Monday, June 24, 2013

Book Review--Confederate General William "Extra Billy" Smith

Mingus, Scott, Sr. CONFEDERATE GENERAL WILLIAM "EXTRA BILLY" SMITH: From Virginia's Statehouse to Gettysburg Scapegoat. Savas Beatie, El Dorado Hills, CA, 2013. 418 pages 402 pages of text, index, bibliography, foot notes, b/w photos, maps. ISBN 9781611211290, $29.95.

After reading the book you will probably be thinking the same thing that I was; "Why has nobody written about William "Extra Billy" Smith before? And then with some thought you may come to the same conclusion that I did; the subject was just waiting for an author like Scott L. Mingus Sr. to come along and write what may ultimately turn out to be the definitive work on Smith.

Smith had his hand in many areas and is one of those few who seems to have a level of success (all be it with a lot of failures as well) in just about everything he did. He was a successful businessman, both as a lawyer, a stage coach operator, and also as a mail contractor. It was his mail delivery business that earned him his nickname "Extra Billy" for charging (Smith himself would probably have said earning) extra payments above the agreed upon rates and contracts. He became so legendary for this that the nickname stuck throughout life.

As a politician Smith was a staunch Democrat believing in strict construction of the Constitution. That is, any powers not given to the federal government belong to the states themselves. As a man of his time he held strong racial views and at one point wanted to expel free blacks from Virginia due to his view that they were a drain on society and a tool for abolitionists.

The life of a politician was at times difficult for Smith and he was in and out of office. In the early 1840's the Whigs were able to gerrymander congressional districts and Smith was out of office. He also voiced concerns over the paltry pay for a politician. In 1845 he was chosen governor elect by the Virginia state legislature and thought long and hard before accepting the position. He had a family to raise and his law career was going well. He was unable to resist the call however and accepted the position further solidifying his political reputation. Smith spent the 1850's in the House of Representatives.

With the coming of the Civil War Smith returns to Virginia and despite his advancing years volunteers for service being commissioned a Colonel. Smith performs well, especially for a non-military man, fighting at Manassas, Seven Pines, Antietam and other battles. He was wounded several times but always came back. In January 1863 he was promoted to Brigadier General taking the place of the recently promoted Jubal Early.

It was during the Gettysburg Campaign where the Smith legend really seemed to take off and is why he is remembered so much today. Stationed with his small brigade along the York Road on July 1, 1863, Smith sees what he believes to be Union infantry flanking the Confederate army. He requests help from General Ewell and the outcome of Smith's vision siphons troops and time away from what could have been an attack on Cemetery Hill. Could Ewell have taken the high ground if not for Smith? We shall never know. Mr. Mingus' telling of the story is top notch and there is an interesting appendix discussing it further.

In July 1863 Smith is again elected governor of Virginia and he resigns his post after being promoted to Major General. As the war movement worsens for the Confederacy Smith eventually realizes that blacks will need to be armed even if it mean granting them freedom. After the war Smith was captured, indicted for treason, but never tried.

This is a masterfully written book. Mingus has a way with words and his books are quick to read which is a blessing and a curse. The curse being you don't want it to end. The book is loaded with illustrations and has a full complement of 14 maps created by Hal Jespersen. As with any Savas Beatie title the book quality itself is superb. This is a book that should be on the shelves of any Civil War library. Highly recommended!

Special thanks going out to Savas Beatie and author Scott Mingus for providing a complimentary review copy.


  1. On behalf of Savas Beatie and author Scott Mingus, thanks for this review. Copies with a bookplate signed by the author are available at Also be sure to check out the book trailer:

  2. Thanks so much Robert for these very kind words! I deeply appreciate your remarks. This was my first biography, and it's always great to hear that someone really likes it.

  3. Thanks so very much for your kind words, Robert. I deeply appreciate them.

  4. I have the honor of portraying Extra Billy as a member of Lee's Lieutenants. Scott was kind enough to quote me in the book but I wish he would have written it ten years earlier when I was starting to research Extra Billy, it would have saved me a lot of time and effort. There have been several earlier Billy biographies (the first in 1891) but this is the definitive.