James Argyle Smith was born on 1 May 1831 in Maury County, Tennessee. His family relocated to Mississippi, and Smith won an appointment to West Point, graduating forty-fifth in the Class of 1853. His antebellum service in the US Army included stints in Kansas, Missouri, and California; action against the Sioux; and participation in the Mormon expedition under Col. Albert Sidney Johnston. When secession came, Smith resigned his commission on 9 May 1861 and four days later was appointed an infantry lieutenant in the Confederate Army.
Smith initially served on the staff of Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk, winning promotion to major, and on 15 March 1862 Smith was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Tennessee Infantry, which subsequently saw heavy action at Shiloh. Losses there prompted a reorganization that resulted in the unit’s consolidation with the 21st Tennessee. The regiment was redesignated the 5th Confederate, and Smith took command, having been promoted to colonel on 21 July 1862.
Smith and his regiment took part in the Kentucky Campaign that summer and fall, fighting at Perryville. Assigned subsequently to a brigade under Lucius Polk in Patrick Cleburne’s division, Smith was cited favorably by superiors after he led his regiment at Stone’s River (Murfreesboro) and Chickamauga. He won promotion to brigadier general on 1 October 1863 and took charge of a brigade of Texas troops whose commander had been slain at Chickamauga. Smith and his new command distinguished themselves at Missionary Ridge, repelling attacks by Federals under William Tecumseh Sherman. During the retreat Smith was wounded in both thighs, and he did not return to duty until mid-July 1864. At the Battle of Atlanta on 22 July Smith was again wounded and was borne from the field.
Rejoining the army in November 1864 at Tuscumbia, Alabama, Smith took command of a brigade of troops whose division had been disbanded. The brigade was assigned to escort the army’s supply train when John Bell Hood invaded Tennessee and therefore did not participate in the Battle of Franklin on 30 November 1864. Smith was later shocked by the horrendous losses suffered at Franklin and noted the lowered morale among survivors. With Cleburne killed at Franklin, Smith took command of the division. After the Battle of Nashville on 15–16 December, Smith and his men were caught up in the general retreat, which ended at Tupelo.
Smith eventually made his way to North Carolina with remnants of the Army of Tennessee and last saw combat at Bentonville on 19 March 1865. He was paroled at Greensboro on 1 May, returned to Mississippi, and became a farmer. In 1877 he was elected to the first of two terms as state superintendent of public education. Smith died in Jackson on 6 December 1901.
- Edwin C. Bearss, in The Confederate General, ed. William C. Davis (1991)
- Harold A. Cross, They Sleep beneath the Mockingbird: Mississippi Burial Sites and Biographies of Confederates Generals (1994)
- Charles E. Hooker, Confederate Military History: Mississippi, ed. Clement A. Evans (1899)
- Ezra Warner, Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders (1959)