Presented by the Laurens County Historical Society, Dublin, Georgia. For questions and information, please contact Scott B. Thompson, Sr. at dublinhistory@yahoo.com.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

THE UBIQUITOUS REBEL

Captain John Smith


During the summer of 1887, when the folks in Kansas began to read of the valiant and daring exploits of Captain John M. Smith of Dublin, Georgia, they could hardly believe the words their eyes were seeing on the pages of the state’s most popular newspapers.  It seemed like Smith was here, there, and everywhere during the Civil War, not to mention his post war exploits as a soldier and mercenary.

Captain Smith began to tell his tales to just about anyone who would listen.  In those days, stories of the glorious days of the late war were always welcomed and enjoyed.  Somehow, a trusting or headline seeking writer for the Savannah Morning News put them into print.  And, before long, the story spread to newspapers around the country.

Smith was described “a fine, hale, and hearty man, about forty years old” and who had never drank tea, coffee, or milk, or had never taken a chew of tobacco, played a game of any kind, gone fishing or hunting, been to a picnic, and seen a game of baseball played.”

Despite the fact that Smith claimed he had never participated in any of these common place activities, he proclaimed that he had been a commercial traveler for at least seven years and had traveled all over the United States and Central America.

The ubiquitous rebel asserted that he joined the Confederate Army about the year 1862 when he was only fifteen years of age.   Enlisting at such an age was not unusual in that many boys sixteen and under, who could pass for being older, joined both the Southern and Northern armies.

What is extremely unusual in Smith’s claim that shortly after his enlistment he was elected Captain of his company, thus making the tall tale teller the youngest captain in the army of the Confederate States of America.

Captain Smith told the Savannah reporter that during 1864, he was placed in command of a company of  repatriated Union prisoners being held at Andersonville Prison in Southwest Georgia.  When the company first encountered their former comrades in battle, they quickly surrendered to their true allegiance, leaving Captain Smith at the mercy of his Federal captors.

During the first nightfall, Smith executed his escape plan.  He had just made his way  out from his guarded position, when he was struck by a guard’s bullet.  A wounded Smith crawled three miles under  pitch dark skies back to the Confederate lines.

During the opening moments of the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864, Smith was a member of the division of Major General William H.T. Walker, who commanded several Georgia brigades, which included the 57th Georgia and the 63rd Georgia and many Laurens County men, along with two South Carolina Brigades.

As General Sherman’s army was approaching and preparing to cross the Chattahoochee River, west and north of Atlanta, Smith volunteered to go on a reconnaissance mission in effort to determine enemy strengths and movements.

Smith remembered floating down the river on a log unobserved by Union pickets Smith returned a day or so later to report to John B. Hood, a four-star general in command of the entire Army of the Tennessee.  As evidence of his presence behind enemy lines, Smith produced a Union officer’s sword to Gen. Hood as he relayed vital information that Sherman’s army was not retreating but preparing for a flanking action, further downstream.

While General Walker was in the process of reconnoitering Union positions, he was shot and killed by an enemy sharpshooter.  Of course, Smith, who seemed to find himself in the middle of the action, was himself within a few steps of the General when he fell.

On April 12, 1862, Capt.  James Andrews, with twenty volunteers from Silĺs Brigade,  U.S.A., dressed as civilians, captured the "General" locomotive  at Big Shanty while the train crew and passengers were taking breakfast to help destroy the tracks and  bridges on the Western & Atlantic R.R. to cut off the Confederate Army from its base supplies. Conductor W.A. Fuller accompanied, in what became the “Great Locomotive Chase” joined Engineer Jeff Cain and Anthony Murphy, Foreman of the W.& A. Shops, in a foot pursuit. They soon secured a hand car and in spite of obstructions placed on the track by Andrews Raiders, made rapid progress. They found the engine "Yonah" at Etowah, and the pursuit then was at such a rapid pace, that serious damage to the railroad by the Raiders was impossible. The "General" was abandoned by the Raiders on account of lack of fuel and the close pursuit of Conductor Fuller and his party.  An historical marker in Kennesaw also gives credit to . Steve Stokely, Peter Bracken, F.Cox, A.Martin, H.Haney, and ..... Smith, who possibly could have been our John Smith, albeit he was still 16 years of age or under.

During his service to the Army of the Confederacy, Smith reported that he had been engaged in thirty battles and suffered moderate to severe wounds three times.

Two years after the war in 1867, Smith claimed that he was a prominent figure in a revolution in a country in Central America.

John Smith’s last great hurrah possibly came in the autumn of 1873 when he served as a member of the crew of the USS Virginius under the command of Captain Joseph Fry. The ship was carrying arms, ammunition, and supplies to Cuban rebels, who were going to attack Spanish positions in Cuba. The mission failed. Fry, Smith and many others were captured and were sentenced to death by execution.   Fry and nearly 40 crew members were decapitated.  Somehow Smith escaped Cuba with his head still attached to his body.

               Are the stories of the valiant Captain John M. Smith true?  Not a soul alive or dead knows for sure, only the Captain himself knows the whole truth and he is long dead.  As for me, I will heed and paraphrase  the words of the fictional newspaper man, Maxwell Scott, who interviewed the heroic and fictional  Ransom Stoddard, who for decades was falsely given the credit for being the man who shot Liberty Valance. So for now, I will only say, This is the South. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

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