Archive for the ‘Lee’ Category

William “Extra Billy” Smith: Confederate General and Virginia Governor

September 1, 2008

By John E. Carey

William Smith (1797 – 1887) served five terms in the Virginia House, two terms as Governor of Virginia and he formed, trained and led the 49th Virginia Volunteers in the Civil War while over sixty years of age. He rose to the rank of Major General and for a time commanded the entire brigade made up of the 13th, 49th, 52nd, and 58th Virginia regiments.

On June 1, 1861, in a skirmish on the lawn at Fairfax Court House, Virginia, the Confederate commander of the Warrenton Rifles, Captain John Quincy Marr, fell with a mortal wound. Smith, a former Governor of Virginia (1846-1849) and guest at the nearby Josua Gunnell house, rushed to the scene to take command of the Confederate troops, which included Gunnell’s own son.
William "Extra Billy" Smith

“Extra Billy” described the scene in his memoirs: “Knowing that the men did not care for their other officers, I said to them boys, you know me, follow me. They sprang with alacrity over the fence against which they were leaning, when I, without the slightest knowledge of tactics, and guided by instinct alone, commenced rapidly to form them into two lines. Having nearly completed this duty, Col. Ewell, without hat or uniform and bleeding, having been struck in the fleshy part of the shoulder by a pistol shot as he ran across the enemy’s line of march, came up. We soon completed the little command and moved it at quick step to the turnpike; then wheeled to the left, and at a short distance, met the enemy returning from the run in a very disorderly condition. This was most fortunate for us–fenced in, both on the right and left, by high board fences and armed only with carbines, we could neither escape nor resist a dragoon charge, except with the contents of our guns. These we promptly gave them, which so staggered them that they came promptly to the ‘about face,’ and returned to the run to reform. Then Col. Ewell said to me, ‘Governor you seem to have a taste for such matters, take the men and move them forward, while I dispatch a courier to bring up some cavalry which is at Fairfax Station.’ I moved the men promptly, and on reaching a wagoner’s shop, halted them, seeing a strong post and rail fence on each side of the turnpike over which the enemy was expected to return.”

Smith subsequently participated in every major engagement involving Lee’s Army from 1861 until the end of 1863.

William Smith was Virginia born in Marengo, King George’s County, on September 6, 1797. Educated in private schools in Virginia and the Plainfield Academy in Connecticut, Smith was admitted to the bar and began practicing law in 1818.

In 1827 Smith started a passenger coach and U. S. mail delivery service between Washington, D.C. and Milledgeville, Georgia. By 1831 his coach business had spread through Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. The fees he collected for service to more remote locations earned him the nickname “Extra Billy.”

Smith had the utmost disdain for West Pointers, believing that his own courage and rapid action on the battlefield could always surpass the actions of “trained” soldiers. His 49th Virginia volunteers became known as “Extra Billy’s Boys.” The 49th Virginia Infantry regiment was made up of men from Warren, Amherst, Prince William, Fauquier, Rappahannock, and Nelson counties. The 49th served in all major battles in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. At the Battle of Seven Pines, the 49th suffered 55% casualties. By the time of Appomattox in April of 1865, there were only 54 men and two officers left to be paroled.

Of the engagement at Sharpsburg, Smith wrote: “As the enemy swept around my flank, one of my men cried out from the ranks, ‘Colonel, they are surrounding us!’ My answer was, ‘Men, you conquer or die where you stand. I will not yield the rascals an inch–but remember, everything depends upon steadiness and courage. Obey orders, and I’ll answer for the result.’

On January 1, 1863, Smith was promoted to Brigadier General, and he took command of the entire brigade made up of the 13th, 49th, 52nd, and 58th Virginia regiments. He won laurels at Gettysburg. The Governor’s actions on the third day of that battle were described by Major R. W. Hunter, CSA, “They came with a rush, the old Governor in the lead, his voice rising above the din of battle, more potent than a blast from the bugle horn of Trelawney. Taking the highest position he could find, reckless of shot and shell, with bare head and sword in hand, pointing to the enemy, he harangued each regiment, as it double-quicked past into the arena of blood and fire. I cannot recall his exact words. All that I know is that they were not in the conventional forms prescribed by Hardee, Upton or Gilham. Like Wellington, when the moment came for the death-grapple at Waterloo, the old Governor either could not recall the “orders” as laid down in the books on Tactics, or deemed them too insipid for such an emergency. Such, however, was the emphatic muscularity of his military dialect that there was never a moment’s doubt or hesitation as to what he meant. His “boys,” as he affectionately called them, knew and understood him, and off they dashed with a spirit and a vim that soon drove back the enemy.”

Major Hunter concludes: “It was done so handsomely; the old Governor’s bearing was so superbly gallant; his voice so ringing and inspiring; the reinforcement he brought so opportune, so welcome and so effective, that the troops in that quarter, rejoicing in their deliverance, in heartfelt tribute to that “good grey head that all men knew,” and with a spontaneous impulse such as only soldiers in such a plight can feel, with one accord raised the shout: ‘Hurrah for Governor Smith,’ which went along the lines like an electric current, mingling with the sullen roar of the enemy’s cannon.”

On August 30, 1863, General Lee sent the Governor on a “speaking tour” on behalf of new amnesty and furlough laws. He resigned from military service on December 31, 1863 to become Governor of Virginia until the war’s end.

Smith was paroled and returned to his estate near Warrenton after the surrender at Appomadox. At age eighty, he was once again elected to the Virginia House of Delegates for the 1877-1879 term.

William Smith died on May 18, 1887 at the age of ninety. He was widely acclaimed and mourned throughout the state. The Warrenton Index paid this tribute to him: “A State Senator of the olden times, this grand commoner, twice filling the Gubernatorial chair and five terms a seat in the halls of Congress; this untrained soldier, holding undisciplined troops to posts of duty under deadliest fire by force of his magnetic presence and sight of the snow white plume beneath his chapeau…”

Inspirational Story From the Civil War: Father James Sheeran

August 30, 2008

By John E. Carey

The Reverend James Sheeran, a Catholic priest, served with the 14th Louisiana Regiment from New Orleans in General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Writer and historian Bruce Catton once said he wished he had met Sheeran. Sheeran perplexed “Stonewall” Jackson by his tenacity and self assurance. Robert E. Lee and Phil Sheridan both backed down in the face of Sheeran’s logic and determination.

Father Sheeran ministered to those in need of religious support, cared for the sick and wounded, and performed innumerable acts of kindness for his fellow man. Sheeran’s determination and righteousness, grounded in God, inspired common soldiers and generals alike. In the face of all kinds of adversity, Sheeran displayed real backbone.

Three things seemed to guide Sheeran in every action, every disagreement and every situation. He believed in duty, the word of the Lord, and his home in the Confederacy.

During a confrontation at a hospital, Sheeran demonstrated some of his strengths.

“Across the road from our hospital,” Sheeran wrote, “was one full of Yankees. As usual having attended to the wants of our own men I visited the wounded of the enemy and offered my service.”

What Father Sheeran found in the Yankee hospital infuriated him. “I enquired if they had no surgeon of their own or any person to dress their wounds. They told me that they had several surgeons over there (pointing to the adjacent building), but they paid no attention to them, did not even come to see them.”

Sheeran marched directly to find the surgeons responsible for the Yankee wounded, telling them “of the painful condition of the wounded and requested them as a matter of humanity not to neglect them so….”

The Union medical staff “told me that they had no bandages to dress the wounds, no instruments to operate with, and that they were fatigued from the labors of the night.”

“I remarked it would be some consolation to their wounded if they would but visit them and wash the wound of those who were bathed in their own blood. I next went to their men paroled to attend to the wounded, asked why they did not wait on their companions, many of whom were suffering for a drink of water. They told me that they had no one to direct them, that their surgeons seemed to take no interest in the men.”

“I became somewhat indignant to hear the excuses of these worthless nurses, and putting on an air of authority ordered them to go to the rifle pits filled with the dead bodies of their companions and they would find hundreds of knapsacks filled with shirts, handkerchiefs and other articles that would make excellent bandages.”

“They obeyed my orders with the utmost alacrity and soon returned with their arms full of excellent bandage material, and bringing them to me asked: ‘Now sir, what shall we do with them?’” Sheeran was fully prepared to give the required final direction. “Go and tell your surgeons that you have bandages enough now.”

“Off they went to the surgeons….” Sheeran records. “In about two hours I returned and was pleased to find the surgeons and nurses all at work attending to their wounded.”

Sheeran spoke his mind and, when he believed he was in the right, he was not afraid of any man. In 1892, a Sheeran friend, Father Joseph Flynn wrote down this account of Sheeran’s run in with Stonewall Jackson:

“Going to his [Father Sheeran’s] tent one day, General Jackson sternly rebuked the priest for disobeying his orders, and reproached him for doing what he would not tolerate in any officer in his command. [The exact offense is unknown.] ‘Father Sheeran,’ said the general, ‘you ask more favors and take more privileges than any officer in the army.’ [Sheeran apparently replied] ‘General Jackson, I want you to understand that as a priest of God I outrank every officer in your command. I even outrank you, and when it is a question of duty I shall go wherever called.’ The General looked with undistinguished astonishment on the bold priest and without reply left his tent.”

Dr. Hunter McGuire, Chief Surgeon of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, recalled another incident between Father Sheeran and Stonewall Jackson. “At one time just before the fight at Chancellorsville,” Dr. McGuire said, “we were ordered to send to the rear all surplus baggage. All tents were discarded…. A Catholic priest belonging to one of the Louisiana brigades sent up his resignation because he was not permitted to have a tent, which he thought necessary to the proper performance of his office.”

“I said to General Jackson,” reported McGuire, “that I was very sorry to give up [the] Father–; that he was one of the most useful chaplains in the service. He replied: ‘If that is the case he shall have a tent.’ And so far as I know this Roman Catholic priest was the only man in the corps who had one.”

Above: “Stonewall” Jackson

Looking to clear the way for unrestricted access to men in need throughout the army and the countryside, Sheeran sought an authorization to go wherever and whenever he is needed. This led the chaplain into conflict with both Robert E. Lee and Phil Sheridan. Army red tape tends to restrict one’s movements to designated times and places. Sheeran set out to attain a pass authorizing the fullest freedoms imaginable.

After hearing half-answers, excuses and outright lies from dozens of officers, Sheeran obtained entry into General Lee’s presence. Lee, at first, refused to support Sheeran. But then Sheeran explained his army role, the length and arduous nature of his service, and the number of men he has prayed with and assisted along the way. Lee scribbled Sheeran a pass “that will last me the rest of the war if I should last so long.”

Later in the war, Union troops arrested Sheeran for crossing into Yankee lines. The Union Army imprisoned Sheeran at the old horse stables of Fort McHenry. Civil War Historian Scott Sheads at Fort Mc Henry in Baltimore pulled Sheeran’s file for us.

“The Reverend James Sheeran was arrested at Winchester, Virginia on November5, 1864 and confined at Fort McHenry on November 10, 1864. Arrested byorder of Major General Philip Sheridan.”

In the cold, cramped, dung and vermin filled environment, of Civil War Fort McHenry, Sheeran tired physically but his resolve stiffened. He wrote letters to General Sheridan and the Union Secretary of War, denouncing his treatment.

Ultimately, the Union Army set Sheeran free. But he again encountered red tape; only this time it is in the form of Union Army rules and restrictions. Sheeran again explained his case, this time to a befuddled General Phil Sheridan. Sheeran, as usual, departed with the passes and respect he thought he deserved.

James Sheeran knew God wanted him at his place at the front. During one engagement, Sheeran actually formed and “commanded” a rag-tag force of troops. “Our ambulance drivers….as well as our stragglers, were for stampeding,” wrote Sheeran. “Mounting my Grey and riding down….I ordered [them] to move forward as quickly as possible….” Before infantry officers arrived to take over, Sheeran wrote, “I took command of the stragglers and formed them in a line…”

Throughout the war, Sheeran retained his sense of humor and his sense of perspective.

Father Sheeran was born in Temple Mehill, County Longford, Ireland, in 1818. At the age of twelve, he emigrated to Canada and eventually settled in Monroe, Michigan where he taught in a boy’s school opened by the Catholic Redemptorist Fathers.

Sheeran married and fathered a son and a daughter. But his wife died in 1849 and Sheeran was drawn to the life of a Catholic priest. He joined the Redemptorist Congregation 1855 and was ordained a priest in 1858. At about the same time, his daughter became a nun and his son succumbed to illness.

Assigned to a parish in New Orleans, he became an ardent Southerner. When the leader of his Catholic province asked for volunteers to serve as chaplains in the Confederate Army, Father Sheeran enthusiastically offered his service.

In 1960, Bruce Catton’s wrote, “[To Father Sheeran] the real enemy appears to be war itself, and not just the opposing army.”

Father Joseph Durkin wrote of Father Sheeran, “He may have been, at times, unduly stern and uncompromising. He may have lacked some of the gentler virtues. But, in a world which so readily sells responsibility for ease, and integrity for profit, we may well prefer Father Sheeran’s iron to a more sophisticated irony.”