February 17, 1824–February 28, 1903
Commonly known as “Baldy,” Major General William F. Smith was a prominent officer in both theaters of the American Civil War.
William Farrar Smith was born in St. Albans, Vermont on February 17, 1824. He was the son of Ashbel and Sarah (Butler) Smith. During his youth, Smith was educated locally at St. Albans, where his father was a farmer. In 1841, Smith received an appointment to the United States Military Academy through his uncle, U.S. Congressman John Smith.
Smith entered the U.S. Military Academy on July 1, 1841. Among his classmates were future Union Generals Thomas J. Wood, Fitz-John Porter, Gordon Granger, and future Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith. While at West Point, Smith’s classmates began referring to Smith as “Baldy” due to his thinning hair. While there, Smith also developed a reputation for being brusque and outspoken, a trait that would later hinder his advancement as a military officer. In the classroom, Smith proved to be an excellent student, graduating fourth in his class of forty-one cadets on July 1, 1845.
Upon graduating from the U.S. Military Academy, Smith was brevetted to second lieutenant and was assigned to the Topographical Engineers Corps. For the next year, he worked as an assistant engineer on a topographical survey of the Great Lakes. On November 6, 1846, Smith returned to West Point where he served as an assistant professor of mathematics until August 21, 1848
Between 1848 and 1855, Smith performed engineering duties in Texas, with a brief stint in Florida. On July 14, 1849, he was promoted to the full rank of second lieutenant. Four years later, on March 3, 1853, he was promoted to first lieutenant with the topographical engineers. On September 4, 1855, Smith returned to West Point as an assistant professor of mathematics for one year. From 1856 until 1861, he served as an engineer on lighthouse projects. During that period, Smith was promoted to captain on July 1, 1859.
When the American Civil War erupted, Smith was appointed to mustering duty at New York City from April 15 to May 31, 1861. While there, he married Sarah Ward Lyon, the daughter of a New York businessman, on April 24, 1861. Their marriage lasted thirty-eight years and produced five children.
In June 1861, Smith was assigned to the staff of Major General Benjamin F. Butler at Fort Monroe, Virginia. On July 16, 1861, he was commissioned as a colonel with the 3rd Vermont Volunteers and assigned to the staff of Brigadier-General Irvin McDowell from July 20 to August 13, 1861. While serving with McDowell, Smith participated in the Manassas Campaign and the Battle of Bull Run I (July 21, 1861).
Following the Union disaster at Bull Run, President Abraham Lincoln summoned Major General George B. McClellan to Washington to replace McDowell. As McClellan went about reorganizing U.S. forces, Smith was promoted to brigadier-general of volunteers on August 13, 1861. When McClellan launched his Peninsula Campaign in March 1862, Smith commanded the 2nd Division of the 4th Army Corps. While assigned to the 4th Corps, Smith participated in the Siege of Yorktown (April 5 to May 4) and the Battle of Williamsburg (May 5). On May 18, 1862, Smith was reassigned to the newly created 6th Army Corps. As a member of the 6th Corps, he participated in the Battle of Seven Pines (May 31-June 1, 1862), the Battle of Savage Station (June 29), the Battle of Glendale (June 30, 1862), and the Battle of Malvern Hill (July 1, 1862). Smith was brevetted to lieutenant colonel in the regular army, effective June 28, 1862, “for Gallant and Meritorious Services in the Battle of White Oak Swamp,” which was part of the Battle of Glendale. On July 4, 1862, Smith was promoted to the rank of major general in the volunteer army. However, his promotion was contingent upon Senate approval.
During the Maryland Campaign, Smith participated in the Union victory at the Battle of South Mountain (September 14, 1862) and in the bloodiest single-day engagement of the Civil War, the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862). For his “Gallant and Meritorious Services in the Battle of Antietam,” Smith was brevetted to colonel in the regular army effective September 17, 1862.
Following the Battle of Antietam, President Lincoln issued an executive order replacing McClellan with Major General Ambrose E. Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. After taking command, Burnside issued General Order No. 184, on November 14, 1862, reorganizing the army into three “grand divisions.” When Burnside promoted Major General William B. Franklin to commander of the Left Grand Division, which consisted of the 1st and 6th Army Corps, Smith assumed Franklin’s command of the 6th Corps.
As commander of the 6th Corps, Smith counseled Burnside not to attempt to move the Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg. Ignoring Smith’s advice, Burnside crossed the river on December 12, 1862, and mounted a series of futile frontal assaults against Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia entrenched on the heights beyond the town. By December 15, after suffering staggering losses, Burnside withdrew, re-crossed the river, and ended the campaign.
Burnside’s leadership at the Battle of Fredericksburg caused many of his subordinates to lose confidence in him. Several of them made critical observations when they were called to appear before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War in mid-December 1862. Franklin and Smith wrote directly to President Lincoln suggesting future plans for the Army of the Potomac. When Burnside proposed another river crossing similar to the misadventure at Fredericksburg, they sent two subordinate officers to Washington to warn Lincoln of another impending disaster.
By January the atmosphere between Burnside and many of his officers had become so caustic that Burnside drafted a general order proposing a wholesale dismissal of Union generals who Burnside suspected of being hostile. Among other recommendations, Burnside’s General Order No. 8 proposed that Smith be relieved from duty with the Army of the Potomac. When Burnside met with Lincoln to present the order he delivered an ultimatum–either Burnside or the generals listed in the order must go. Unwilling to sacrifice so many generals, the President accepted Burnside’s resignation and replaced him with Joseph Hooker, who was also on Burnside’s list.
In the aftermath of the shakeup, Smith was reassigned to command of the 9th Army Corps on February 5, 1863. Two weeks later, the 9th Corps was transferred from the Army of the Potomac to Newport News, Virginia. Suspicious of Smith’s involvement in the post-Fredericksburg controversy, the Senate refused to confirm his promotion to major general. Not holding rank commensurate with a corps command, Smith was subsequently relieved from command of the 9th Corps in March 1863 and placed on leave, awaiting further orders. During the same period, he was promoted to the rank of major in the regular army on March 3, 1863.
When Confederate General Robert E. Lee launched a second invasion of the North in June 1863, Smith, now a brigadier-general, offered his services to Darius Couch, commander of the Department of the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania. On July 1, 1863, as fighting erupted at Gettysburg, Smith, commanding a brigade of New York National Guard and a brigade of Pennsylvania militia, prevented Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry from razing Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Following the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863) Smith was temporarily reassigned to the Army of the Potomac. On July 15, he returned to Couch’s command after being unfairly criticized by President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton for his role in failing to prevent Lee’s escape to Virginia. On August 26, 1863, at his own request, Smith was relieved of his command in Pennsylvania and sent to New York to await new orders.
On September 5, 1863, Smith received orders to report to General William S. Rosecrans, whose Army of the Cumberland was pursuing General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee near Chattanooga, Tennessee. By the time Smith reported for duty on September 30, Rosecrans had suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19-20, 1863), and his army was bottled up at Chattanooga under investment by Bragg. Upon Smith’s arrival, Rosecrans immediately appointed him as chief engineer of the Army of the Cumberland. Smith’s foremost challenge was finding a way to provide supplies to the Union forces entrapped at Chattanooga.
Smith proposed a plan to Rosecrans to open a supply line into the city, but Rosecrans failed to act on his subordinate’s recommendation. When Major General Ulysses S. Grant relieved Rosecrans and took control of the situation at Chattanooga, Smith convinced Grant that his plan would work. By October 28, Grant’s soldiers, under Smith’s supervision, captured a section of the Tennessee River at Brown’s Ferry and opened a narrow supply line that became known as the “Cracker Line.” Once Grant’s soldiers were resupplied, Smith played a prominent role in planning the Union breakout from Chattanooga. By then, Grant had become so convinced of Smith’s abilities that he promoted him to chief engineer of the Division of the Mississippi, encompassing Grant’s entire command. Grant also wrote to President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton recommending that “W.F. Smith be placed first on the list for promotion to the rank of major-general.” On March 9, 1864, the Senate endorsed Grant’s recommendation and confirmed Smith’s promotion to major general of volunteers.
When Grant was promoted to General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States in March 1864, he moved his operations to the Eastern Theater, taking Smith with him. Smith was subsequently appointed to command the 18th Army Corps assigned to Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James. Forced to labor under Butler’s largely inept leadership, Smith and his corps were tarnished by their participation in the unsuccessful Bermuda Hundred Campaign in May 1864. Grant then detached Smith and his corps to the Army of the Potomac in time to participate in the bloodbath at the Battle of Cold Harbor (May 31–June 12, 1864).
Following the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant abandoned his hope to defeat Lee’s army head-on. Instead, Grant decided to isolate the Army of Northern Virginia at Richmond, Virginia, and, then, slowly to starve it into submission by cutting off its supply lines. The key to the plan was capturing Petersburg, Virginia.
After an initial attack against Petersburg failed of June 9, Grant ordered Butler’s Army of the James to cross the Appomattox River and to launch a second assault against Petersburg on June 15. The leading elements of the Union attack consisted of Smith’s 18th Corps, complemented by Brigadier-General August V. Kautz’s cavalry division. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard’s defenders at the point of the Union attack numbered approximately 5,400 men, but they were greatly outnumbered by the sixteen thousand soldiers that Butler threw at them. Despite a tardy beginning, Smith’s men forced the Confederates to abandon their first line of entrenchments by the evening, but Smith did not press the attack, perhaps squandering an opportunity to seize easily the city. Over the next few days, both sides reinforced their lines, producing a standoff. Recognizing that he had lost the opportunity to seize the city while it was lightly defended, Grant called off the frontal assault and decided to focus on cutting off the city’s supply lines.
Despite the golden opportunity lost at Petersburg, Grant apparently did not lose faith in Smith. At Grant’s urging, on July 7, 1864, the U.S. War Department issued General Order No. 225. The order assigned Smith to command the 18th Army Corps. After the order was issued, Smith went on sick leave for ten days, only to discover, when he returned to duty on July 19, that Grant had rescinded his order and that Smith was relieved of his command. Grant’s about-face seemed mystifying in light of the fact that he had written to Henry Halleck, on July 1, that Smith, “is really one of the most efficient officers in the service, readiest in expedients, and most skillful in the management of troops in action.” Grant never offered a reason for sacking Smith, but there is some evidence to support the argument that it was because Smith had previously made critical statements about Butler and, possibly, General George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac.
Smith traveled to New York to await orders. On November 22, 1864, he was assigned to special duty under orders from the Secretary of War to examine the administration of affairs in the Department of the Gulf. As the war came to a conclusion, Smith was brevetted to the rank of major general in the regular army effective March 13, 1865, “for Gallant and Meritorious Services in the Field during the Rebellion.” Smith resigned his commission in the volunteer army on November 4, 1865, but he remained in the regular army until March 21, 1867, when he retired after twenty-two years of active service.
After his retirement, Smith spent the next six years as a successful engineer and businessman. In May 1873, he received an appointment as a New York City police commissioner. One year later, Smith was named as president of New York City’s police commissioner board, holding that position until March 11, 1881. Smith was subsequently employed by the federal government as an engineer to supervise the improvement of various rivers and harbors. He served in that capacity until 1901 when he retired.
Two years later, Smith contracted a severe cold from which he never recovered. He died at his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on February 28, 1903, at the age of seventy-nine years. Following an austere civilian funeral, Smith’s remains were buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
- Battle of Chickamauga
- Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard
- Braxton Bragg
- Ambrose Everett Burnside
- Ulysses S. Grant
- Henry Wager Halleck
- William Starke Rosecrans
- Battle of Cold Harbor
- Battle of Antietam
- Battle of Seven Pines
- Battle of Bull Run I
- Peninsula Campaign
- Battle of Fredericksburg
- Battle of Gettysburg
- George Brinton McClellan
- Abraham Lincoln
- Robert Edward Lee
- Joseph Hooker
- Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War
- Battle of Glendale
- Battle of Malvern Hill
- Army of the Cumberland
- Edmund Kirby Smith
- Maryland Campaign
- Battle of South Mountain
- Benjamin Franklin Butler
- Army of the Potomac (USA)
- Army of the James
- Gordon Granger
- Irvin McDowell
- Edwin McMasters Stanton
- James Ewell Brown “JEB” Stuart
- Battle of Chattanooga
- Chattanooga Campaign
- Battle of Petersburg II
- Petersburg Campaign
- August Valentine Kautz
- George Gordon Meade
- Siege of Yorktown
- Battle of Williamsburg
- William Buel Franklin
- General Orders, No. 316 (U.S. War Department)
- General Orders, No. 181 (U.S. War Department)
- General Orders, No. 256 (U.S. War Department)
- Army of Northern Virginia