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William Farrar Smith
Civil War Encyclopedia >> People - Union Military
William Farrar Smith
When William Farrar Smith graduated fourth in the Class of 1845 at West Point he had not only earned his lieutenant's bars, he had a nickname - Baldy - that would accompany him the rest of his life. He is commonly credited as being born in St. Albans, Vermont, but in 1824 the area known as St. Albans was little more than a group of farms. His parent's farm was near the "town" of St. Albans.
His first assignment after the academy was with the topographical engineers where he worked under the command of Joseph E. Johnston and assisted in surveying the new boundary established by the Mexican-American War. He also established the stage road between San Antonio and El Paso, Texas then moved to Florida to do the first survey work in a project later known as the Cross-Florida Barge Canal.
After contracting malaria in Corpus Christi, Texas, Smith was reassigned to West Point as Assistant Professor of Mathematics. Smith then sat on the board responsible for maintaining lighthouses of the United States with General John Dix and William B. Franklin. He is frequently credited with the wording of Dix's order regarding southern lighthouses at the outbreak of The Civil War, "If any man attempts to haul down the American flag shoot him on the spot." Shortly after the start of the war "Baldy" Smith married Sarah Lyon of New York April 24, 1861.
Assigned to Fort Monroe, Colonel William Farrar Smith arrived on June 1, 1861 and reported to General Benjamin Butler [US]. He immediately began scouting the peninsula between the James and York River including the city of Yorktown and both Big and Little Bethel, where he discovered two forward posts and roughly a brigade of Confederates under the command of Colonels "Prince John" Magruder and Daniel Harvey Hill, precipitating an early battle of the war. Smith returned to Vermont when another bout of malaria struck. He was reassigned to a staff position under General Irvin McDowell but did not report until after Bull Run.
By the time Smith recovered enough to report for duty, George McClellan was in command of the Army of the Potomac. He ordered Baldy to train Vermont's troops as a unit and he was appointed brigadier general on August 13, 1861. Smith's division included commanders Winfield Scott Hancock and Isaac Stevens.
His earlier work at Fort Monroe made him an essential part of McClellan's Peninsula Campaign when it began in March, 1862. John Magruder proved to be a thorn in the Union's side and although McClellan had been fooled by Magruder's performance at Yorktown, Baldy Smith was not. He ordered Hancock to advance against the Confederate line between the entrenchments on the north road and the Warwick River, then reported his action to his corps commander, Samuel Heintzelman. McClellan, in the meantime, had ordered no advance be made, so Smith returned to camp and called off the attack.
Upon the withdrawal from Yorktown, Baldy Smith pursued Magruder to Joe Johnston's Williamsburg line, where Smith again advanced Hancock on the Confederate left. Neither Heitzelmann or fellow Corps commander Edwin Vose Sumner would give Smith support in his endeavor. As luck would have it, before he withdrew Hancock, Smith himself was ordered to move to the Union right to allow arriving troops access to the line. He advanced in support of Hancock, who turned the Confederate line and forced a withdrawal toward Richmond.
During the rest of the Peninsula Campaign William Farrar Smith's troops participated in the battles of Golding's Farm, Savage Station and White Oak Swamp, then withdrew to Harrison Landing before heading back to Washington on troop transports. During the battles of South Mountain, Smith's men were stationed at Crampton's Gap and participated at Antietam. In the reorganization of the Army of the Potomac before Fredricksburg by Ambrose Burnside, William Franklin became commander of the "Left Grand Division" and Baldy Smith assumed command of Franklin's Sixth Corps. Only a few regiments of the Sixth were engaged in the battle. Smith also commanded the Sixth during Burnside's Mud March. Following this, Burnside defended his action at Fredricksburg with a well-known letter to Abraham Lincoln that attacked, among others, Baldy Smith and began the darkest time in Smith's service to his country.
For service to his country during the Peninsula Campaign, William Farrar Smith was promoted to Major General in July, 1862 by George McClellan. Congress, however, was not in the mood to approve the promotion, especially following McClellan's removal and the Burnside letter. Smith supported Franklin's response to the Burnside letter calling for a return to the James River and a second march on Richmond. Smith, after briefly commanding the Ninth Corps, was relieved of duty when Congress failed to approve his promotion.
During the Battle of Gettysburg Baldy Smith was second-in-command of a division of militia and pursued Lee towards Virginia following the battle. He was brought up on charges, since his militia had no authority to cross the Pennsylvania state line, but never tried. At this point Smith was reassigned to West Virginia, where he remained until the Union disaster at Chickamauga. Suddenly the former corps commander was glad to be reassigned as Chief Engineer of the Army of the Cumberland. Traveling by rail and mule, Smith entered the city and began developing a plan to provide relief to the men trapped in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
First, Smith began scouting the area, especially Moccasin Point, the jut of land formed by a sharp curve in the Tennessee River west of Chattanooga. Finding an old road on the northern end, with binoculars Smith could clearly see that the road continued on the far side of the river, but it was heavily overgrown from years of disuse. He questioned local citizens and found that a man named Brown ran a ferry there until the 1850's. With William Rosecrans relieved from duty and General Ulysses S. Grant on his way to Chattanooga Smith devised a plan for an amphibious landing to secure the river bank, then shuttling troops across the Tennessee on rafts to support the landing.
George Thomas approved the plan as did Grant when he arrived. William Hazen was given command of the operation. During the Battle of Brown's Ferry in the early morning of October 26, 1863, Smith boldly moved troops across the swiftly flowing Tennessee as engineers constructed a pontoon bridge. General Joe Hooker took Lookout Valley that day and by evening some rations were being distributed to the men of the Army of the Cumberland. Almost immediately "Baldy's" resupply effort was being called the "Cracker Line." Smith further contributed to the success at Chattanooga by locating the position for a bridge for the Army of the Tennessee to cross the Tennessee River east of Chattanooga.
General William Smith returned to Washington a major general and was eventually reassigned to command the 18th Corps of the Army of the James under General Benjamin Butler. Little went right with the operations under Butler after the landing at Bermuda Hundred and City Point. General P. G. T. Beauregard held back repeated attempts by Smith, (Quincy) Gillmore and Butler in spite of being outnumbered 3 or 4 to 1. As Grant approached the York River, Smith crossed to Fort Monroe and joined him with his 18th Corps at Cold Harbor. His troops took part in the bloody battle there.
Unwisely, Smith decided to critize George Meade for his actions at Cold Harbor. Grant ordered Smith to cross the James and advance on Petersburg. In command of 16,000 men, Baldy Smith seized Battery No. 5 and a mile of the Dimmock Line but failed to advance against P. G. T. Beauregard's 4,000 men. Grant relieved Smith of command in July.
When Ulysses S. Grant received permission to replace Benjamin Butler as commander of the Army of the James in January, 1865, his first choice was "Baldy" Smith. Because of his bouts with malaria, Smith did not feel he was up to the responsibility of being commander of the army, so Grant assigned that duty to Edward O. C. Ord.
Following the war William Farrar Smith became deeply involved in commercial engineering as President of the International Ocean Telegraph Company. He served as a member of New York City's Board of Commissioners as well as its president. He endorsed General Winfield Scott Hancock in the Election of 1880.
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"Prince John" Magruder
William Farrar Smith was last changed on - November 16, 2007
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