Joseph B Smith was born in Belfast, Maine in 1826, the son of United State Commodore Joseph Smith. He received an appointment to the United States Naval Academy in 1841 as midshipman and was part of the graduating class on 1847. After graduation Smith served at the Washington Navy Yard on the USS Mississippi and took part in the United States Coastal Survey. He was promoted in 1855 to Lieutenant and assigned the USS Merrimack, a steam frigate. In 1857 Smith was given ordnance duty at the Washington Navy Yard in DC.
As the Civil War approached Smith was ordered to the USS Congress as Executive Officer. On March 8th 1862 when the Confederate ironclad the CSS Virginia attacked and destroyed the USS Congress, Smith was the acting commander. He was killed during the battle. The USS Congress surrendered and was destroyed when her powder magazine exploded.