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.
“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…”