An Interview with Confederate General William “Extra Billy” Smith author Scott L. Mingus, Sr.
: Why did you decide to write your book on this particular topic?
SM: In researching Confederate Major General Jubal Early’s division during the Gettysburg Campaign, I realized there was enough fresh material to write multiple books on the division, with little redundancy. Early had four brigades in his division, including Gordon’s Georgians (the subject of my book Flames Beyond Gettysburg) and Hays’ Louisianans (my book The Louisiana Tigers in the Gettysburg Campaign). In thinking about the third book in the series, I decided that the Virginians of William “Extra Billy” Smith should instead focus on the general and not his men. His life before and after the Civil War was so colorful and interest-filled that I decided rather quickly to focus my attention on a full-length biography of this fascinating character.
: What makes Confederate General William “Extra Billy” Smith unique from other books on the same topic?
SM: There have only been two previous biographies of note on General Smith. The first was a massive, late 19th century compilation of his papers, memoirs, and other data written by his brother-in-law. It is obviously biased in favor of Smith, and its structure is at times confusing and hard to follow. The only other book is a small, but well done general overview of the general’s life written by a Virginia newsman in the 2000s. It had limited circulation from a specialty book producer, and is hard to find outside of the Internet. The author did not have access to a lot of material which I used, and his scope is limited. I wanted to not only present Smith’s life, but I wanted to explore in some depth his performance at the Battle of Gettysburg, including a survey of commentary from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries from his colleagues and peers, and then from later historians and researchers.
: Why was William Smith nicknamed “Extra Billy”?
SM: During the presidency of Andrew Jackson, Smith was a postal contractor who was paid by mileage based upon routes prescribed in his contracts. He found a loophole and began running extra stage coaches or lengthening existing routes with side trips. He began charging for the extra mileage, all with the approval of the Postmaster General. A U.S. senator investigating cost overruns in the Post Office took exception to Smith’s manipulation of the system and mockingly began calling him “Surplus William” and “Extra Billy.” Smith, even then a politician at heart, adopted the derisive nickname “Extra Billy” and turned it into an asset instead of an attack.
: You mention Smith was “colorful”— can you elaborate?
SM: Smith, after earning his nickname through his clever, but legal, expansion of his contract, used his earnings to establish a series of steamship lines, which soon lost considerable money. He earned and lost several fortunes in his life, using his base profession as an attorney to sustain his zeal for adventure and new enterprises. He turned to politics, becoming Governor of Virginia during the Mexican War and advocating the expulsion of free blacks from Virginia. When his term was up, he headed to California in 1849, but not to prospect for gold as so many other “49ers” did. He set up a legal practice with a son and gained a fresh fortune administering claims of the miners. He returned to Virginia after failing to garner a Senate seat, ran for Congress, and served five terms as a leading voice for states’ rights and the expansion of slavery. He was a leader in the movement to create the Nevada Territory and became involved in Utah. During the last days of the Civil War, again as Governor of Virginia, he fled Richmond with much of the State Treasury. After the war, as an elderly man, he returned to politics and won a seat in the state legislature serving beside men who were 50 years younger.
: What are some features of your book that you think readers will really enjoy?
SM: I think readers will enjoy the wit and sarcasm of Smith, especially in his congressional battles with Northern abolitionists during the 1850s. His fight for states’ rights and the westward expansion of slavery (as well as to Cuba and Central America) are a microcosm of the political views of much of the Upper South. Understanding Smith and his antagonists helps frame the political reasons for the coming of the Civil War. His unusual views on African Americans are also interesting. He goes full circle from wanting to throw free blacks out of Virginia during his first term as governor, to becoming an early and ardent champion for arming slaves and free blacks as Confederate soldiers during his second stint as governor. He ends up raising one of the first black military units in Richmond, which I think readers will find this fascinating.
: Thank you for your time, we appreciate it.
SM: You’re welcome.
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