As Chris Mackowski and I forge ahead with our current book project, we happen upon some interesting facts, stories, and personalities. As I worked most of Sunday researching and writing, I happened upon one of those great personalities of the war, Major General William “Extra Billy” Smith. Smith is one of the great characters in the annals of the Army of Northern Virginia, and one of those political generals that plagued both armies. I thought I would post a brief biography, for those of you that may not be familiar with the man.
William Smith was born on the Northern Neck of Virginia in 1797. (For those of you familiar with the area his family home stood near the intersection of Route 3 and 301 just east of the Sheetz Gas Station). Following the death of his parents, the young man took up the study of law and traveled to nearby Fredericksburg where he began his studies. From Fredericksburg, Smith traveled to Warrenton Virginia and Baltimore Maryland, and by 1818 had established his own practice in Culpeper Virginia.
During his time in Culpeper, Smith established an overland mail route that eventually ran from Washington D.C. to Milledgeville Georgia. While over seeing the postal route Smith received “extra” compensation. Thus “Extra” Billy Smith was born.
In 1836 Smith entered the world of politics. He was elected to the state senate of Virginia and later served five terms in Washington as a member of Congress. To top it all off he was a prewar governor of Virginia.
When war broke out Smith’s popularity in Virginia, mixed with his political connections brought him to command the 49thVirginia Infantry. Smith’s and the regiment fought well at First Manassas, the colonel exhibited bravery, but like many politicians turned officer lacked in the finer points of leadership. Ever the politician, Smith ran for a seat in the Confederate Congress and won election. The colonel-congressman alternated commanding his regiment and attending to politics in Richmond.
While in the army, Smith exhibited no respect for West Point or her graduates. The former governor referred to West Pointers as “those West P’int fellows.” Still, Smith did what he could to train his unit. According to Robert Chilton “It is said that he used to drill his regiment at Manassas. Sitting cross-legged on the top of an old Virginia snake fence, with a blue cotton umbrella over his head and reading the orders from a book. On one occasion he was roused by the laughing outcry, ‘Colonel, you’ve run us bang us against the fence!’ ‘Well, then boys,’ said the governor, looking up and nothing daunted; ‘well, then, of course you’ll have to turn around or climb the fence.’”
At Chantilly, September 1, 1862, Smith went into battle with his umbrella in hand. Chantilly was the scene of vicious fighting and a terrible thunderstorm. During the heaviest rain and fighting Smith paced the line with his umbrella over his head and beaver skin hat atop his head, for Smith also hated military uniforms. (The colonel also turned his nose up at riding horses as other officers did, no Billy rode about in a carriage.)
At Antietam Smith assumed brigade command and was wounded three times. After leaving the army to recuperate he was promoted to Brigadier General, dating from January 31, 1863. The former governor was promoted more for his political prowess and not his battlefield acumen. By the time of the Chancellorsville Campaign Smith was again running for the governorship of Virginia and assumed command of Jubal Early’s old brigade.
At both Chancellorsville and Gettysburg Smith turned in sub-par performances as a brigade commander. Early did his best to keep Smith’s brigade out of trouble. Smith could lead the column when on the march, but when engaged in battle, were kept to the rear or the flank farthest from the enemy.
Smith was a particular problem during the Gettysburg Campaign. In May, Smith was elected governor of Virginia. Since, he was not set to take office until January 1864, the old politician stayed with the army and his brigade. Having the governor-elect of Virginia as brigade commander was a headache and liability. Luckily for Smith’s division commander Major General Jubal Early, following the Gettysburg Campaign Smith returned to Richmond to recruit soldiers and prepare to succeed Governor “Honest” John Letcher. Smith ended his Confederate military service as a major-general.
With the end of the war Smith took to farming at his estate “Monterosa”, near Warrenton Virginia. Politics called to Billy one last time, and from 1877 to 1879 he served in the Virginia House of Delegates.
Smith died in 1887 at the age of 90. Like so many other Virginia politicians and generals William “Extra Billy” Smith was laid to rest in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery.