- Hardcover: 336 pages
- Publisher: Savas Beatie (April 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1611211298
- ISBN-13: 978-1611211290
A “Grand old hero”
The title of this review comes from a eulogy given at a reunion of Smith’s regiment after his death. An obituary said that to follow Smith’s life was follow Virginia’s history. William “Extra Billy” Smith is a remarkable character. Businessman, politician, fierce advocate for state’s rights and solider all describe the man. He deserves a biography that captures all of these things and remembers his role in events. Scott Mingus manages to do this. “Extra Billy” is always the book’s centerpiece but the author never tries to expand his role in events. This disciplined approach makes the man more fascinating and the history clearer.
“Extra Billy” starts life as a government contractor delivering mail. His uncanny ability to find addition charges gives him his nickname. Government contracts are part of the political spoils system requiring careful cultivation of office holders and solid political support. An election changing the party in power can ruin a man destroying his transportation empire. The author follows the twists and turns of the spoils system and transportation problems during the early 1800s.
The law provides stable employment for a man with a growing family. A firm Democrat and a noted stump speaker leads to campaigning for the parties’ candidates. Campaigning accumulates favors and builds a following, leading to public office. Politics and campaigning is a rough and tumble world of speeches, whiskey and favors. “Extra Billy” refuses to provide whiskey and succeeds in spite of this. In the 1840s, “Extra Billy” works his way from stump speaker to governor but is unable to advance to the US Senate for a variety of political reason.
The California Gold Rush beckons and we move west, not to look for gold but to build the Democratic Party. Smith and his sons engage in politics and business building wealth and influence.
Back in Virginia, a seat in Congress puts us in the debates leading to secession. “Extra Billy” is a firm supporter of slavery, state’s rights champion willing to do almost anything to support his causes. His speeches and tactics bring notoriety upsetting the North while delighting the South. The author devotes about 60 pages to his terms in Congress, his causes and events of the 1850s. Seeing this time through Southern eyes is an interesting change. The author never falls into editorializing over Smith’s views or actions staying with what he did and his reasons for doing so.
The heart of the book, about 200 pages, is “Extra Billy” and the Civil War. Well past military age, he is in his mid-sixties; “Extra Billy” has the courage of his convictions. He joins the war, first as a private citizen and then as the Colonel of a regiment. This is an insider’s view of the use and abuse of political appointments to military command. Smith admits to being “wholly unacquainted with drill or tactics” and he made little or no attempt to change this. Civil War lore is full of “Extra Billy” stories about his “commands”. White hair, an umbrella and a large hat only add stores that could make him the butt of jokes.
However, “Extra Billy” is a lion on the battlefield. Cool under fire, fearless, with a huge amount of common sense and the ability to motivate men makes him an excellent commander. He fights from Fairfax Court House to Gettysburg going from private citizen to brigadier general. A little political pull moves his regiment to Early’s brigade where he prospers. Along the way, Smith is wounded several time and badly wounded at Antietam.
Smith commands the smallest brigade in the AoNV at Gettysburg. Positioned on the far left of Ewell’s line, he “sees” advancing Union infantry late on the first day. The resulting delays and adjustments have been used to fuel another of the Gettysburg’s “what if”. This is covered both in the book and in detail in a 16-page appendix.
“Extra Billy” Smith is one of those Nineteenth Century larger than life personalities. Scott L. Mingus Sr. does justice to his life in an enjoyable and very readable book.