The Sacking of “Baldy” Smith: July 19, 1864

Editor’s Note: This post was originally posted at The Siege of Petersburg Online and has been cross-posted here for the benefit of TOCWOC readers.


July 19, 1864:

William F. “Baldy” Smith is Relieved from Command of 18th Corps, AotJ

William F. "Baldy" SmithToday marks the 150th anniversary of William F. “Baldy” Smith’s removal from command of the Eighteenth Corps, Army of the James. Smith would never return to the Siege of Petersburg, as Edward O. C. Ord took his place, eventually moving up to command the entire Army of the James. The official explanation was that Smith was relieved due to ill health, but as you’ll see, it wasn’t nearly that simple.


March 1886: A Casual Dismissal and a Response

Smith was compelled to respond to a February 1886 article in the Century Magazine written by Ulysses S. Grant which stated, among other things:

“General W. F. Smith, who had been promoted to the rank of Major-General shortly after the battle of Chattanooga, on my recommendation, had not yet been confirmed. I found a decided prejudice against his confirmation by a majority of the Senate, but I insisted that his services had been such that he should be rewarded. My wishes were now reluctantly complied with, and I assigned him to the command of one of the corps under General Butler. I was not long in finding out that the objections to Smith’s promotion were well founded.

In a letter to the Century published in Volume 32, Number 1, Smith gave a defense of himself and professed ignorance as to the real reasons why Grant relieved him of command. He points out that Grant had stated the following to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on November 12, 1863:

“I would respectfully recommend that Brigadier-General William F. Smith be placed first on the list for promotion to the rank of major-general. He is possessed of one of the clearest military heads in the army is very practical and industrious no man in the service is better qualified than he for our largest commands.”

For those of you saying, so what, a lot could have changed between November 1863 and July 1864, Smith also offers the following statement from Grant to General Henry W. Halleck on July 1, 1864, just short of three weeks from the date Smith was relieved:

“Mr. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, has just returned. He informs me that he called attention to the necessity of sending General Butler to another field of duty. … I have feared that it might become necessary to separate him and General Smith. The latter is really one of the most efficient officers in the service, readiest in expedients, and most skillful in the management of troops in action. I would dislike removing him from his present command unless it was to increase it, but as I say, I may have to do it if General Butler remains. … I would feel strengthened with Smith, Franklin, or J. J. Reynolds commanding the right wing of this army. . . .

Smith goes on to explain that he tried to take a leave of absence due to health which was denied on July 2, and finally granted a week later after his health didn’t improve.  When he returned on July 19, 1864, he found he was relived from command, and claimed ignorance as to the why:

“I returned to the army on the 19th of July, to find myself relieved from my command. During this absence of ten days, nothing connected with my military duties could have occurred to impair the confidence in me expressed in General Grant’s communication of the 9th.

I sought an explanation from him on the day of my return, and he was as reticent in assigning any cause for his action then as he was twenty-one years after, when, in preparing a contribution to the history of the war, he again passed sentence upon me without assigning a reason of any kind for his condemnation. I am to-day as ignorant of the causes for his action as I was then. That they were purely personal, and had not the remotest connection with my conduct as a soldier, I submit is proved by his own testimony, and it is upon this question alone that I care to defend myself.

March 1, 1886.                                William Farrar Smith.”



September 1886: An Unexpected Revelation

Since Grant had passed away in 1885, you could perhaps be forgiven for thinking this story was over, but it had only just begun. Joel Benedict Ehhardt, a Civil War veteran, postwar lawyer, assistant U.S. District Attorney in Brooklyn, and New York Police Commissioner, among other things, wrote to the Century Magazine in September 1886 and produced a July 30, 1864 letter from Baldy Smith to Senator Solomon Foot, who had passed away in 1866.  Remember that Smith had just written in expressing his ignorance of why Grant had relieved him.  The letter from Smith to Foot, however, seemed to indicate this was a fabrication:

“HON. S. FOOT. “DEAR SENATOR: I am extremely anxious that my friends in my native State should not think that the reason of General Grant relieving me from duty was brought about by any misconduct of mine, and therefore I write to put you in possession of such facts in the case as I am aware of, and think will throw light upon the subject. . . . “On my return from a short leave of absence, on the 19th of July, General Grant sent for me to report to him, and then told me that he ‘could not relieve General Butler,’ and that as I had so severely criticised General Meade, he had determined to relieve me from the command of the Eighteenth Corps, and order me to New York City to await orders. The next morning the General gave some other reasons, such as an article in the ‘Tribune’ reflecting on General Hancock, which I had nothing in the world to do with, and two letters which I had written, before the campaign began, to two of General Grant’s most devoted friends, urging upon them to try and prevent him from making the campaign he had just made. . . . Very truly yours, “WILLIAM F. SMITH, Major-General.”


July 20, 1864: Meade and Lyman on Smith

Let’s now work our way back to 1864, the day after Smith was relieved.

Enter George Meade, who penned his thoughts on the Smith situation in a letter to his wife:

“Much excitement was created to-day by the announcement that General W. F. Smith, who returned last evening from his sick leave, was this morning relieved from his command of the Eighteenth Corps and ordered to New York. It was only the other day he was assigned by the President to this command, ad Butler sent to Fortress Monroe. It appears now the tables are turned—Butler remains and Smith goes.”

If Meade was involved in any way with Smith’s removal because Smith “had so severely criticised General Meade”, he doesn’t let on here.  Of course the letter, published years after the war, may have been edited prior to publication to strip out anything which could have been overly harmful to Meade.

Benjamin F. ButlerLet’s also not forget Theodore Lyman, Meade’s colorful aide-de-camp and friend, who had the following comments about Smith in a letter written to his wife that same July 20:

Woe to those who stand up against [Butler] in the way of diplomacy! Let the history of “Baldy” Smith be a warning to all such. It is an instructive one, and according to camp rumor, runs thus. It was said that Smith, relying on his reputation with Grant, had great ideas of shelving Butler, and Fame even reported that he had ideas also of giving Meade a tilt overboard. So what do we see but an order stating that Major-General Smith was to command the “forces of the field” of the Department, while Major-General Butler would continue to command the Department, with his “Headquarters at Fortress Monroe.” Next day everybody says: “So, Butler has gone.” Not exactly. Butler was still there, precisely as before. “As long as I command the Department, I command its troops; therefore, Headquarters where I please. I please here.” Off goes Smith to Washington, mysteriously. Down pounces Butler on City Point. Long confab with General Grant. Back comes Smith comfortably and is confronted by an order to “proceed at once to New York and await further orders!” Thus did Smith the Bald try the Macchiavelli against Butler the cross-eyed, and got floored at the first round! “Why did he do so?” asked Butler, with the easy air of a strong man. “I had no military ambition; he might have had all that. I have more important things in view!”

It would appear from reading these accounts that at least part of the reason Smith was canned was that he had gotten a bit TOO ambitious, and it cost him his job.  Ironically, had he simply stayed put, he might have been in line later that year to command after Butler’s disastrous Fort Fisher expeditions. It’s important to point out that this wasn’t the first time this sort of thing happened to Baldy Smith.  See Eric Wittenberg’s account of Smith’s actions just prior to Hooker being placed in command of the Army of the Potomac in early 1863.  As Eric so eloquently puts it, “Baldy Smith was a West Pointer, and was, by all accounts, a brilliant engineer. He was also a good soldier, but for his penchant for not knowing when to keep his big mouth shut.” I’d say that observation applies here.

Again, you might think this is the end of the story.  But never underestimate Baldy Smith’s desire to get in the last word, no matter how obtuse he has to appear in order to do so…


November 1886: An Unconvincing Postscript

After presumably reading Erhardt’s letter in the September 1886 issue of The Century, Smith again wrote in to the magazine in November 1886.  His argument isn’t very convincing.  He explains that though he did write the letter to Senator Foot and it is legitimate, he never said those reasons were the REAL reasons why Grant relieved him, and that he was still ignorant in November 1886 as to what those REAL reasons were:

“All those who have heard my statements will, I think, bear me witness that after stating all the reasons General Grant gave at the time for his action, I have invariably said that I was in utter ignorance of the real cause which induced my summary removal from an important military command. When General Grant stated that he removed me because he could not relieve General Butler, I said that could not be the reason because General Butler was relieved by order of the President, and before I had been placed in command, but after I had asked General Grant to let me go to some other field of duty. From that position General Grant himself retreated, and then spoke of an article in the “New York Tribune” which he thought I had written. To that I replied, “You cannot have relieved me because you suspected me of writing such a paper ; and the truth is that I never saw or heard of the article until it was published, and have not the faintest idea of its authorship.” After this statement General Grant brought up two other reasons, equally without foundation, and all these reasons having reference to events which had taken place before my assignment to the command of the Army of the James. The charge that I had months before written two letters to two of General Grant’s most devoted friends to urge him not to carry out a particular campaign when he stood committed to another on the records of the War Department, is hardly worthy a reference.”


1904: General James H. Wilson Weighs In

In his book Heroes of the Great Conflict: Life and Services of William Farrar Smith, Major General, United States Volunteers in the Civil War, former cavalry commander James Wilson offered the following commentary:

“Meanwhile however valid and important, in either a military or a political sense, the considerations may have been which sent Butelr out in command of an army wit such men as Smith and [Tenth Corps commander Quincy] Gillmore, both professional soldiers of the highest standing, as his subordinates, the arrangement was unfortunate from the beginning to end, and from its very nature it was foredoomed to failure…”

Wilson concludes in an interesting passage that Smith was relieved because, per Grant, either he had to go or Meade, Burnside, and Butler had to go:

“It will be recalled by those who have read “Butler’s Book,” that in addition to a number of trivial derelictions of duty, General Smith was charged with the more serious one of having failed through negligence and an untimely cessation of operations, to capture Petersburg, when it was claimed that all the conditions were favorable to success. It should also be recalled that several weeks after this failure had taken place and all the necessary explanations had been made and considered, the President had, on Grant’s recommendation, relieved Butler from further service in the field and had assigned General Smith to the command of the Eighteenth Corps which was composed of the troops from Butler’s department, serving with the Army of the Potomac. It should be remembered at the same time that before General Smith received this order he had applied for and been granted leave of absence on account of illness, or as he explained,” because of his old trouble with his head,” and that while he was absent, the Lieutenant General was by some means never fully or satisfactorily explained, induced to restore Butler to his former command and to dispense entirely with the services of General Smith. In reply to a letter from Smith, [Grant] authorized Colonel Comstock of his staff to inform [Smith] that he had been relieved “because of the impossibility of his getting along with General Butler,” who was his senior in rank. But General Grant assured me about this time that it was with great regret that he had taken this action; that he had tried in vain to utilize Smith’s great talents; that he had been too free in his criticisms, and that Smith himself had made it necessary that either he should be relieved or that Meade, Burnside and Butler should be deprived of command and sent out of the army. Some conversation followed, in which it was suggested that he should have given the preference to the alternative as a means of simplifying the organization and increasing the efficiency of the army, and it is a singular coincidence at least, that this suggestion was partly carried into effect, with most excellent results, by the relief of both Butler and Burnside, shortly afterwards, from the command of troops in that theatre of operations. It has besides long been a question among military men whether still better results would not have been obtained if Grant had at the same time relieved Meade, who was certainly a most competent and loyal general, from the immediate command of the Army of the Potomac and placed him instead at the head of an army corps.”

So in 1904 when this was published, Wilson was essentially claiming to have told Grant,

  • sack Butler and Bunside
  • keep Smith
  • fold the Army of the James into the Army of the Potomac
  • take command yourself
  • make Meade a corps commander
  • have an army of five infantry corps and two cavalry divisions1.

It’s an interesting idea, and one I admit to not having heard of before. What do you think?  Was Wilson on to something?  Would it have been politically feasible to keep Smith, remove Butler and Burnside, and make Meade a corps commander?  I’m pretty sure all of this could have been accomplished but one, and it only involved the timing…the removal of prominent War Democrat Butler until AFTER the Presidential election.  This made Wilson’s suggestion a moot point.  Meade probably wouldn’t have suffered this slight without resigning, either. If you need more, it had been found earlier that year that five corps had been too unwieldy an organization, leading to the disbanding of the First and Third Corps.  Why would Grant have immediately gone back to a five corps arrangement just a few months later? This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.


So, for whatever reason, perhaps still unknown or perhaps because he couldn’t keep his big mouth shut, Baldy Smith disappeared from the Siege of Petersburg stage, never to return.  He was officially replaced as Eighteenth Corps commander by Edward O. C. Ord several days later.  Smith hadn’t learned his lesson, and it cost him for good the second time.  He couldn’t combat the combined political might of Butler, Burnside, and Meade, and Grant essentially had no choice but to let him go. Nonetheless, as Wilson noted, Burnside was soon out as a result of the Crater fiasco on July 30, and Butler was finally sacked the first time he messed up after Lincoln had been reelected.  Perhaps Smith was mostly right after all…

  1. SOPO Editor’s Note: Remember, the Sixth Corps and two cavalry divisions had been sent to Washington in early July 1864, leaving Grant with five infantry corps (Second, Fifth, Ninth, Tenth, Eighteenth) and two cavalry divisions (Kautz’s plus the remaining Potomac army cavalry division)


4 responses to “The Sacking of “Baldy” Smith: July 19, 1864”

  1. James F. Epperson Avatar

    Nice piece. The conventional story (via Catton) is that Grant learned about Smith’s unrelenting criticism of others after Smith went on leave. Given the evident fact that Smith and Butler could not work together, one of them had to go. Butler had more political pull, and Smith had bungled the attack on Petersburg (although how much this was appreciated at the time is unclear), so Smith got the boot. In his postwar writings Smith claimed that Butler blackmailed Grant with evidence of Grant’s drinking.

    1. Brett Schulte Avatar

      Thanks Jim, and thank you for the comment. That’s exactly the kind of color I was looking for. I knew there were some modern accounts, but I just couldn’t find any in the time before the 150th anniversary of the event.


      1. James F. Epperson Avatar

        Smith wrote two memoirs: The one he published (“From Chattanooga to Petersburg”) and one he wrote for his daughter. It reeks of self-justification, but contains lengthy anecdotes. Morningside published it as “Autobiography of Maj. Gen. William F. Smith.” Catton discusses the episode, with good footnotes, in his “Grant Takes Command.” So does Brooks Simpson.

        1. Brett Schulte Avatar

          Thanks, that narrows things down nicely. I checked, and as I suspected, the Morningside book is on the pricey side. I may end up getting it anyway. It looks like the manuscript is at the Vermont Historical Society. I’ve got “From Chattanooga to Petersburg” favorited on my Google Books page. I didn’t have the Catton books on Grant, so I ordered them as well. Now, as always, I need to find time to read them…


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