William Farrar Smith was born at St. Albans, Vermont on February 17, 1824. He was the son of Ashbel and Sarah (Butler) Smith. During his youth, Smith attended local schools at St. Albans, where his father was a farmer.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
In 1841, Smith received an appointment to the United States Military Academy through his uncle, U.S. Congressman John Smith. Smith entered the Academy on July 1, 1841. Among his classmates were future Union Generals Thomas J. Wood, Fitz John Porter, and Gordon Granger, as well as future Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith. While at West Point, Smith’s classmates began referring to Smith as “Baldy” because of his thinning hair. Smith also developed a reputation for being brusque and outspoken, a trait that would later hinder his advancement as a military officer. In the classroom, Smith proved to be an excellent student, graduating fourth in his class of forty-one cadets on July 1, 1845.
U.S. Army Officer
Upon graduating from the U.S. Military Academy, the army brevetted Smith to second lieutenant and assigned him to the Topographical Engineers Corps. For the next year, he worked as an assistant engineer on a topographical survey of the Great Lakes. On November 6, 1846, Smith returned to West Point, where he served as an assistant professor of mathematics until August 21, 1848.
Between 1848 and 1855, Smith performed engineering duties in Texas, with a brief stint in Florida. On July 14, 1849, the army promoted him to the full rank of second lieutenant. Four years later, on March 3, 1853, officials promoted him to first lieutenant with the topographical engineers. On September 4, 1855, Smith returned to West Point as an assistant professor of mathematics for one year. From 1856 until 1861, he served as an engineer on lighthouse projects. During that period, the army promoted Smith to captain on July 1, 1859.
When the American Civil War erupted, army officials appointed Smith to mustering duty at New York City from April 15 to May 31, 1861. While there, Smith married Sarah Ward Lyon, the daughter of a New York businessman, on April 24, 1861. Their marriage lasted thirty-eight years and produced five children.
Union Army Officer
In June 1861, army officials assigned Smith to the staff of Major General Benjamin F. Butler at Fort Monroe, Virginia. On July 16, 1861, he mustered into the volunteer army as a colonel with the 3rd Vermont Volunteers. His first duties were with the staff of Brigadier General Irvin McDowell from July 20 to August 13, 1861. While serving with McDowell, Smith took part in the Manassas Campaign culminating with the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861).
Following the Union disaster at Bull Run, President Abraham Lincoln summoned Major General George B. McClellan to Washington to replace McDowell. As McClellan reorganized the Union forces, the War Department commissioned Smith as a brigadier general of volunteers on August 13, 1861.
When McClellan launched his Peninsula Campaign in March 1862, Smith commanded the 2nd Division of the 4th Army Corps. While assigned to the 4th Corps, Smith took part in the Siege of Yorktown (April 5-May 4) and the Battle of Williamsburg (May 5). On May 18, 1862, officials reassigned Smith to the newly created 6th Army Corps. As a member of the 6th Corps, he took part in the Battle of Seven Pines (May 31-June 1, 1862), the Battle of Savage’s Station (June 29), the Battle of Glendale (June 30, 1862), and the Battle of Malvern Hill (July 1, 1862). Smith received a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel in the regular army, effective June 28, 1862, “for Gallant and Meritorious Services in the Battle of White Oak Swamp,” which was part of the Battle of Glendale. On July 4, 1862, the War Department promoted Smith to the rank of major general in the volunteer army. However, his promotion was contingent upon Senate approval.
During the Maryland Campaign, Smith took part in the Union victory at the Battle of South Mountain (September 14, 1862) and in the bloodiest single-day engagement of the Civil War, the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862). For his “Gallant and Meritorious Services in the Battle of Antietam,” Smith received a brevet promotion to colonel in the regular army effective September 17, 1862.
6th Army Corps Commander
Following the Battle of Antietam, President Lincoln issued an executive order replacing McClellan with Major General Ambrose E. Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. After taking command, Burnside issued General Order, No. 184, on November 14, 1862, reorganizing the army into three “grand divisions.” When Burnside appointed Major General William B. Franklin as the commander of the Left Grand Division, which comprised the 1st and 6th Army Corps, Smith assumed Franklin’s command of the 6th Corps.
Battle of Fredericksburg
As commander of the 6th Corps, Smith counseled Burnside not to move the Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg. Ignoring Smith’s advice, Burnside crossed the river on December 12, 1862, and mounted a series of futile frontal assaults against Confederate General Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia. By December 15, after suffering staggering losses, Burnside withdrew, re-crossed the river, and ended the campaign.
Clash with Ambrose Burnside
Burnside’s leadership at the Battle of Fredericksburg caused many of his subordinates to lose confidence in him. Several of them made critical observations when called to appear before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War in mid-December 1862. Franklin and Smith wrote directly to President Lincoln, suggesting plans for the Army of the Potomac. When Burnside proposed another river crossing similar to the misadventure at Fredericksburg, they sent two subordinate officers to Washington to warn Lincoln of another impending disaster.
By January, the atmosphere between Burnside and many of his officers had become so toxic that Burnside drafted a general order proposing a wholesale dismissal of general officers Burnside suspected of being hostile. Among other recommendations, Burnside’s General Orders, No. 8 proposed relieving Smith from duty with the Army of the Potomac. When Burnside met with Lincoln to present the order, he delivered an ultimatum—either Burnside or the generals listed in the order must go. Unwilling to sacrifice so many generals, the President accepted Burnside’s resignation and replaced him with Joseph Hooker, who was also on Burnside’s list.
9th Army Corps Commandeer
In the shakeup’s aftermath, Hooker reassigned Smith to command of the 9th Army Corps on February 5, 1863. Two weeks later, the War Department transferred the 9th Corps from the Army of the Potomac to Newport News, Virginia. Suspicious of Smith’s involvement in the post-Fredericksburg controversy, the Senate refused to confirm his promotion to major general. Not holding rank commensurate with a corps command, War Department relieved Smith from command of the 9th Corps in March 1863 and placed him on leave, awaiting further orders. During the same period, officials promoted Smith to the rank of major in the regular army on March 3, 1863.
When Confederate General Robert E. Lee launched the Gettysburg Campaign, his second invasion of the North in June 1863, Smith, still a brigadier general, offered his services to Darius Couch, commander of the Department of the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania. On July 1, 1863, when the Battle of Gettysburg began, Smith, commanding a brigade of New York National Guard and a brigade of Pennsylvania militia, prevented Confederate General J. E. B. Stuart‘s cavalry from razing Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Following the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863) the War Department temporarily reassigned Smith to the Army of the Potomac. On July 15, he returned to Couch’s command after being unfairly criticized by President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton for his role in failing to prevent Lee’s escape to Virginia. On August 26, 1863, Smith voluntarily surrendered his command in Pennsylvania and went to New York to await new orders.
Army of the Cumberland – Chattanooga Campaign
On September 5, 1863, army officials ordered Smith to report to General William S. Rosecrans, whose Army of the Cumberland was pursuing General Braxton Bragg‘s Confederate Army of Tennessee near Chattanooga, Tennessee. By the time Smith reported for duty on September 30, Rosecrans had suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19-20, 1863). Bragg had Rosecrans’ army bottled up at Chattanooga. Upon Smith’s arrival, Rosecrans immediately appointed him as chief engineer of the Army of the Cumberland. Smith’s foremost challenge was finding a way to transport supplies to the Union forces entrapped at Chattanooga.
Smith proposed a plan to open a supply line into the city, but Rosecrans did not act on his subordinate’s recommendation. When Major General Ulysses S. Grant relieved Rosecrans and took control of the situation at Chattanooga, Smith convinced Grant that his plan would work.
By October 28, Grant’s soldiers, under Smith’s supervision, captured a section of the Tennessee River at Brown’s Ferry and opened a narrow supply line that became known as the “Cracker Line.” After supplies began reaching Grant’s soldiers, Smith played a prominent role in planning the Union breakout from Chattanooga.
Impressed by Smith’s achievement at Chattanooga, Grant promoted him to chief engineer of the Division of the Mississippi, encompassing Grant’s entire command. Grant also wrote to President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton recommending that “W.F. Smith be placed first on the list for promotion to the rank of major-general.” On March 9, 1864, the Senate endorsed Grant’s recommendation and confirmed Smith’s promotion to a major general of volunteers.
Bermuda Hundred Campaign
When President Lincoln promoted Grant to General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States in March 1864, Grant moved his operations to the Eastern Theater, taking Smith with him. Grant subsequently appointed Smith to command the 18th Army Corps assigned to Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James. Forced to toil under Butler’s largely inept leadership, Smith’s reputation suffered from his participation in the unsuccessful Bermuda Hundred Campaign in May 1864. Afterward, Grant reassigned Smith and his corps to the Army of the Potomac in time to take part in the bloodbath at the Battle of Cold Harbor (May 31–June 12, 1864).
Assaults on Petersburg
Following the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant abandoned his hope to defeat Lee’s army head-on. Instead, Grant aimed to isolate the Army of Northern Virginia at Richmond, Virginia, and slowly starve it into submission by cutting off its supply lines. The key to the plan was capturing Petersburg, Virginia.
After an initial attack against Petersburg failed on June 9, Grant ordered Butler’s Army of the James to cross the Appomattox River and to launch a second assault against Petersburg on June 15. The leading elements of the Union attack comprised Smith’s 18th Corps, aided by Brigadier General August V. Kautz‘s cavalry division. The 16,000 soldiers Butler commanded outnumbered General P. G. T. Beauregard‘s roughly 5,400 Confederate defenders.
Despite a tardy beginning, Smith’s men forced the Confederates to abandon their first line of entrenchments by the evening, but Smith did not press the attack, perhaps squandering an opportunity to seize the city. Over the next few days, both sides reinforced their lines, producing a standoff. Recognizing that he had lost the chance to capture Petersburg while the Confederate defenses were light, Grant called off the frontal assault and focused instead on cutting off the city’s supply lines.
Relieved of Command
Despite the golden opportunity lost at Petersburg, Grant apparently did not lose faith in Smith. At Grant’s urging, on July 7, 1864, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 225. The order assigned Smith to command the 18th Army Corps. Afterward, Smith went on sick leave for ten days, only to discover, when he returned to duty on July 19, that Grant had rescinded his order and relieved Smith of his command. Grant’s about-face seemed mystifying considering that he had written to army chief-of-staff Henry Halleck, on July 1, that Smith, “is really one of the most efficient officers in the service, readiest in expedients, and most skillful in the management of troops in action.” Grant never offered a reason for sacking Smith, but there is some evidence to support the argument that it was because Smith had previously made critical statements about Butler and, possibly, General George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac.
Smith traveled to New York to await orders. On November 22, 1864, he received orders from the Secretary of War to examine the administration of affairs in the Department of the Gulf. As the war concluded, Smith received a brevet promotion to the rank of major general in the regular army effective March 13, 1865, “for Gallant and Meritorious Services in the Field during the Rebellion.” Smith mustered out of the volunteer army on November 4, 1865, but he remained in the regular army until March 21, 1867, when he retired after twenty-two years of service.
After retiring, Smith spent the next six years as a successful engineer and businessman. In May 1873, he received an appointment as a New York City police commissioner. One year later, officials appointed Smith as the president of New York City’s police commissioner board. He held that position until March 11, 1881. Afterward, the federal government employed Smith as an engineer to supervise the improvement of various rivers and harbors. He served in that capacity until 1901 when he retired.
In 1903, Smith contracted a severe cold from which he never recovered. He died at his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 28, 1903, at age seventy-nine. Following an austere civilian funeral, Smith’s remains were buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.