William Farrar Smith

William Farrar Smith, known in the army as "Baldy," was born in St. Albans, Vermont, on February 17, 1824, and was graduated from West Point in 1845, ranking fourth in his class. As an engineer officer, he spent the years before the outbreak of the Civil War in a variety of surveys and exploration duties, as an instructor at the Military Academy, and as member and secretary of the lighthouse board. With rank of colonel of the 3rd Vermont (from July 16), he took part in the battle of First Manassas on the staff of General Irvin McDowell, and on August 13, 1861, was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers. He commanded a division of the VI Corps on the Peninsula and in the Maryland campaign and headed the VI Corps at Fredericksburg, receiving promotion to major general to rank from July 4, 1862. After Fredericksburg, Smith and William B. Franklin, the commander of the "Left Grand Division," wrote a letter to President Lincoln unsparingly criticizing Ambrose E. Burnside's plan of campaign for the future. This indiscretion, compounded by the fact that Smith was a close friend of George B. McClellan, resulted in his losing both his corps command and his promotion (the Senate failing to confirm his nomination to major general). This would not be the last time Smith would be at odds with his superiors. After a series of unimportant commands in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, he turned up in Chattanooga as chief engineer of the Department of the Cumberland and later served in this position in the Military Division of the Mississippi. While in Mississippi he had a disagreement with W. S. Rosecrans over who was due the credit for opening the supply line which brought commissary supplies and forage to Rosecrans' starving men and animals after Bragg's investment of Chattanooga. But he was praised by U. S. Grant, W. T. Sherman, and G. H. Thomas for his unquestioned engineering genius, and he made a valuable contribution to the assault on Missionary Ridge. He was accordingly reappointed major general to rank from March 9, 1864, and was duly confirmed. Grant now brought him east and gave him command of the XVIII Corps of Benjamin F. Butler's Army of the James. Although Butler's fitness for military command was questionable, he wielded enormous political influence, and Smith might have restrained his impulse to state that Butler was "as helpless as a child on the field of battle and as visionary as an opium eater in council." Smith's corps was attached to the Army of the Potomac in time to take part in the bloody repulse at Cold Harbor, where he found time to bitterly criticize George G. Meade. Next, Smith's corps and a division of colored troops were ordered to take Petersburg. His fatal hesitation here, perhaps because of the formidable character of the Confederate works or perhaps because of a bout with malaria from which he had suffered for a decade, may have lost him the opportunity to shorten the war by nearly a year. On July 19, 1864, he was relieved from command of the XVIII Corps, seemingly to placate Butler, for Smith was brevetted major general, U. S. Army, in the omnibus promotions of March, 1865. He resigned his volunteer commission in 1865 and his regular commission of major of engineers in 1867. In his remaining years he acted as president of a cable telegraph company, as president of the board of police commissioners of New York City, and from 1881 to 1901 as a civilian engineer in government employ on various river and harbor improvements. He made numerous literary contributions to the history of the war, including several articles for Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. He died in Philadelphia (his home for the last ten years of his life) on February 28, 1903, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

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Reference: Generals in Blue. Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge.