William Sooy Smith was born in Tarlton, Ohio, on July 22, 1830. He was the fifth of six children born to Sooy Smith and Ann Hedges. Smith’s father captained a volunteer unit during the War of 1812, and his paternal grandfather served with colonial forces during the American Revolution.
Historians know little about Smith’s early life other than he attended local schools before departing for Athens, Ohio, at age fifteen to further his education. Working as a janitor and at various odd jobs, Smith earned enough money to support himself plus pay his tuition at Ohio University where he graduated with a degree in engineering in 1849. The same year, Smith received an appointment from Ohio Congressman Samuel F. Vinton to the United States Military Academy.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
Smith entered the Academy on July 1, 1849, and graduated on July 1, 1853, ranked sixth in his class. During his years at West Point, future Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee served as commandant of the school. Other members of the class of 1853 who would play prominent roles in the Civil War included future Union major generals James B. McPherson, John M. Schofield, Philip H. Sheridan, and Confederate General John Bell Hood.
U.S. Army Officer
Following Smith’s graduation from the USMA, army officials brevetted Smith to second lieutenant of artillery. Eight days later, the army promoted Smith to the full grade of second lieutenant on July 9, 1853, and assigned him to recruiting duty with the Second Artillery at Fort Columbus Depot in New York.
Civilian Life and Marriage
Less than one year later, Smith resigned his commission on June 19, 1854, to accept an engineering position with the Illinois Central Railroad in Chicago. Soon thereafter, he changed employers to work on harbor improvements in the Great Lakes. Poor health, however, prompted Smith to travel east where he married Elizabeth “Lizzie” Haven in 1854 and took up residence in her hometown of Buffalo, New York.
During his first two years in Buffalo, Smith taught school until his health improved enough to resume his engineering career. In 1857, he formed a business partnership named Parkinson and Smith that developed plans for the first international bridge to cross the Niagara River. Later, the Trenton Locomotive Works of New Jersey hired Smith to superintend the construction of large iron bridges to facilitate railroad transportation. Smith’s work with that firm took him to Cuba and then to Georgia, where he was when the Civil War erupted.
In response to President Abraham Lincoln‘s call for volunteers to quell the Southern rebellion, Smith returned to Ohio where he temporarily served as an assistant adjutant general processing recruits at Camp Dennison, seventeen miles north of Cincinnati.
Western Virginia Campaign
On June 26, 1861, Smith received a commission as colonel of the 13th Ohio Infantry, a freshly organized unit enlisted for three years of service with the U.S. Volunteer Army. On June 30, Smith and his men departed for western Virginia where they served under Major General George B. McClellan, and later Major General William S. Rosecrans, during the Western Virginia Campaign. Following their participation in the pivotal Battle of Carnifex Ferry (September 10, 1861), which established federal control of western Virginia, Smith, and his men pursued retreating Rebels until mid-November.
Occupation of Nashville
In December 1861, the War Department ordered Smith and his regiment to join Major General Don Carlos Buell‘s Army of the Ohio in Kentucky. In February 1862, they took part in the occupation of Nashville, Tennessee, the first Confederate state capital to fall into Union hands during the Civil War.
Battle of Shiloh
Following the occupation of Nashville, on April 6, 1862, Smith marched most of the 13th Regiment to Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, where the Battle of Shiloh had begun. Smith’s soldiers arrived on the battlefield late that day but did not engage the enemy until April 7, when they captured all the enemy’s cannons at Washington Battery. Following the Union victory, the War Department promoted Smith to brigadier general on April 15, 1862.
Smith continued to command the 13th Ohio throughout Major General Henry W. Halleck‘s Siege of Corinth, Mississippi (April 29 to May 30, 1862). Although Smith was still a brigadier general, Buell assigned him to command the Army of the Ohio’s 2nd Division in July. When Buell’s army returned to Kentucky during Confederate General Braxton Bragg‘s Confederate Heartland Campaign (August–October 1862), Smith commanded the 4th Division during the pivotal Union victory at the Battle of Perryville (October 8, 1862).
In January 1863, Major General Ulysses S. Grant selected Smith to command the 1st Division of Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut‘s newly created 16th Army Corps, garrisoned at Memphis, Tennessee. Shortly after the fall of Vicksburg (July 4, 1863), Grant chose Smith to serve as the chief of cavalry for the Department of Tennessee on July 20, 1863. Smith held that position until October 16, 1863, when the War Department issued General Orders, No. 337 merging the Departments of the Ohio, the Cumberland, and the Tennessee to create the Division of the Mississippi under Grant’s command. Grant quickly selected Smith as the division’s chief of cavalry.
Early in 1864, Major General William T. Sherman received Grant’s approval to launch a brief campaign to destroy Southern infrastructure in Mississippi. Part of Sherman’s operations required collaboration with Smith’s cavalry. On January 27, 1864, Sherman sent Smith a message directing him to lead 7,000 Union cavalry troopers from Memphis, Tennessee, on February 1, and rendezvous with him roughly 250 miles south at Meridian, Mississippi, by February 10.
Sherman’s main force left Vicksburg on February 3, 1864, and entered Meridian on February 14. While awaiting Smith’s arrival, they spent the next five days laying waste to the railroad center and the surrounding area. As events unfolded, Smith never reached Meridian.
For unknown reasons, Smith delayed his departure from Memphis until February 11, 1864, ten days beyond the date Sherman specified in his orders. Slowed by muddy roads, it took Smith’s troopers five days to travel roughly 100 miles and cross the Little Tallahatchie River at New Albany in northern Mississippi. On February 20, ten days after Smith’s appointed rendezvous with Sherman, his troopers encountered lead elements of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest‘s cavalry. Over the next three days, the Yankees, who outnumbered Forrest’s Rebels nearly three-to-one, engaged in a running conflict that culminated with a Confederate victory at the Battle of Okolona on February 22, 1864. Forrest’s triumph forced Smith’s defeated troopers to retreat to Memphis.
Although Sherman’s Meridian Campaign was an overall success, Smith’s expedition was an undeniable debacle. His failure to join Sherman at Meridian by the appointed date may have denied Sherman the opportunity to continue his operations farther into Mississippi, and possibly Alabama, destroying even more Confederate infrastructure before returning to Vicksburg. On July 15, 1864, a beleaguered Smith resigned his commission, citing his recurrent battles with debilitating rheumatism.
Following his resignation, Smith retired to his farm in Maywood, Illinois. Soon thereafter he resumed his engineering career, becoming an internationally known expert on bridge construction and large building foundations. At the 1876 American Centennial Exposition, judges awarded Smith a prize for his innovative bridge designs. Besides designing the world’s first all-steel bridge, over the Missouri River at Glasgow, Missouri, Smith took part in the construction of nearly every lofty building in Chicago between 1890 and 1910.
Historians know little about Smith’s personal life. His first wife, Lizzie Haven, died in 1859, leaving behind one son, Charles Sooy Smith, who also became a successful civil engineer. In 1862, Smith married Anna Durham in Kentucky. She died childless sometime between 1882-1884. Smith married a final time in 1886 to Josephine Hartwell. Their marriage produced one son, Gerald Sooy Smith.
In 1910, Smith retired from his engineering business and moved from Riverside, Illinois, to Medford, Oregon. He died there, at age eighty-five, on March 4, 1916, during a bout with pneumonia. His widow had Smith’s remains returned for burial at Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois, where her body was also laid to rest after her death in 1920.