A Civil War Biography

William Farrar Smith

Smith was born on 17 February 1824 in St. Albans, Vermont. He graduated 4th in the West Point class of 1845 and was assigned to the engineers. He was initially assigned to lake surveys then returned to West Point as an assistant professor of mathematics in 1846. In 1848 he was part of the survey team defining the border of Texas for the Mexican boundary commission and then was sent to Florida where he contracted malaria which affected his health for the rest of his life.

In 1855 Smith returned to the assistant professorship at West Point. When the war began Smith was appointed colonel of the 3rd Vermont to rank from 16 July 1861. He was at First Bull Run assigned to the staff of Irvin McDowell. Smith was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers on 13 August 1861. He commanded the 2nd division of the IV Corps at the siege of Yorktown, Lee's Mill, and Williamsburg. He commanded the 2nd division of the VI Corps during the Seven Days, at South Mountain and Antietam. He commanded the VI Corps at Fredericksburg and was designated for promotion to major general to rank from 4 July 1862.

After Fredericksburg, however, Smith and Major General William B. Franklin, the commander of the "Left Grand Division" wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln criticizing Ambrose E. Burnside's leadership and offering a plan for a future campaign. Compounded by the fact that Smith was a close friend of George B. McClelland, Smith was removed from Corps command on 5 February 1863. The Senate also refused to confirm Smith's promotion and the nomination expired on 4 March 1863.

Smith was given command of a division in the Department of the Susquehanna which took part in the pursuit after Gettysburg. He then commanded a division in West Virginia before being sent West as Chief Engineer of the Department of the Cumberland, then Ulysses S. Grant's newly designated Military Division of the Mississippi. Always finding controversy Smith openly disagreed with William S. Rosecrans over who was due credit for opening the "Cracker Line" which brought supplies to Chattanooga after Braxton Bragg had cut off supply lines to the city. Smith was praised for his engineering skills by Grant, William T. Sherman, and George H. Thomas and was reappointed major general of volunteers to rank from 9 March 1864. This time the promotion was confirmed.

When Grant headed east he brought Smith along. Smith was given command of the XVIII Corps in Benjamin Butler's Army of the James but Smith criticized Butler likening him to a "child on the field of battle" with the vision of an "opium eater." The XVIII Corps was transferred to the Army of the Potomac and took part in the repulse at Cold Harbor. This time Smith bitterly criticized George G. Meade. Smith was then ordered with his XVIII Corps and a division of colored troops to take Petersburg. Smith hesitated in front of the Confederate works, some speculate due to a bout with malaria, and failed to take the then lightly defended works. Grant had no choice but to relieve Smith from command which was done on 19 July 1864.

Smith spent the remainder of the war on "special duty." He did receive brevet promotions to brigadier general and major general US Army on 13 March 1865. He resigned his volunteer commission before the end of 1865 and his regular commission as a major of engineers in 1867. He was placed on the retirement ranks as a major in 1889.

Following his military service Smith was president of a cable telegraph company, president of the board of police commissioners of New York City, and a civilian engineer in government service on various river and harbor improvements. He wrote extensively of his war experience including several articles for "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War." Smith moved to Philadelphia in 1893 where he died on 28 February 1903. He was buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

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