Confederate General William “Extra Billy” Smith: From Virginia’s Statehouse to Gettysburg Scapegoat by Scott L. Mingus, Sr. Savas Beatie, 2013. Cloth, ISBN: 1611211298. $29.95.
As the nickname for which he became popularly known suggests, William “Extra Billy” Smith was a character among nineteenth century Virginia political leaders who won further renown — or notoriety — as a general in the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War. Author Scott L. Mingus, Sr., has provided a full-length biographical treatment of this colorful personality. In the process, he not only establishes his subject’s elevated sense of himself, but also places Smith in the context of the times that riveted the Commonwealth of Virginia and the nation.
Although born to a Virginia plantation family, William Smith labored diligently to advance his prospects in life. He secured a mail route and owed his colorful sobriquet, “Extra Billy,” to his talent for generating surplus postal revenues. A rising and outspoken political figure, Smith received the reins of Virginia’s governorship from the legislature in 1846 and helped to bolster support for the Mexican-American War. After a brief stint in California, Smith returned to Virginia and a seat in the United States Congress, where he advocated for states’ rights’ and the institution of slavery.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Smith took command of a Virginia regiment. He demonstrated a certain flair on the field, though not always military acumen. As a general officer he proved eccentric (employing an umbrella and high beaver hat on occasion to ward off the effects of the sun), but his men found him inspiring. He suffered wounds in battles that ranged from Seven Pines to Sharpsburg and participated in other significant engagements in the war’s eastern theater. No one questioned his courage, although his lack of martial education and open disdain for West Point experience provided ample fodder for his foes. “Extra Billy’s” role at Gettysburg in potentially misdirecting Confederate attention in the opening phases of the engagement – as well as his preoccupation with returning to leadership in Virginia as a war governor – may have marred some of his earlier performances, but they reflected the character of the man.
As a war governor, William Smith demonstrated the conflict’s impact upon him and the society he inhabited. Frequently, he clashed with conservative elements in the legislature as he sided with the centralizing policies of the Davis administration, worked to maximize the efforts of his state to wage war more effectively, and sought to bring relief to his struggling citizenry. Governor Smith sufficiently understood the challenges facing Virginia and the Confederacy. He supported the impressment of slaves and pushed for the enlistment of African Americans into Confederate military service as manpower shortages in the gray-clad ranks mounted. When the Union armies ultimately forced the evacuation of Richmond, the governor considered the draconian step of assuming command of all remaining forces in the state to continue the struggle. But, in the end, he accepted the outcome of the conflict. In an incongruous and incredible journey, returned to the fallen capital to submit to federal authorities after evading capture.
Smith’s postwar career reflected the uncertainties and difficulties of the transition from wartime to peacetime. Contenting himself in these twilight years as much as he could with farming and other personal interests, he dabbled in politics and gave the occasional speech. He clashed with former colleagues and long-time rivals. “Extra Billy”was not quite ninety years of age when he passed from the scene, honored at his Monte Rosa home and in the Capitol Rotunda in Richmond before being laid to rest in Hollywood Cemetery.
Biographer Scott Mingus has certainly captured the charisma of his subject. The author has supplied ample illustrations and maps to support the text, and he has endeavored to uncover any and all references to “Extra Billy” Smith in the extant sources. Still, the benefit of this extensive research results in a text frequently overburdened by extended quotations that might have been summarized with greater effect. The reader is left to determine the degree to which another derogatory reference in a Massachusetts or New York newspaper (or a laudatory one from a Southern counterpart) will advance an understanding of Smith’s contributions to the divisive issues of slavery and states’ rights, the Confederate war effort, and the South’s place in post-Civil War America.
What emerges most clearly in this volume, then, is the portrait of a cantankerous but conscientious political figure in the South during the turbulent years of the Civil War era. Although he tried, “Extra Billy” could never harness the forces that surrounded him. Smith’s was a voice that rarely surpassed those of his contemporaries, but it deserves to be heard.
Brian Steel Wills is Director of the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era and Professor of History at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia. A prolific biographer of Civil War leaders, his most recent book is The River Was Dyed with Blood: Nathan Bedford Forrest and Fort Pillow (2014).