At sixty-six years of age, William Smith was old enough to be a father to most Civil War generals, grandfather to most of the men. Born in the previous century, the Virginian was a career politician, one of the most magnetic leaders in the South. A practicing lawyer since 1818, he had been Governor of Virginia during the Mexican War, and when the Civil War began was serving out his fourth term in Congress. His nickname, "Extra Billy," by which he was known to everyone North and South, was a result of questionable perks he had gotten as a mail contractor in Andrew Jackson's administration in the 1830's. He had owned the contract for a daily postal route between Washington, D.C. and Milledgeville, then capitol of Georgia. Smith had extended it to numerous spur routes , for which he received extra payments. When Postmaster General William T. Barry came under political attack for increasing payments to contractors, Smith's "extras" were uncovered, and his sobriquet was born.
When the South seceded, the then-current governor of Virginia had offered Smith a brigadier general's commission, but Smith turned it down, saying he was "wholly ignorant of drill and tactics." However, when the war was only weeks old, he happened to be at Fairfax Court House when a detachment of Union cavalry charged through the town, killing the Confederate commander on the scene. Smith directed the defense of the town in the ensuing skirmish, and the smell of gunpowder was sweet. Despite his complete lack of military experience, he asked for and received a commission as colonel of the 49th Virginia volunteer regiment, organized just three days before the Battle of First Manassas in July 1861. Smith led the regiment in that battle, then in November was elected to the Confederate Congress. Returning to the 49th Virginia when McClellan's army started up the Peninsula in April 1862, Smith fought with it at Williamsburg, then received a severe contusion on the thigh by a spent bullet at the battle of Seven Pines on May 31. There, half the regiment went down as casualties, and Smith was reported by his superior to be "conspicuous . . . for coolness and courage. His exposure of his person was perhaps almost a fault." Smith returned to fight for the Seven Days at the end of June, where the 49th was only lightly engaged, but where again his brigadier mentioned Smith's "characteristic coolness" and "fearlessness."
By the time of the Second Manassas Campaign in August, Extra Billy had become known for his contempt of "West P'inters," believing a military education to be next to worthless in battle. Neither he nor his men understood West Point tactics, he argued--it was plain common sense that was needed. One yarn described how, in one battle where his men were held up by obstructions, they were suffering heavily from Federal sharpshooters while they themselves had been instructed to hold their fire. "Colonel," they cried, "we can't stand this!" These Yankees will kill us before we get in a shot!" Smith exploded, "Of course you can't stand it boys; it's all this infernal tactics and West P'int tomfoolery. Damn it, fire, and flush the game!"
"Extra Billy" also displayed contempt for military dress. At Chantilly in early September he brought his blue cotton umbrella with him onto the field and chose to top his uniform with a tall beaver hat. When a thunderstorm came, Smith calmly raised his umbrella and, so protected, moved nonchalantly through the brigade. The men, who already had the habit of teasing dignified visitors to the camps for having the nerve to open umbrellas while they, the men, were vulnerable to the elements, used the same jibes on Smith: "Come out of that umbrel'," they would cry. "I see your legs; come out of that hat, I want it to boil the beans in!"
At Sharpsburg later that month Smith took command of the brigade while Brig. Gen. Jubal Early commanded the division. There, "Extra Billy" suffered three wounds, but remained in control of his men. Maj. Gen. "Jeb" Stuart observed the old colonel--with blood streaming from his left shoulder, his leg, and his arm, but still fighting valiantly--and he went beyond the usual limits of report to say that Smith was "conspicuously brave and self-possessed." By the time the action was over, Smith was unable to move, and had to be carried off the field. Recovering over the next few months, Smith was promoted to brigadier general in April 1863. He resigned his congressional seat and returned to the army, where he was put back in charge of Early's brigade in time for the Battle of Chancellorsville. In action there, his deployments were awkward and his brigade's performance was far from efficient.
The general could always be counted on to enliven the drudgery of his brigade's marches with his colorful personality and gift for speechifying. On the march toward Gettysburg, when Early's division entered York, Pennsylvania, Smith's brigade was at the head of the column. Smith rode into town with his hat off, bowing right and left to the amused crowds, saluting the girls "with that manly, hearty smile which no man or woman ever doubted or resisted." When the head of the column reached the town square, the men stopped to deliver a hearty cheer for the old Governor. The townspeople crowded forward, and the Confederate column, thus surrounded, could go no further. Smith, who never met an audience he didn't like, couldn't resist an opportunity for some silver-tongued oratory. He cleared enough room for his men to stack arms, and launched into "a rattling, humorous speech" from his saddle, applauded wildly by Pennsylvanians and Confederates alike.
The legendarily irritable Jubal Early soon arrived from the rear, however, and barged impatiently toward the center of the crowd. Smith, sailing ever higher on the gusts of his own eloquence, was unaware that his nasty-tempered superior had joined the party until Early caught his blouse, jerked him around and screamed, "General Smith, what in the devil are you about, stopping the head of this column in this cursed town!" "Having a little fun, General," Smith replied good-naturedly, "which is good for all of us." At that, Early cooled off--this was, after all, the former governor of the state of Virginia and would probably be so again.
At Gettysburg, there was the prospect that Smith soon might resign to become Governor of Virginia, an office for which he was an active and favored candidate. One soldier expressed the opinion that "Extra Billy" got a heavy vote in the Army because the Virginia soldiers wished to get rid of him as a commander--by the time of the Gettysburg campaign, it was becoming apparent that Smith's generalship was deficient. No one questioned Smith's courage, but Early judged it advisable at times to keep Smith's brigade in close proximity to Brig. Gen. John Gordon's so that Gordon could exercise what amounted to a joint command. Early's concern was personal, because Smith's brigade had once been his own, and he didn't want to see its splendid record ruined by the incompetence of its commander. In fact, Smith's skills in the field seemed to be deteriorating--he was the oldest man on the field, showing the wear and tear of the army's campaigns.
On July 1, Smith's brigade was at the rear of Early's column as it approached the field from the northeast by the Harrisburg Pike. In mid-afternoon, when Early deployed his division for its attack on the flank of the Union Eleventh Corps north of town, Early held Smith's men a half-mile in the rear as a reserve.
After the rest of the division had put the Federals to rout, Early twice ordered Smith to join in the pursuit, but Smith refused, saying that a large body of the enemy was approaching from the east. Smith headed his brigade instead toward the York Pike nearly two miles east of town. As it turned out, there were no Yankees approaching on the York Pike. (One lieutenant swore that what Smith saw was in fact a fence with a growth of small trees.) Smith's alarm, however, caused Early to defer his attack on Cemetery Hill, and, further, resulted in the siphoning off of Gordon's brigade in addition to Smith's to guard against the non-existent threat, all at a time when corps commander Maj. Gen. Richard Ewell was making the delicate decision on whether or not to charge the beaten Federals then attempting to rally on Cemetery Hill. With Early's two brigades thus unavailable, the attack was never made. The debate on whether the battle might have been won by such an attack still rages.
Smith's brigade remained two miles out on the east of town all the next day, July 2, remote from the desperate battles on Cemetery and Culp's Hills.
Just after daybreak on July 3, Ewell sent Smith and his regiments to reinforce Johnson's division, which had gained a foothold on Culp's Hill on the evening of the 2nd. Guided into their place in the line by staffer Kyd Douglas, they were ultimately driven off the hill with the rest of Johnson's brigades before noon.
Smith was the only brigadier in the division not commended by Maj. Gen. Early after the battle. At least Smith had the good sense to know when to depart: within a week after the battle, he had resigned his command. He received a cosmetic promotion to major general in August, and returned to Virginia to help with recruiting. He was inaugurated as Governor of Virginia on New Year's Day of 1864 and served for the rest of the war.
For further reading:
Bell, John W. Memoirs of Governor William Smith of Virginia: His Political, Military and Personal History. New York, 1891
Fahrner, Alvin A. "The Public Career of William 'Extra Billy' Smith." Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, 1953
_____, "William 'Extra Billy' Smith, Governor of Virginia, 1864-1865: A Pillar of the Confederacy." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 74, 1966
Hassler, William W. "'Extra Billy' Smith." Civil War Times Illustrated 2, Dec 1963