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Donald Stith - Confederate colonel

The study of history can be as much about frustration as it is fulfillment. Sometimes there are just no answers to be had. Take Donald Stith. In our records, he is fairly anonymous, the best piece of data we have on him is an Austin American obituary for him from 1920. He was an inmate at the Confederate Men’s Home and that is why he is buried here but I became interested in him because he was a West Point graduate and that puts him in rare company. In his obituary, the author states he was born to American parents in Smyrna, Asia Minor which was in the Ottoman Empire at the time. It seems odd, but maybe his parents were missionaries or on vacation and Donald came too early. Either way, he ended up applying to West Point from decidedly un-Confederate Maryland.

One of the top results when searching for him was a list of “goats” of West Point, meaning he graduated last in his class. He may have graduated at the bottom of his class, but with only 44 men in the class that’s not so bad. He moved steadily up in rank and further West as his career advanced until 1860 when he reports for duty in Sante Fe as a lieutenant in charge of Company E, Fifth Infantry. The Fifth was dispatched to New Mexico to fight the Navajo, often pursuing them into Mexico, sometimes with Mexican approval, sometimes without.

It was fallout from one of these incursions that led to Stith’s arrest. It was July of 1861 and Stith was ordered to take a letter to the Governor of Chihuahua asking for help in arresting a deserter who stole a large quantity of army supplies. While attempting to deliver this letter, he was arrested by a Lieutenant Adams under orders from Colonel John Baylor of the Confederate State Army. He asked under what authority he was being arrested and they replied “the Southern Confederacy.” He said he didn’t recognize the legitimacy of their power, but there were 15 men under Adams’s command and only one Stith. He was arrested and released and he went back to the Fifth’s headquarters. All of this was written in a letter to his commanding officer. The last mention of his service in the U.S. Army record is that he was a captain on “detached service” in Texas in August of 1861. This is where the frustration comes in.

The very, very last thing is his U.S. Army file says he was dismissed on September 25, 1861 and the very next mention of him in the public record is as a Captain in the Confederate States Army serving as the assistant adjutant general of Texas in San Antonio. In a letter dated September 9, 1861 to a Confederate colonel, CSA Adjutant General William Byrd mentions Stith as a Confederate officer. So for at least 20 days, Stith was serving two masters being both Union and Confederate. What happened to turn a man from Maryland who didn’t recognize the legitimacy of the Confederacy to a captain in their ranks? There are many possible answers, but none are documented, hence the frustration. Did Baylor convince him to join with the Confederacy and send him back to the Fifth as a spy? It would have been smart; after all, if there was to be a Union invasion of Texas, it would likely come from New Mexico and the Fifth Infantry. For three months after Baylor detained him, he served as a captain in the U.S. Army, was he gathering intelligence or was he mulling over his loyalties? We’ll never know.

If he was officially a Confederate spy, his record would have been destroyed in April of 1865 when Union forces took Richmond. The records of the Confederate Secret Service were destroyed by Confederate Secretary of State Judah T. Benjamin to keep them out of Union hands. That’s if Stith was an official spy and if he was a spy at all.

What is documented is that he was a loyal Confederate officer. He is next mentioned in late 1862 as a major under General Steven D. Lee near Vicksburg where he served with some distinction. He is singled out in an after action report to present a captured Union flag to General Robert E. Lee in Richmond; it doesn’t get more Confederate than that. He remained with the Confederacy until the very last. He fought at Vicksburg where General Steven D. Lee mentions him again in an after action report and was promoted to Colonel and was Steven D. Lee’s chief of staff. Stith is in the U.S. Congressional record as having been at Appomattox Courthouse for Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant.

No matter how much distinction he earned or how good a soldier he was, he was an officer in the Confederacy and therefore after the war he couldn’t serve in the U.S. military. All ex-Confederate officers effectively had their citizenship taken from them by the Fourteenth Amendment and none could serve in state or federal government. Exceptions were made, many exceptions were made, but they were only granted by a two-thirds majority vote by Congress. It was called “removal of political disabilities.” Stith didn’t receive his exception until 1890. He worked as a school teacher for most of his life until he went into the Confederate Men’s home as an indigent soldier in 1896. He died in 1920 and was buried next to Stephen Williams, an American Revolutionary War veteran. Unlike Stephen Williams, Stith’s headstone says nothing other than his name and does little to help solve any remaining mysteries.


- Will Erwin