Confederate Brig. Gen. Wm. “Extra Billy” Smith (USAHEC)
More than 11,000 Confederate soldiers passed through York County, Pennsylvania, in the last days of June 1863 during the Gettysburg Campaign. Days later, most of the men, other than 100 or so deserters picked up locally by Federal authorities, fought at the battle of Gettysburg.
None of the Southern soldiers was as colorful, or controversial, as Brigadier General William Smith of Virginia. He was widely known in the U. S. as “Extra Billy,” a sobriquet given to him by a political enemy on the floor of Congress back in the 1830s. Smith, at the time, was a young postal contractor who owned the main interstate routes from Virginia down to Georgia. Always aggressive in business and politics, he took advantage of a loophole in the law that enabled him to charge extra for mileage, excess baggage, and other services. Detractors deemed him “Surplus William” or “Extra Billy.”
The latter nickname stuck for all time.
Before the Civil War, Smith was a powerful attorney, state legislator, governor of Virginia during the Mexican War, the 49ers’ lawyer in California during the Gold Rush, and a five-term pro-slavery U. S. congressman. He had since become a Confederate congressman and had taken up arms against the government that he had so long represented.
At 65 years old, Extra Billy Smith was the oldest general at the battle of Gettysburg. He delivered a less-than-memorable martial performance.
However, on Sunday, June 28, 1863, he reportedly delivered a quite memorable speech during a military parade through York, Pennsylvania. At least, that is according to an eyewitness account by Confederate artillerymen Major Robert Stiles.
Here are the circumstances of that long-ago display of entertaining oratory.