Tyler & Smith Co. History

Tyler and Smith County During the War Between the States

The United States Census of 1860 recorded Smith County' s population as 13,392, of whom 4,982 were Negro slaves. The largest city, Tyler, had by then grown to 1,024 persons. The raid on Harpers Ferry by John Brown and his band, together with a rash of mysterious barn and house fires in Northern Texas, excited the local population as the Secession Crisis and the Civil War loomed on the horizon. A large number of Smith County notables, including the assembly president, Oran M. Roberts, attended the Secession Convention in Austin in early 1861. After the Convention approved the Ordinance of Secession, Smith County voters approved the measure 1,149 for, to 50 against, on February 25, 1861. Smith County was solidly behind the Confederacy.

The Civil War. The Civil War brought a flurry of activity to Smith County as the entire population was caught up in the excitement. Over 1,500 Smith County men served in the armed forces of the Confederacy or the State of Texas on battlefields from Arizona to Pennsylvania. Nearly 15,000 Confederate troops were stationed in camps around Tyler in the spring and summer of 1862 preparing to march to the front in Arkansas. The Confederate Medical Department established the largest pharmaceutical factory west of the Mississippi River at the Headache Springs Medical Laboratory, three miles southeast of Tyler. The Quartermaster Depot at "Kirbyville" four miles northeast of Tyler, commanded by a Captain Kirby, manufactured wagons and shoes for the horse and mules gathered there for the Transportation Department. A private gun factory, begun by J. C. Short, William S. N. Biscoe, and George Yarbrough to make rifles for the State of Texas was purchased by the Confederate Government in 1863. The gun factory expanded into the Confederate States Ordnance Works at Tyler, made around 2,233 rifles, repaired thousands of other weapons, produced millions of small arms and cannon cartridges, and employed around 200 men and boys.

The most famous Civil War activity in Smith County was not the export of Confederate soldiers and manufactured goods, but the influx of thousands of Federal prisoners of war. A Confederate camp northeast of Tyler, variously known as Camp Hubbard, the Eastern Camp of Instruction for Conscripts at Tyler, and Camp Ford, slowly evolved from an important troop training facility to the largest Civil War prisoner of war camp west of the Mississippi River. With a peak of around 5,200 prisoners and over 1,000 guards, Camp Ford has the record of having the lowest mortality rate for a prisoner of war camp during the Civil War, North or South.

In May 1865, word of the end of the Civil War reached Smith County. Confederate facilities opened their doors to a destitute populace, but not until after riots, looting, and the destruction of the Ordnance Works through an explosion. Smith County survivors of the Confederate Army struggled home as Union occupation forces arrived to reestablish Federal control. A regional Reconstruction headquarters in Tyler replaced Confederate and duly-elected Texas authority for several years with the few new local Republicans and "carpetbaggers" from the North. Thousands of former slaves received assistance from a Freedman's Bureau office in Tyler.

Following the Civil War, Smith County began another period of rapid agricultural growth that continued through the turn of the century. Though hundreds of Smith County soldiers lost their lives of bullets or disease during the war, the conflict brought economic development without the wholesale destruction common throughout much of the South. Railroads arrived in Smith County in the 1870's, including the "Tyler Tap Railroad" which granted access to the Texas and Pacific Railway in 1877. This rapid, economical transportation link marked the beginning of a new industrial age for Smith County and coincided with the official end of Reconstruction.

As Smith County's population continued to grow through the 1870's, the citizens decided that the 1852 Court House was too small. Rather than starting from scratch, however, the existing courthouse was expanded and updated by adding a third story and a bell tower. In 1886, a new Federal Building was constructed just off the Tyler Square and has been successively remodeled and expanded in 1908 and 1933 as a post office and federal district court.

The Tyler Gang. From around 1860 to 1890, a collection of Smith County leaders, known as the "Tyler Gang", strongly influenced Texas politics. This group included three who became Texas governors: Oran M. Roberts, Richard B. Hubbard, and James S. Hogg. Oran Roberts, as previously mentioned, served as president of the Texas Secession Convention, Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, and became a noted historian. Richard Hubbard became an important railroad promoter, a two-term Texas governor, and the United States Ambassador to Japan. James Hogg served as the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives before being elected Governor. All three served in the Confederate Army and had schools named after them in Tyler.

For a printable Civil War Tour Guide of Tyler and Smith County with maps, click here.