Remembering Rutherford, Daily News Journal, November 23, 2014, Gregg Tucker
A renegade Confederate terrorized Rutherford County residents, killing one, before he was mortally wounded by a victim’s neighbor.
It is factually correct that Dewitt “Dee” Smith was a Rutherford native from the Mechanicsville community. He fought with the Confederate forces in the Battle of Stones River. Smith was a cousin of Confederate Scout Dewitt Jobe, and a cousin of Confederate Brig. Gen. Thomas Benton Smith. Smith died of wounds while a federal prisoner in the Rutherford County courthouse. Beyond these few facts, the popular Dee Smith stories are untrue.
One such story alleges that upon learning of the brutal torture and killing of his cousin, Jobe, Smith deserted the Confederate army and went on a one-man mission to avenge that death by personally killing Union soldiers.
According to this account, Smith bushwhacked or knifed as many as 50 uniformed federals. The knifings were allegedly accomplished by sneaking into Union camps and slitting the throats of sleeping soldiers. (A slight variation in some stories puts Smith in the Coleman Scouts along with Jobe and Sam Davis, but the Coleman Scouts’ roster confirms that Smith was not one of the Confederate spies.)
In a recent history of the Coleman Scouts, this popular story of vengeance is dismissed as follows: “Stories abound about Dewitt Smith ‘going rogue’ or ‘raising the black flag’ and avenging his cousin’s torture and brutal death. The story goes that Smith was so angry following his cousin’s death that he left his assigned Confederate unit and slit the throats of some 50 Union soldiers as they slept in their tents. None of this story of Smith’s revenge has been properly documentd…in fact, Smith actually deserted his army unit well prior to Jobe’s death.” See Caulfield and Bailey, “Shadow Soldiers of the Confederacy!!” (2013), page 102.
In a work of fiction loosely based on the Smith revenge stories, Dee Smith is identified as a Confederate deserter who had taken the oath of allegiance to the United States to gain parole as a prisoner of war. Prior to Jobe’s death, according to this story, Smith “kept a fairly low profile” for his own safety. Outraged by the torture and death of his cousin, Smith sets out to kill Union Gen. William Rosecrans. In his unsuccessful effort to find the General, Smith kills a dozen or more uniformed federals in various face-to-face and ambush scenarios.
To soften this brutal image, the novelist has Smith showing contempt for civilian Union sympathizers but harming none. Smith is finally brought down by a dozen Union riflemen and dies after discovering the identity of his real father (a “Star Wars” twist). This imaginative story concludes with a notation that he was buried in an unmarked grave in the old Murfreesboro City Cemetery. See Bridges, “Three Cousins from Mechanicsville,” (2007), pp. 193-99.
“A Diary of the Civil War” by John Spence gives the most reliable account of Dee Smith’s real activity in Rutherford County. The diarist was a prominent businessman and landowner before, during and after the War. Prior to secession Spence owned and operated a cedar bucket factory on Depot Street and a mercantile store on the square in Murfreesboro.
The Spence diary entries were written at the time of the described events and were apparently based on Spence’s personal observations and the “news of the day.” Spence describes the Jobe death as “one of the most atrocious murders ever committed by any claiming to be civilized in any country.” According to Spence, it was generally believed that Jobe’s location had been revealed to the federals by someone in the community.
An elderly Union sympathizer named Burgess, a Mechanicsville neighbor of the Jobe family, was believed by some to have been giving information to the Union military. Spence noted: “It was supposed he had in this case given the whereabouts and doings of the young (Jobe).”
In October 1864, Spence wrote: “Dewitt Smith came in the neighborhood of Murfreesboro and called at the house of an old man named Burgess. Being called he came and was met at the gate by Smith (who) without many words deliberately shot and killed him dead. Several shots were fired all taking effect. The family was then ordered to leave the house immediately. Fire is placed to the building. It burns to the ground.
“The body of the dead man was taken to a son-in-law for burial the next day (Sunday). A coffin was procured. The undertaker going out with it in his hearse…Just at that time Smith rides up to the house and dismounts, walks in. Going to where the dead man lay, he deliberately turns him about to examine where he had shot him, which proved to be many times. Then calling for wood, with an oath swearing that he will burn him up, ordering all out of the house…a neighbor man came in, contending it shall not be done. By reasoning the propriety and like consequence of such course, Smith was finally prevailed upon not to interfere further in the matter. The man was finally put in proper condition and buried.
“Young Smith still roaming about the neighborhood, a terror to many, giving out word he will retaliate on any one who may interfere. Remaining about a week (then he disappears).”
Spence notes in later 1864 diary entries that Smith reappears and resumes “ranging the neighborhood.” A Union force was sent to capture him. They found the bodies of two soldiers ambushed by Smith. “Smith while about would send in word that he was the provost Marshall of that road. No one to pass that way without his order, and many such impertinent threats in this way…Some times he was seen near the Salem pike bridge riding about leisurely.”
Local citizens, as well as the occupying military, were determined to put an end to Smith’s threatening activity. According to Spence: “Two young men…, pretending to be friends of his,” plotted his capture.
“It was proposed they take a ride as friends. After going some distance on the road a demand of them to surrender to them. This Smith refused. Drawing a pistol, shot one of the friends. The other firing at Smith, wounding him in the face. He fell from his horse. The one firing last fled, returning to town…
“Smith, after lying in the road some time from the stun of the shot, recovering sufficiently. He also returns to the same place, commencing a search for the man who shot him. Finding the whereabouts, walks in, and commences firing at and wounding him. Then taking fire for the purpose of burning the house…threatening to shoot any one that would stop him. The woman of the house begging him not to fire it. He was fully determined and continued his efforts.
“Some person from the opposite street with a double barrel shotgun fired a load buck shot at him, mortally wounding him. The next day he was sent for and brought to Murfreesboro in a dying condition. He lived about three days after and died, his wounds being greatly aggravated hauling over a rough road.
“The relations of the young man were not permitted to see him when alive. He was kept in the courthouse until his death. His remains were given to his family, taken home and buried.” See John C. Spence, “A Diary of the Civil War,” (1861-65), pp. 148-51.