Sunday, November 18, 2012

"Resist the Enemy at all Hazards!"

The more I write about these men who served in the US Congress but resigned in order to fight in the war, the more fascinated with them I become. For the most part, they all lived extraordinary lives. I have limited my scope to what they did during the 1862 Maryland Campaign but I have to say, for this next character, it is well worth looking further into his life both prior to and after the war. William "Extra Billy" Smith is by far one of the most engaging and influential men of Virginia who, sadly, has been forgotten. Knowing nothing about him until now, it looks like I have to take another trip to Richmond to visit Hollywood Cemetery where he is buried as well as Capital Square where his statue is located.

William “Extra Billy” Smith was born in King George County, VA on September 6, 1797, making him the oldest Confederate general at Antietam. Union General Edwin Sumner beat him as the oldest general on the field by several months being born on January 30, 1797. Smith had an incredibly active life prior to the war. In 1818, he began practicing law in Culpeper Va. In 1826 started a successful stage line business that expanded into the Piedmont Mail Line. This line ran 654 miles from Washington to Milledgeville GA. The trip took 9 days and cost $45 one way. Today, the closest station to Milledgeville is Atlanta. One way takes 14 hours, cost $219, and there is yet another 98 miles to go before reaching the town. Initially, Smith was authorized to carry US Mail from Washington to Culpeper but as the line traveled further distances so did the mail, for an extra fee. These extra payments earned him the nickname “Extra Billy” after he was investigated during 1834 by Post Office Department Senator Benjamin Leigh. During the 1830’s he supported Andrew Jackson and was elected to the State Senate. He ran for US Representative in 1841, was beat by four votes, contested the results, had an election do-over, won by several hundred votes, and took his seat in 1842. He served one term due to his defeat in 1843. He then moved to Warrenton and spent time correcting his finances until he was unknowingly elected Governor of Virginia by the Legislature in 1846 for a three year term. December 31, 1848 found Smith out of a job again so he borrowed some money and went to California until 1852. While there, he was active in law, real estate, and the Democrat Party. Back in Warrenton he built the California Building and used it as a law office until he was reelected as a Representative for the 34-36th Congresses. (1)
Smith’s last day in the House of Representatives was March 3, 1861. In June 1861 he was appointed Colonel of the 49th VA by Governor Letcher. He fought at First Manassas and was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. He fought his way through the Peninsula Campaign and Second Manassas. During the Maryland Campaign he was with Jackson at Harpers Ferry until it was surrendered and then hurried along to Sharpsburg to meet the main army. (2)

Early's position at 7am
At Antietam, Early’s brigade was on the Confederate left at the West Woods behind the Dunker Church. Jackson directed Early to post his brigade in a spot where he could support some artillery pieces that Stuart had placed to operate against the Union’s right. Finding Stuart about a mile further north, Early placed his brigade behind Nicodemus Heights/Hauser Ridge and remained there for about an hour until the enemy was seen making its way between Early and Stuart. Early moved his brigade forward to the rear of the West Woods. It was here Early was notified that Lawton had been wounded and he was to take command of Lawton’s Division. Early further advanced his brigade and “formed a line in rear of Grigsby and Staford, and they at once advanced against the enemy’s skirmishers, who had penetrated some distance into the woods, driving them back...heavy bodies of the enemy were now discovered in the field beyond the woods moving up to it. I left my brigade under the command of Colonel William Smith, of the 49th Virginia, with directions to resist the enemy at all hazards”. (3)

Discovering how butchered Lawton’s Division was, Early returned to his own brigade as there was nothing left to command. Early found his brigade where he had left it, “entirely in the woods, with its right flank opposite the middle of the field or plateau, and its direction was a right angle with the Hagerstown pike. In the woods were limestone ledges which formed very good cover for troops, and they extended back towards the church”. (4)

Early's position at 9am
At this time, the Union began aggressively pushing into the West Woods and in the vicinity of Dunker Church. Early stated his position became “very critical, as there was nothing between Hood and myself, thus leaving an interval of from a quarter to a half mile between my command and the rest of the army. Fortunately, however, my troops were concealed from this body of the enemy [Greene’s Division], or their destruction would have been inevitable, as it was nearly between them and the rest of the army, and the body, moving up on the left in my front, had now got into the woods...I directed Colonel William Smith, whose regiment, the 49th Virginia, was in the lead, to open fire on the flankers, which was promptly done, and they ran in on the main body, which was taken by surprise by the fire from the unexpected quarter from which it came”. (5)

Smith wrote “as the enemy swept around my flank, one of my men cried out from the rank, ‘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 on steadiness and courage. Obey orders, and I’ll answer for the result.’...I gave the order ‘about face’--- around came the whole command, when I cried out, ‘take aim---cover your objects---the man who pulls trigger without an object under his sight, ought to be drummed out of camp after this fight is over---fire.’ My great necessity was a crushing volley, and such a volley, I never heard! It is to this day with me one of the rich memories of the war. The Yankees did not even return fire, but with quick step retired on the line of their advance, and rejoined their advancing columns”. (6)

Minutes later the battle for the West Woods began in earnest. Smith yet held the concealed position and “a few volleys from our gallant boys, from their protected position, at a relatively small loss to them, into the masses of the enemy, soon covered the ground with their dead and wounded. The enemy finally broke, leaving, besides their killed and wounded, 350 prisoners on our hands”. (7)

During this violent exchange, Smith was severely wounded. Early wrote a letter in 1888 describing the condition he found Smith in. Early wrote “I found Col. Smith standing by himself in a lime-stone ledge; I rode up to him and said to him: ‘Colonel, get your men together’... he replied, ‘you will observe, General, I am very badly wounded, and can’t do anything more.’ I looked at him and saw the blood streaming from his left shoulder, which indicated a very serious wound, and I was not advised he was shot in another place, the leg, I believe. These wounds were in addition to the one inflicted by the ball which struck him in the was very evident he was very seriously wounded, and I saw he was unable to move, though he was standing up. He was subsequently carried from the field in a helpless condition”. In all, Smith received three wounds from one volley, and lived! The guy was 65 years old and running around a battlefield drenched in his own blood! (8)

After eight months of rest, Smith returned to the army as a Brigadier General. He continued serving in the army until he resigned December 31, 1863 in order to take the oath of office for the second time as Virginia’s Governor on January 1, 1864. (9)

3. Jubal Early's Memoirs by Jubal Early, pg 141-142.
4. Early pg 145.
5. Early pg 146-147.
6. Memoirs of Governor William Smith of Virginia by John W Bell, pg 47.
7. Bell pg 48.
8. Bell pg 48-49.

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