A Civil War Biography

Smith Pyne Bankhead


Bankhead was born 20 August 1823 at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina. His father, Brigadier General James Bankhead, was a career army officer from Virginia who was stationed in South Carolina at the time. Smith Bankhead grew up in Virginia and attended Georgetown University and the University of Virginia. He was a captain in the Virginia volunteers during the war with Mexico and served under his father who commanded the US troops at Vera Cruz after the city fell. After returning from Mexico Bankhead migrated to California during the gold rush but found life to hard in California and settled in Memphis, Tennessee in 1851. In Memphis he became involved in politics and founded and edited the "Memphis Whig", a party newspaper. He was elected the city attorney of Memphis in 1852 and built a reputable private law practice until interrupted by the war.

Even before Tennessee seceded Bankhead was recruiting men to form an artillery battery. The Governor of Tennessee, Isham G Harris, signed Bankhead's commission on 29 June 1861 appointing him "Sixth Captain in the Artillery Corps in the service of the Provisional Force of the Tennessee Volunteers." His first engagement was under John P McCown at New Madrid. Shortly before the battle of Shiloh, Bankhead was named chief of artillery of Leonidas Polk's I Corps of the Army of the Mississippi. Following Shiloh Bankhead was promoted to major and transferred to the Trans-Mississippi Department where he served for the remainder of the war. He was assigned as chief of artillery for his first cousin, John Bankhead Magruder in the District of Texas. Smith Bankhead was promoted to colonel on 13 November 1862 but the promotion was never confirmed by the Confederate Senate. The papers evidently were mislaid in the Confederate War Office and not seen by the Senate. Bankhead was assigned command at San Antonio Texas in the spring of 1863. On 30 May 1863 he was assigned to command the North Sub-district of Texas as an acting brigadier general. While failing to link his forces with Confederate forces in Indian Territory, Oklahoma, he was relieved of his district command on 29 August 1863. He returned to Texas and was again assigned as chief of artillery of the district on 28 December 1863. He would see no further field service. His promotion to colonel, to rank from 15 June 1864, was finally approved on 14 January 1865. On 1 March 1865 Bankhead passed through the Union lines near New Orleans heading home. He was given a pass of safe conduct and protection by Union Major General Edward RS Canby, with the assurance that he would not fight against the United States again. Bankhead returned to Memphis.

Bankhead became a prominent figure in the Reconstruction government that was harsh on the Memphis area. He was appointed Deputy City Attorney and Trustee of the Navy Yard. His ties to the Reconstructionists made him very unpopular with his former Confederates. On 31 March 1867 at about 11:00 on a Saturday evening Bankhead was struck down from behind and beaten to death by persons never identified. The crime is the oldest unsolved murder on the books of the Memphis Police Department.

In addition to his cousin being a major general in the Confederate service and his father being a brigadier general in the US army prior to the war, Bankhead had two brothers that served on the Union side during the war. John Bankhead was a captain in the navy who at one point commanded the USS Monitor. Henry Bankhead was a brevet brigadier general who served on Don Carlos Buell's staff.

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