More than 11,000 Confederate soldiers marched or rode through York County, Pennsylvania, during the week before the battle of Gettysburg. Perhaps none was as colorful, or controversial, as Brigadier General William “Extra Billy” Smith. Today, few Civil War buffs know much about him but, in his day, Smith was one of the most famous men in the entire South. He was the governor of Virginia during the Mexican War, then the leading lawyer in California for the 49ers during the Gold Rush, and later a five-term U. S. congressman. During the Civil War, he was the oldest general at Gettysburg and then the governor of Virginia again during the final two years of the war. He feuded constantly with Jubal Early and then skipped out of Richmond with $21,000 in gold from the Virginia state treasury the day Robert E. Lee’s army abandoned the surrounding earthworks.
Extra Billy was an avowed racist, wanting free black people thrown out of the Old Dominion. Abolitionist firebrand William Lloyd Garrison called out Smith’s viewpoints in his Liberator newspaper. Governor Smith, late in the war, advocated arming the slaves and putting them on the battlefield.
I am occasionally asked why I wrote a biography of such a person. Frankly, despite my absolute objection to his overtly racist views and the fact that all of my Civil War ancestors fought against his Confederate cause, Smith remains perhaps “the most interesting man in the Confederacy,” despite his many character flaws. He was the most famous Rebel at Gettysburg who did not previously have a formal book-length modern biography. I will be speaking about his life and signing my Underground Railroad in York County and more than a dozen different Civil War books at the monthly meeting of the York Civil War Round Table on Wednesday, October 18, 2017, at 7 p.m. at the York County History Center, 250 E. Market Street, York PA.
And, why was he called “Extra Billy?” Come find out!
William “Extra Billy” Smith, the oldest and one of the most controversial Confederate generals on the field at Gettysburg, was also one of the most colorful and charismatic characters of the Civil War and the antebellum Old South. Known nationally as “Extra Billy” because of his prewar penchant for finding loopholes in government postal contracts to gain extra money for his stagecoach lines, Smith served as Virginia’s governor during both the War with Mexico and the Civil War, served five terms in the U.S. Congress, and was one of Virginia’s leading spokesmen for slavery and States’ Rights. Extra Billy’s extra-long speeches and wry sense of humor were legendary among his peers. A lawyer during the heady Gold Rush days, Smith made a fortune in California and, like his income earned from stagecoaches, quickly lost it.
Despite his advanced age Smith took the field and fought well at First Manassas, was wounded at Seven Pines and again at Sharpsburg, and marched with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania. There, on the first day at Gettysburg, Smith’s frantic messages about a possible Union flanking attack remain a matter of controversy to this day. Did his aging eyes see distant fence-lines that he interpreted as approaching enemy soldiers—mere phantoms of his imagination?—or did his prompt action stave off a looming Confederate disaster? What we do know is that his calls for support diverted limited Confederate manpower away from attacks against Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill that might have turned the tide of Southern fortunes in Pennsylvania.
Scott Mingus is a management consultant to the global pulp and paper industry, and holds patents in self-adhesive postage stamps and bar code labels. The Ohio native graduated from the paper science and engineering program at Miami University in 1978. He was part of the research team that developed the first commercially successful self-adhesive U.S. postage stamps. He has written twenty Civil War and Underground Railroad books. His biography of Confederate General William “Extra Billy” Smith won multiple awards, including the Dr. James I. Robertson, Jr. Literary Prize for Confederate History. He has also written several articles for Gettysburg Magazine, as well as for various historical journals.
Scott and his wife Debi live in York County, Pennsylvania, and he maintains a blog on the Civil War history of York County (www.yorkblog.com/cannonball). He received the 2013 Heritage Profile Award from the York County Heritage Trust for his contributions to local Civil War history. He also has written six scenario books for Civil War miniature wargaming. His great-great-grandfather was a 15-year-old drummer boy in the 51st Ohio Infantry under General Sherman, and other family members fought at Antietam and Gettysburg. Another kinsman commanded an artillery battery of the 1st Ohio Heavy Artillery in Sherman’s army.