific battle of Gettysburg, July 1st to 3d, we find our pioneers near the left wing--right much exposed but not actively engaged. For the next week we have an account of the retreat. Officers and men alike wet with the almost continual rain, toiling wearily through mud and mountain, with very irregular and insufficient supplies of food and but little chance to sleep. On the 10th, all the engineer force of the army was assembled under command of Major Clarke, of the General Staff, to collect material and build boats for bridging the Potomac at Falling Waters. Captain SMITH was selected by the Major commanding to assist him in drawing up plans and specifications for the boats, which they agreed to make "6 by 18 feet at bottom, 7 by 30 feet at top, and 3 feet deep, framed with seven bents and covered with two-inch planks calculated to carry a span of twenty feet." While the pioneers were engaged in building these in the boat-yards of Williamsport, Maryland, he was again honored in being selected to assist in locating and planning the construction of the proposed bridge. We find that, when complete,

"It consisted (beginning from the Virginia, shore) of three spans of trestles, nine on regular pontoons--the remnant of our old Pontoon train--fourteen on the new boats and three more on trestles, making in all about 550 feet long. The depth of water varied from six to ten feet, and the current was 80 strong that the bridge had to be stayed by a cable, in addition to the anchors, most of which were boxes 36x15 by 15 inches filled with stone."

This structure, though made of such in congruous and crude materials, stood the severe test to which it was subjected in the crossing for thirty hours of one continuous stream of trains and troops, sometimes sunken almost to the water's edge by a line of artillery flanked on either side by columns of infantry. As soon as the bridge was ready for use Captain SMITH was again selected to reconnoitre for a line of defense covering its approaches. His recommendations were approved, and forthwith the whole force was ordered out to construct under his direction the necessary earthworks.

When the army had safely crossed, he was again detained to assist in saving such portions of the bridge as seemed worth preserving, and in destroying the remainder. Thus for three days and nights of rainy weather he had little or no rest. Sunday night, July 12th, was spent at work on the bridge; Monday night, in keeping it in order and superintending the crossing of the troops; and Tuesday night, the 14th, in destroying the structure. The promptness, skill, and fidelity which he then displayed added no little to the enviable reputation as an engineer which he already enjoyed, but the fatigue, exposure, and above all, the anxiety which these services entailed, cowed the seeds of fatal disease.

Though never thereafter entirely well, he remained with the army till the 6th of August. Meantime the plan for organizing the engineer troops was changed; all the men who had been detailed were returned to their respective regiments, and the officers were sent out to find recruits among the few men still left in the workshops of the country. As soon as Captain SMITH returned from the field he was stricken down with a severe attack of sickness, and did not recover sufficiently to resume his duties until the middle of January following. At this time the regiment, now partially formed, occupied a camp of instruction near Richmond. On the 7th of February a party of Federal soldiers advanced towards the city, approaching so closely that their guns could be distinctly heard. This caused apprehensions of an émeute among the Federal prisoners, and all available forces were ordered out. The engineer troops, called from their comfortable winter-quarters, had to bivouac for several days on a bleak hill overlooking the prison-camp on Belle Isle. Captain SMITH was at the time suffering with a severe and obstinate headache, which he attributed to neuralgia. Visiting the residence of his brother, Major Edward B. Smith, then on ordnance duty in the city, he was pressed to remain, in view of his suffering condition and of the great exposure of the service before him. He replied with characteristic devotion and firmness that if he went into sick quarters at such a time, when just ordered upon an exposed and possibly dangerous services he would seem to his men willing to shirk his duty. Thus deliberately, as we too sadly know in the light of the then fast-coming events, on that wintry and dreary day, he turned away from the comforts and attentions of a home, doubly grateful and needful in his weakened condition, and chose death rather than the appearance of failure in duty.

In a very few days he was carried back to his brother's house, suffering severely. He remained there a week, and though really too sick to travel, his longing to get home was so great that he was allowed to start; but by the time he reached the house of his eldest brother, Professor Francis H. Smith, at the University of Virginia, the symptoms of his disease had become of an unmistakably typhoid character. In a day or two delirium supervened, and he expired on the 2d of March, 1864.

In person, SUMMERFIELD SMITH was rather fine-looking than handsome. His frame was well-proportioned and somewhat above the usual stature. His fair skin, light hair, remarkable broad brow, bluish-gray eyes, well-shapen nose, fine rhetorical mouth, and smooth chin, made up a face at once striking and attractive. A noticeable feature was the broad mouth, encompassed as it was by thin, flexible lips, which habitually indicated resolute determination, but readily relaxed into a pleasant smile.

The excellent temper and quality of his mind may be inferred from what has already been said. His rare conversational powers deserve to be specially mentioned. No one was more welcome in the social circle gathered round a blazing camp-fire or assembled in a lady's drawing-room, for none could bring a better fund of sprightly wit, cultivated taste, and extensive general information. It was not this alone, however, which, during his short life, drew to him so many friends from among the best and noblest young men of our land; it was chiefly because they found in him a kindred spirit, a genial nature, and an uncalculating devotion. He was a dutiful son, an affectionate brother, and a faithful friend. Ambitious without envy, brave but not reckless, decided yet never impolite, conscientious in everything, he exhibited a character and bearing worthy of all imitation. His faults--and his most intimate associates rarely saw them--were those of an impulsive and generous heart. So Strict was his attention to religious duty that not even amid the distractions of the camp or the weariness of the march did he omit to read the Word of God and bow in secret prayer.

In this connection, a brother, who loved, admired, and was proud of him, claims, under the title of that affection and esteem, the privilege of adding here a testimony to his many virtues:--"Out of no small circle of men, the writer of these lines never knew one with a finer sense of uprightness and honor than was possessed by SUMMERFIELD SMITH--a senses that made him recoil from any act about which the slightest doubt of its rectitude could be suggested. A magnanimous gentleman, he was far above all self-seeking; his was a generous hand and strong but tender nature. In his brief career he acquired no wide renown, it may be; but the devoted esteem of loyal hearts, which is the only earthly reward worth striving for, the only conquest that endures and repays the costliest sacrifice of self, he won and held till death; and it ever survives to keep his memory green in all the hearts that loved him. His purity of thoughts and consequently of life, was one of the most remarkable traits of his exemplary character. With whatever doubts assailed, he had a true faith in Christ, and has most surely proved the truth of that Divine beatitude, 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.'

"Some who read these lines will recall him with tender recollections. If any--viewing the dark Providence which swept from our commonwealth, in their early manhood, so many noble sons like him--are inclined to call their end untimely, we may and must confide the inscrutable issue to the Master, who takes the workman but provides for the work. Meanwhile it is consoling to reflect that those lives, hose ever short, are crowned with honor, which set us bright examples of purity and truth, and give new meaning to the old-time words, friendship, patriotism, and religion."


Rev. John Lipscomb Johnson, The University Memorial: Biographical Sketches of Alumni of the University of Virginia Who Fell in the Confederate War, (Baltimore, Maryland: Turnbull Brothers, 1871), 542-548.


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