American Civil War: Major General William F. "Baldy" Smith

Baldy Smith
Major General William F. "Baldy" Smith. Library of Congress

"Baldy" Smith - Early Life & Career:

The son of Ashbel and Sarah Smith, William Farrar Smith was born in St. Albans, VT on February 17, 1824.  Raised in the area, he attended school locally while living on his parents' farm.  Ultimately deciding to pursue a military career, Smith succeeded in obtaining an appointment to the US Military Academy in early 1841.  Arriving at West Point, his classmates included Horatio Wright, Albion P. Howe, and John F. Reynolds.  Known to his friends as "Baldy" due to his thinning hair, Smith proved an adept student and graduated ranked fourth in a class of forty-one in July 1845.  Commissioned as a brevet second lieutenant, he received an assignment to the Topographical Engineers Corps.  Sent to conduct a survey of the Great Lakes, Smith returned to West Point in 1846 where he spent much of the Mexican-American War serving as a mathematics professor.     

"Baldy" Smith - Interwar Years:

Sent to the field in 1848, Smith moved through a variety of surveying and engineering assignments along the frontier.  During this time he also served in Florida where he contracted a severe case of malaria.  Recovering from the illness, it would cause Smith health issues for the remainder of his career.  In 1855, he again served as a mathematics professor at West Point until being posted to the lighthouse service the following year.  Remaining in similar posts until 1861, Smith rose to become Engineer Secretary of the Lighthouse Board and frequently worked from Detroit.  During this time, he was promoted to captain on July 1, 1859.  With the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and beginning of the Civil War in April 1861, Smith received orders to aid in mustering troops at New York City.

"Baldy" Smith - Becoming a General:

Following a brief stint on Major General Benjamin Butler's staff at Fortress Monroe, Smith traveled home to Vermont to accept command of the 3rd Vermont Infantry with the rank of colonel.  During this time, he spent a short time on the staff of Brigadier General Irvin McDowell and took part in the First Battle of Bull Run.  Assuming his command, Smith lobbied new army commander Major General George B. McClellan to allow the freshly-arrived Vermont troops to serve in the same brigade.  As McClellan reorganized his men and created the Army of the Potomac, Smith received a promotion to brigadier general on August 13.  By the spring of 1862, he led a division in Brigadier General Erasmus D. Keyes' IV Corps.  Moving south as part of McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, Smith's men saw action at the Siege of Yorktown and at the Battle of Williamsburg.   

"Baldy" Smith - Seven Days & Maryland:

On May 18, Smith's division shifted to Brigadier General William B. Franklin's newly-created VI Corps.  As part of this formation, his men were present at the Battle of Seven Pines later that month.  With McClellan's offensive against Richmond stalling, his Confederate counterpart, General Robert E. Lee, attacked in late June beginning the Seven Days Battles.  In the resulting fighting, Smith's division was engaged at Savage's Station, White Oak Swamp, and Malvern Hill.  Following the defeat of McClellan's campaign, Smith received a promotion to major general on July 4 however it was not immediately confirmed by the Senate. 

Moving north later that summer, his division joined McClellan's pursuit of Lee into Maryland after the Confederate victory at Second Manassas.  On September 14, Smith and his men succeeded in pushing back the enemy at Crampton's Gap as part of the larger Battle of South Mountain.  Three days later, part of the division was among the few VI Corps troops to play an active role in the Battle of Antietam.  In the weeks after the fighting, Smith's friend McClellan was replaced as army commander by Major General Ambrose Burnside.  After assuming this post, Burnside proceeded to reorganize the army into three "grand divisions" with Franklin being assigned to direct the Left Grand Division.  With his superior's elevation, Smith was promoted to lead VI Corps.

"Baldy" Smith - Fredericksburg & Fall:

Moving the army south to Fredericksburg late that fall, Burnside intended to cross the Rappahannock River and strike Lee's army on the heights west of the town.  Though advised by Smith not to proceed, Burnside launched a series of disastrous assaults on December 13.  Operating south of Fredericksburg, Smith's VI Corps saw little action and his men were spared the casualties incurred by other Union formations.  Concerned about Burnside's poor performance, the always outspoken Smith, as well as other senior officers such as Franklin, wrote directly to President Abraham Lincoln to express their concerns.  When Burnside sought to recross the river and attack again, they dispatched subordinates to Washington asking Lincoln to intercede. 

By January 1863, Burnside, aware of the discord in his army, attempted to relieve several of his generals including Smith.  He was prevented from doing so by Lincoln who removed him from command and replaced him with Major General Joseph Hooker.  In the fallout from the shakeup, Smith was moved to lead IX Corps but was then removed from the post when the Senate, concerned about his role in Burnside's removal, refused to confirm his promotion to major general.  Reduced in rank to brigadier general, Smith was left awaiting orders.  That summer, he received an assignment to aid Major General Darius Couch's Department of the Susquehanna as Lee marched to invade Pennsylvania.  Commanding a division-size force of militia, Smith skirmished against Lieutenant General Richard Ewell's men at Sporting Hill on June 30 and Major General J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry at Carlisle on July 1.      

"Baldy" Smith - Chattanooga: 

Following the Union victory at Gettysburg, Smith's men aided in pursuing Lee back to Virginia.  Completing his assignment, Smith was ordered to join Major General William S. Rosecrans' Army of the Cumberland on September 5.  Arriving in Chattanooga, he found the army effectively besieged following its defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga.  Made chief engineer of the Army of the Cumberland, Smith quickly devised a plan for re-opening supply lines into the city.  Ignored by Rosecrans, his plan was seized upon by Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi, who arrived to rescue the situation.  Dubbed the "Cracker Line", Smith's operation called for Union supply vessels to deliver cargo at Kelley's Ferry on the Tennessee River.  From there it would move east to Wauhatchie Station and up Lookout Valley to Brown's Ferry.  Arriving at the ferry, supplies would re-cross the river and move across Moccasin Point to Chattanooga.      

Implementing the Cracker Line, Grant soon had needed goods and reinforcements arriving to bolster the Army of the Cumberland.  This done, Smith aided in planning the operations that led to the Battle of Chattanooga which saw Confederate troops driven from the area.  In recognition of his work, Grant made him his chief engineer and recommended that he be re-promoted to major general.  This was confirmed by the Senate on March 9, 1864.  Following Grant east that spring, Smith received command of XVIII Corps in Butler's Army of the James.  

"Baldy" Smith - Overland Campaign:  

Struggling under Butler's questionable leadership, XVIII Corps took part in the unsuccessful Bermuda Hundred Campaign in May.  With its failure, Grant directed Smith to bring his corps north and join the Army of the Potomac.  In early June, Smith's men took heavy losses in failed assaults during the Battle of Cold Harbor.  Seeking to change his angle of advance, Grant elected to shift south and isolate Richmond by capturing Petersburg.  After an initial attack failed on June 9, Butler and Smith were ordered to advance on June 15.  Encountering several delays, Smith did not launch his assault until late in the day.  Carrying the first line of Confederate entrenchments, he elected to pause his advance until dawn despite badly outnumbering General P.G.T. Beauregard's defenders.

This timid approach permitted Confederate reinforcements to arrive leading to the Siege of Petersburg which lasted until April 1865.  Accused of "dilatoriness" by Butler, a dispute erupted which escalated up to Grant.  Though he had been considering sacking Butler in favor of Smith, Grant instead elected to remove the latter on July 19.  Sent to New York City to await orders, he remained inactive for the remainder of the conflict.  Some evidence exists to suggest that Grant changed his mind due to negative comments Smith had made about Butler and Army of the Potomac commander Major General George G. Meade.

"Baldy" Smith - Later Life:

With the end of the war, Smith elected to remain in the regular army.  Resigning on March 21, 1867, he served as president of the International Ocean Telegraph Company.  In 1873, Smith received an appointment as a New York City police commissioner.  Made president of the board of commissioners the following year, he held the post until March 11, 1881.  Returning to engineering, Smith was employed on a variety of projects before retiring in 1901.  Two years later he fell ill from a cold and ultimately died at Philadelphia on February 28, 1903.

 Selected Sources

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General William F. "Baldy" Smith." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General William F. "Baldy" Smith. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General William F. "Baldy" Smith." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).