- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2003

William Smith served five terms in the Virginia House, two terms as governor, and was a member of Congress from 1853 until Virginia seceded. During the war, Smith, then in his 60s, formed, trained and led the 49th Virginia Volunteers. He rose to the rank of major general and commanded a brigade of Virginia troops.

On June 1, 1861, in a skirmish on the lawn at Fairfax Court House, the Confederate commander of the Warrenton Rifles, Capt. John Quincy Marr, fell with a mortal wound. Smith, who was a guest at the nearby Josua Gunnell house, rushed to the scene to take command of the Confederate troops, which included Gunnell’s son.

Smith described the scene in his memoirs: “[F]enced 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 Robert E. Lee’s army from 1861 until the end of 1863.

William Smith was born in Marengo, Va., in King George’s County, on Sept. 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, he started a passenger coach and U.S. mail-delivery service between Washington and Milledgeville, Ga. By 1831, his coach business had spread through Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. The numerous extra fees from the government he collected for service to remote locations earned him the nickname “Extra Billy.”

During the war, Smith expressed disdain for West Pointers, believing 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 Infantry regiment was made up of men from Warren, Amherst, Prince William, Fauquier, Rappahannock and Nelson counties. At the Battle of Seven Pines, the 49th suffered 55 percent casualties. By the time of Appomattox, in April 1865, just 54 men and two officers were left to be paroled.

About 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 Jan. 1, 1863, Smith was promoted to brigadier general and took command of the brigade made up of the 13th, 49th, 52nd and 58th Virginia regiments. He won laurels at Gettysburg, where he was wounded. His actions on the third day of the battle were described by Maj. R.W. Hunter: “They came with a rush, the old Governor in the lead, his voice rising above the din of battle. … 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. … 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.”

In the critical summer of 1863, he was re-elected governor of Virginia, left the field and was promoted to major general. He resigned from military service on Dec. 31, 1863, to serve as governor until the war’s end.

Smith was paroled and returned to his estate near Warrenton after Appomattox. At age 80 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 89. .The Warrenton Index paid this tribute: “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.”

John E. Carey is a writer in Arlington.

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