A one-room schoolhouse and its surrounding Virginia countryside, due east of Richmond, became a flashpoint of sharp fighting on June 25, 1862.
Early that morning, the picket line of a Union brigade advanced steadily through dense woods in this area. The bluecoats, who hailed from the 1st and 11th Massachusetts infantries, happened upon the 4th Georgia Infantry. These sons of the South, 400 muskets strong, formed a thin gray picket line ahead of their brigade.
Men on both sides braced for action. Shots rang out, and a battle erupted.
Unbeknownst to those present, they had just ignited the Seven Days Battles, a series of fierce engagements that would conclude the months-long Peninsula Campaign, and silenced Union cries of “On to Richmond.”
The ranks of the 4th included Capt. William Ephraim Smith. Though small of stature, he fought with the heart of a lion alongside his men in Company E. His story is representative of the stalwart Georgians who defended their national capital against the superior numbers of an invading force.
The eldest of two sons of a South Carolina mechanic who had settled in Georgia, Smith was born in Augusta and raised in Albany. He descended from English colonists who sided with the patriots during the Revolution. One of his grandfathers suffered a wound at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, N.C., in 1781.
Smith was known by a nickname that had followed him since boyhood. An admirer told the story of its origins. “A Frenchman called him ‘mon petite,’ which young Smith’s schoolmates translated into ‘Tete,’ and it came to pass that even history has caught up the nickname born in sunny childhood, and on its glowing pages lives the sobriquet.”
“Tete” Smith went on to become an attorney in Albany. His intellect, independent thinking and a keen sense of humor helped him to prosper as “the lawyer for the widow and orphan,” according to a county historian. “He never censured or criticized people, but was constantly giving a helping hand to some of life’s weary pilgrims.”
His earnings helped him become one of the largest landholders in Dougherty County. In 1859, he completed the first house in Albany with bricks hauled from Macon by wagon. He also owned three slaves, according to the 1860 census.
Meanwhile, Smith had become active in the courts. When the unexpired term of Solicitor General for the state’s Southwestern Circuit became vacant in 1857, Gov. Joe Brown appointed Smith to fill the position. He was elected to the same office on his own merits two years later.
The results of another election—the presidential contest of 1860—prompted the pro-Union Smith to join the ranks of secessionists and his local militia, the Albany Guards. It became Company E of the 4th after the war began.
Smith commenced his service as first lieutenant and second-in-command to Capt. Youel Rust, an Albany politician who had served as the town’s first mayor. Rust resigned his commission at the end of the regiment’s one-year term of enlistment in April 1862, and Smith advanced to the captaincy.
The Peninsula Campaign had been well underway by this time. By June 24, Smith’s second month as captain, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had moved to within striking distance of Richmond. The following day, McClellan ordered two divisions to take nearby high ground from which siege guns could shell Richmond.
Cuvier Grover, a capable West Point-educated brigadier, commanded one of the Union brigades in the advance. His Massachusetts pickets encountered the 4th in the vicinity of King’s School House and the French farm.
The colonel in charge of the 4th, George P. Doles, had strict orders to inform his commanding officer as soon as he spotted the enemy. Doles promptly dispatched a mounted courier galloping off with the intelligence.
The soldier disappeared and the news was never delivered.
Doles’ superior, Col. Augustus R. Wright, was caught unawares of the plight of the Georgians. “I was not apprised of the success of the enemy in driving back our pickets until I saw them coming out of the woods,” observed Wright, a former U.S. Congressman, in his after-action report.
Wright scrambled to halt the Union advance. He ordered in two regiments, the 22nd Georgia and 1st Louisiana, to charge through a storm of musket fire. After a fierce fight, the regiments drove the federals back into the woods. Wright pumped in additional forces as the fighting escalated. A distinct battle line ebbed and flowed across the open fields around the schoolhouse. A growing pall of battle smoke settled over the clearing and made visibility a challenge.
Later in the day, Wright ordered the 4th to dislodge enemy troops holed up in dense woods about 400 yards from the schoolhouse. For the Georgians, who were supported by North Carolina troops, it was a chance to get back at the Yankees after being overwhelmed on the picket line earlier.
“This order was promptly obeyed by Colonel Doles,” noted Wright. “The fire here for twenty minutes was furious and terrible beyond anything I have ever witnessed. But the gallant Fourth pressed on amid a deadly fire and soon the foe began to fall back.”
Wright added, “Seizing the opportune moment a charge was ordered, and our men rushed forward, and at the point of the bayonet drove the enemy in great disorder and confusion through the woods to King’s School-House, where they were temporarily rallied for a few minutes; but another deadly volley from the Fourth Georgia, followed by a dashing charge, and the enemy fled from their position, leaving us masters of the field.”
The 4th received praise for its actions. The Richmond Dispatch reported, “The Fourth Georgia acted like the very devils, and fought and charged three regiments several times and routed them.” Wright recommended the 4th add the name of the battle, King’s School House, to its colors. The engagement is also known as the Battle of Oak Grove, for the nearby stand of majestic trees that was another flashpoint of fighting that day.
The regiment paid a price for its newly won honors: 45 of its men, about 10 percent of its total number, were casualties. “Tete” Smith counted among them. At some point during the fighting, Yankee lead tore into his right leg. Though the exact location of the wound was not reported, an amputation at the lower thigh suggests his knee was shattered beyond repair.
His wound caused him to miss the Battle of Malvern Hill less than a week later. The 4th lost another 101 men and officers in this culminating engagement of the Peninsula Campaign, reducing the regiment to about 250 men.
On July 14, 1862, Smith submitted his resignation, and a request to Secretary of War George W. Randolph. “I would like to occupy some position still in the field where I could render service on horseback. I do not want a civil appointment, or that that will deprive again fighting our common enemy.” Col. Doles endorsed his request.
Smith returned to his Albany home. Months passed without word from Richmond. On March 11, 1863, he renewed his request for active duty, with an added a caveat: “I fear, should a fail to get a position in the field, that my friends will send me to Congress.”
His fear came true after fellow citizens elected him to a seat in the Second Confederate Congress, where he served from May 1864 until the end of the war cut short his term in April 1865. Smith proved himself a capable politician, and went on to represent Georgia in Washington, D.C., after the state returned to the Union.
Congressman Smith is best remembered for speaking out against the result of the disputed presidential election of 1876. He was the only representative of Georgia to raise his voice in opposition against the informal deal that gave an electoral victory to the Republican candidate, former Union Gen. Rutherford B. Hayes, over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, who had won the popular vote. Fellow Georgian Robert A. Toombs, one of the founders of the Confederacy and its first secretary of state, praised Smith. “The people of Georgia should build Tete Smith a monument, whose summit should tower among the clouds, as a lasting memorial to the man whose wisdom, foresight, patriotism, and grand sense of duty caused him to brand the electoral humbug with infamy in its conception and to vote against its passage by the Congress of the nation.”
Smith died in 1890 at age 71. He outlived his wife, Caroline, who passed in 1870. A daughter, Annie, survived him.
A biographer remembered Smith in words that harkened back to the war: “He left one of his limbs on the battlefield, but this loss did not disturb his equilibrium as a man of principle, whose stalwart courage was firmly rooted in deep convictions.”
References: Stephen W. Sears, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign; Ezra J. Warner and Wilfred Buck Yearns, Biographical Register of the Confederate Congress; John T. Boifeuillet, “He Was a Gallant Georgian;” Biographical Souvenir of the States of Georgia and Florida; Daughters of the American Revolution, History and Reminiscences of Dougherty County Georgia; Richmond Dispatch, June 27, 1862; Henry W. Thomas, History of the Doles-Cook Brigade of Northern Virginia, C.S.A.; W.E. Smith military service record, Lucian L. Knight, Georgia’s Landmarks, Memorials and Legends, Vol. I; Lucian L. Knight, A Standard History of Georgia and Georgians, Vol. II.
Robert W. Elliott of Grayson, Ga., is a collector and historian who is a specialist in Confederate and Georgia-related photography.