Clay County

Biography - JAMES B. SMITH

General James B. Smith is Warden of the Southern Illinois Penitentiary and has for several years been identified with public affairs at Menard. All the years of his citizenship have been given to his state and whether in private life, military service or as public official, he has pursued the same earnest and straightforward course which commends him so universally now.

General Smith might almost be termed a native of Oldham county, Kentucky, but he was born in Johnson county, Indiana, his birth having occurred November 25, 1839. He grew up on the paternal homestead in the corncracker state to the age of sixteen years, at which time his parents moved to Indiana, whence he came to Illinois in 1857 and settled in Clay county, near Clay City, where the General has since made his home.

General Smith's father was Frank P. Smith, who spent his life largely as farmer and merchant. He died in 1867, at the age of 58 years. He was born in Kentucky but his people were from near Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia. He married Harriet Troutman, who died in 1906, at the age of eighty-eight years. Their children were: S. Webber, who passed his life at Columbus, Indiana, and died there leaving a family; James B. of Illinois, the subject of this sketch; Mrs. Emma McCreary of Detroit, Mich.; and Frank P., of near Franklin, Indiana.

The common schools have the credit of having equipped James B. Smith for his duties as a citizen. For some months he was a student in Moore's Hill College and he seems to have accepted the calling of his father that of farming as his own, when he began the independent years of his life. His plans were interrupted suddenly by the culmination of the political unrest of the nation by open rebellion of the Southern states and the call of the president for troops to restore order, Before his twenty-second birthday, in October, 1861, he enlisted at Clay City as a private in Company K, Fortieth Illinois Volunteer Infantry, under Colonel Stephen G. Hicks, and became a finite part of the Army of the Tennessee. The command got into the enemy's country at Paducah, Kentucky, and took part in the battle of Shiloh. The engagements with Van Dorn at Holly Springs and the fight at Corinth followed in quick succession and the campaign proper against Vicksburg and the siege and capture of the city were all participated in by Mr. Smith. Following the capitulations of Vicksburg, the Fortieth Illinois took part in the chase of General Johnson's army eastward and fought that force at Jackson, Mississippi. From there the Federals returned to Vicksburg and were sent by transport to Memphis, from which place they marched across the state to Chattanooga and attacked General Bragg's army.

On the 25th of November, his birthday, General Smith was wounded at Missionary Ridge. He recovered sufficiently to rejoin his regiment at Big Shanty, Georgia, and took part in the remainder of the famous Atlanta campaign. He fought on the 22nd of July there and participated in another memorable engagement on the 28th, under General Logan, being again wounded. This injury prevented his going on to the sea with General Sherman's army and he returned to Nashville, whence he was sent back to Illinois and soon discharged. After eighteen months of service, Mr. Smith was commissioned second lieutenant of his company and was discharged with that rank.

After the close of the war General Smith resumed farming, following that occupation without interruption, together with the stock business as a feeder, shipper and dealer, for many years. He was also a merchant in Clay City a few years. He was induced to enter politics by Major Hogan, who appointed him a deputy collector in the internal revenue service, where he served for a period of four years.

In 1897 he was appointed Assistant Adjutant General of Illinois by Governor Tanner and was reappointed by Governor Yates in 1901. In 1902 he was commissioned by the Governor as Adjutant General of the State. He was connected with the National Guard service until his appointment as Warden of the Southern Illinois Penitentiary July 1st, 1903, by Governor Yates, and reappointed in 1907 by Governor Deneen. His various appointments by Republican officials indicate plainly the politics of the General, although his family before him were of the rabid Democratic type.

At the August meeting of the penitentiary board of 1903, Warden Smith made a request to be permitted to grade the convicts of the prison, as follows: Blue clothes with brass buttons, first grade; grey and black buttons, second grade; and stripes for the third grade. The request was granted and the results in the morale of the men since have proved that it was a wise move. The change took place September 4, 1904, when the lockstep was also discontinued, and the beneficial effects are distinctly apparent in the conduct of the men. Under his management the prison has reached as near the ideal as possible with the appropriations available and is equal to any prison in the United States. The Southern Illinois Penitentiary was the first penal institution in this country to adopt the grade system and discontinue the lockstep. At the time this was done, the same was very unpopular with all prison officials, but, at this date, many prisons are adopting the grade system.

September 6, 1860, General Smith was married near Clay City, Illinois, to Miss Anna Quertermous, who died in 1885, the mother of Byron S., Elliott P., George P., Emma C., Charles F., and Mina C. All are deceased but Emma C., who is Mrs. S. L. Bowman.

General Smith married his second wife February, 1886. She was Mrs. Sarah J. Dickson, a daughter of Jacob Myers and a native of Michigan. There were no children born to this union.

General Smith's success with his prison charge makes him ever a busy man. When he feels like taking a vacation he reaches over and gets hold of a new "batch of stuff" and the change of subject seems to reinvigorate him and carry him on from day to day and from month to month. He is a Master Mason and has been an Odd Fellow since 1868. His physique is a strikingly large one about six feet tall and built broad proportionately. His weight is 299 pounds, his complexion fresh and ruddy as that of a man in middle life and despite his advanced years, he still retains in much of their pristine vigor and splendid mental and physical qualities of his prime.

Extracted 09 Nov 2018 by Norma Hass from History of Southern Illinois, by George W. Smith, published in 1912, volume 3, pages 1707-1709.

Visit Our Neighbors
Fayette Effingham Jasper
Marion Richland
Search the Archives