(Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of stories about Decatur County’s Civil War Medal of Honor recipients.)
Reuben Smalley was born April 29, 1839, in Stueben County, New York. His parents were Elias and Rozelphia (Hawkins) Smalley. When young Reuben was only three years old, his father died.
Reuben Smalley was taken in by an uncle to be raised as part of his family. In 1846, the uncle moved his family to Jennings County, Indiana.
At the age of 17, Reuben Smalley left his uncle’s home to start a life of his own.
On July 23, 1859, Reuben Smalley married Martha Ann Johnson in Ripley County, Indiana. She was born in 1842. Her parents were Elijah and Nancy (Bowley) Johnson.
Reuben Smalley and his new wife made their home in the small Ripley County town of Dabney. They were the parents of two children. Both children died at a young age in the 1860s.
Reuben Smalley volunteered for service in Company F, 83rd Indiana Infantry Regiment in August, 1862. By explaining the importance of the 83rd Indiana’s role in the volunteer storming party at Vicksburg on May 22, 1863, through the life of Jacob Overturf, it allows a more personal story to be told about Reuben Smalley and eliminates repetition.
Following his service in the Civil War, Reuben Smalley returned home to Ripley County. Then, in 1867, Reuben and Martha moved to Decatur County. He followed the career of a railroad construction worker and was the operator of a stationary steam engine. He was a member of the Greensburg Post of the Civil War veterans organization The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.).
In the book History of Decatur County, Indiana written by Lewis A. Harding and published in 1914, Reuben Smalley is described as “a man of remarkable vitality and striking personality.”
This book also explains Reuben Smalley was a Republican and was elected Constable in Greensburg for several terms, including when he was 75 years old.
In researching Reuben Smalley, I have located several photographs. One photograph shows him sitting in a rocking chair in the front yard of his home in the 500 block of N. Carver Street with his dog.
Another photograph shows Reuben Smalley taking part in Memorial Day services at South Park Cemetery and having the honored duty of carrying the flag. Another photograph shows Reuben Smalley as a gray haired old man.
In all of these pictures, the physical characteristics of Reuben Smalley are obvious. He was a small man just slightly more than five feet tall with a thin, wiry build and an enormous bushy goatee. His Medal of Honor is pinned to the lapel of his coat.
As was often the case for heroic deeds during the Civil War, Reuben Smalley and the other survivors of the volunteer storming party at Vicksburg were not recognized with Medals of Honor until several decades later.
In 1894, Reuben Smalley received a letter from Washington, D.C. asking if he was the same Reuben Smalley who had volunteered for the storming party at Vicksburg on May 22, 1863.
“I didn’t know what in the thunder they wanted of me, but I wrote them,” Reuben Smalley is quoted as saying in an old newspaper article. “And they sent me this.”
Reuben Smalley’s Medal of Honor was inscribed: “The Congress to Private Reuben Smalley, Co. F, 83rd Indiana for gallantry at Vicksburg, Miss. May 22, 1863.”
Several years ago, I wrote about Reuben Smalley for a newspaper in Ripley County after I had spoken to a local citizen who remembered Reuben Smalley as an old man. That local citizen was Wayne Miers.
He recalled that when he was attending Decatur County schools in the early years of the 1900s, Reuben Smalley was the truant officer. Wayne Miers was one of the more remarkable men I have ever known. Born into a family of early Clay Township pioneers, Wayne Miers was nearly 70 years older than me. My parents rented a house from him in the 1950s as a young married couple.
My father, who had lost his own father as a young teenager, obviously looked upon Wayne Miers as a father figure. As an old farm boy, my father envisioned farming as an idealized way of life. My mother greatly admired Mrs. Miers for leaving an independent career as a nurse in an Indianapolis hospital to become a Decatur County farm wife.
Wayne Miers’ pioneer family owned Tanglewood Farm in Clay Township. In his own poetic way, Wayne Miers called his family’s farm “The Old Homeplace.” When my parents moved onto his farm, Wayne Miers still had Percheron horses, of which his father had been a well-known breeder.
Wayne Miers told me he volunteered to serve in World War I but was rejected due to a heart condition. He lived to be 100 years old. He possessed a remarkable memory and could read a newspaper without the aid of eyeglasses. And he could rightfully talk about the landmark American novel The Hoosier Schoolmaster and say, “My grandfather was a character in that book.”
As an historian, Wayne Miers was my connection to an earlier place and time. He remembered such noted Decatur County personalities as Civil War Colonel Merit Welsh with his huge handlebar mustache and Wil Cumback. Wayne Miers once shook hands with President Theodore Roosevelt.
And he remembered Medal of Honor recipient Reuben Smalley very well. That bushy goatee, Wayne Miers recalled, “shook like a goat’s tail every time he spoke.” As the truant officer for the Decatur County schools, Wayne Miers described Reuben Smalley as “a crabby old man” who “tried to scare” the truant students to go back to school. And Wayne Miers clearly recalled Reuben Smalley’s short stature, and that he wore a long overcoat that nearly dragged the ground, with his Medal of Honor always pinned to the lapel of the coat.
Reuben and Martha Smalley were married for more than 60 years. Martha Smalley died in 1922. Reuben Smalley lived to be 87 years old. He died July 9, 1926. When he was buried in South Park Cemetery his Medal of Honor was still pinned to the lapel of his coat.
Decatur County resident Phillip Jackson may be contacted via this publication at firstname.lastname@example.org.