Kirby Smith Inherits the Department Nobody Wants

February 9, 1863 (Monday)

Kirby Smith

The Confederate Department of the Trans-Mississippi had been for quite some time now, more or less, without an overall commander. The department itself was huge, encompassing nearly 600,000 square miles. It consisted of Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Indian Territory (Oklahoma), Texas and Confederate Arizona Territory (southern New Mexico and Arizona).

The Department was so vast that it was overseen by three District commanders. The most remote, District of Texas (which included Arizona), was commanded by General John Magruder. The West Louisiana District (as western Louisiana was all that the Confederates held) was handled by General Richard Taylor. The most active and populated district, that of Arkansas (which included Missouri and Indian Territory) was ineffectively headed by General Theophilus Holmes.

The Army of the Trans-Mississippi, exclusively operating in the District of Arkansas under Holmes’ guidance, was whipped. The whole operation seemed to be replete with a “lamentable record of bad management and of failures,” as Secretary of War James Seddon put it.

If the Confederacy west of the Mississippi River was to be saved, something had to be done. That something was General Kirby Smith.

Smith, with his string of exploits (it would be a stretch to really call them victories) had gained quite a bit of popularity in the South. He was seen as a Jeb Stuart of infantry or even a Stonewall Jackson of the West. What’s more, President Jefferson Davis genuinely liked him – a good thing if you were a mediocre Confederate officer wanting a promotion beyond your abilities – Davis seemed to hand those things out like candy. Also, he was specifically requested by the Arkansas delegation to the Confederate Congress.

And so on this date, it was made official: “The command of Lieut. Gen. Kirby Smith is extended so as to embrace the Trans-Mississippi Department.”

Brothers Thomas and William Duval of the 3rd Missouri Infantry (CS)

This meant the entire Trans-Mississippi Department. A week and a half prior to this, Davis had appointed Smith to take command “of the department to be composed of Louisiana and Texas.” From this, it sounded like Holmes would remain in command of the District of Arkansas, while Taylor and Magruder were ousted.

But now, that all seemed to change. Really, all that was happening (officially) was that Smith was to command all three districts. This was a huge undertaking.

For starters, Smith would have Grant’s Union Army of the Tennessee to contend with along the Mississippi River in Arkansas. He would also have Nathaniel Banks’ Army of the Gulf playing hell along the same river in Louisiana. From the north, in Missouri, the Union Army of the Frontier was still active. Also from the north were bushwhackers and Unionists.

But this was far from his only concern. None of the states under his command had been gung ho for secession from the start when compared to the eastern states. It was true that all (except maybe Arizona Territory) had more than their share of secessionists, but as the war raged in the east and privations mounted in the west, desire for the war to continue wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic as before.

The Confederate draft did nothing to help this sentiment. Almost as fast as they were plucked from their homes to serve in the army, many went into hiding. Some even formed bands of outlaws and Unionists. This would only worsen. Texas and Arkansas had both already enacted harsh penalties for desertion and draft dodging. This gave rise to the sentiment that it was the poor man who was fighting the rich man’s war.

Due to inflation, Confederate money was becoming more and more worthless. This was made even more of an issue by how easy it was to counterfeit the Southern bills. With money worthless, printing presses across Texas and Arkansas were churning out millions of dollars worth of bonds and treasury notes. All of the states in the Trans-Mississippi except Texas gave up on taxing their people – why bother when cash was worth next to nothing?

With Richmond’s decision to simply throw more money at the problem, corruption of every type by every sort of speculator was rampant.

What can I buy for ten Confederate (and possibly counterfeit) dollars?

When the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, many in the Trans-Mississippi Department went into hysterics, expecting a slave revolt at any moment. The Texas legislature promised a fifteen year sentence to any Union officer raising black troops (a far cry from the death penalty Jefferson Davis wanted).

When tallied in full, Kirby Smith’s new command would contain nearly 46,000 troops. These were necessarily spread thin. Arkansas had 25,000, Texas had over 11,000, Louisiana had 9,000 – though many were members of random home guard outfits and militias.

All of these, even the standing, official armies, were in great want of arms and supplies. Food and clothing were both scarce – a dyer problem, especially in winter. Many soldiers lacked footwear and overcoats. Blankets and shoes were also in short supply.

Some regiments took to placing ads in newspapers to procure what they needed, even firearms. Others simply took what they wanted from the already reeling civilian population they were sworn to protect.

It would take Kirby Smith nearly a month to get to his new headquarters in Alexandria, Louisiana. First, he had to wait until a certain Federal gunboat, the Queen of the West, was cleared from the Mississippi River between Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Only after that could he take a steamer from Port Hudson, up the Mississippi and Red Rivers to his new home.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, Part 2, p787; Kirby Smith’s Confederacy by Robert L. Kerby; “The Conquest of Arkansas” by Thomas Snead, appearing in Battles & Leaders, Vol. 3; A Crisis In Confederate Command by Jeffery S. Prushankin. []
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Kirby Smith Inherits the Department Nobody Wants by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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