A Civil War Biography

Thomas Benton Smith

Smith was born 25 February 1838 in Mechanicville, Tennessee. He was educated at the Western Military Institute in Nashville which he entered at the age of 16. Prior to the war Smith worked for the railroad in Nashville. When the war came Smith helped raise a company of volunteers which would become Company B of the 20th Tennessee. Smith served as a lieutenant. The 20th would see action at Mill Springs and then at Shiloh where it suffered over 50% casualties, including the capture and imprisonment of the company commander, Colonel Joel A. Battle. When reorganized a month later the company elected Smith its colonel. He led the 20th at Baton Rouge, Murfreesboro where he was severely wounded, and Chickamauga where he was wounded a second time. During the fight at Missionary Ridge the brigade commander, Colonel R. C. Tyler, was wounded and Smith assumed command. He would command the brigade throughout the Atlanta campaign and on 29 July 1864 was promoted to brigadier general becoming the youngest general in the Army of Tennessee. He would continue in command at Jonesboro, Franklin and Nashville.

Smith and his command held on valiantly at Nashville obeying the orders to "hold the line at all hazards" given by division commander General William Bates until overwhelmed by superior numbers. Smith was captured. As he was led toward the rear Smith was confronted by Colonel WILLIAM LINN McMILLEN of the 95th Ohio Infantry. McMillen was an alcoholic who had almost been cashiered from Union service for misconduct. Whether drunk or for some other reason possibly stemming from his time in captivity following his capture at the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky, McMillen began cursing and berating Smith. Smith's reply, according to witnesses, was simply "I am a disarmed prisoner" which further enraged McMillen. He drew his saber and struck Smith three blows to the head. Rushed to a field hospital by shocked Federal officers Smith was told he was going to die. To the surprise of the surgeons Smith survived and was sent to Fort Warren in Massachusetts where he was held until paroled at the end of the war. Smith returned to Nashville and resumed working for the railroad for awhile showing no affects from McMillen's attack. Smith even sought a seat in the US Congress. All was not well though. Periods of intense clinical depression came upon him in closer and closer intervals and finally robbed him of his ability to live independently. In 1876, he was admitted to the Tennessee state asylum. Other than occasional trips to reunions of the 20th Tennessee, Smith would remain in what would become known as the Central State Psychiatric Hospital until he died on 21 May 1923.

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