William Farrar Smith (1824-1903)

William Farrar Smith (February 17, 1824 - February 28, 1903), was a civil engineer, a police commissioner, and Union general in the American Civil War. Smith, known to his friends as "Baldy", was born at St. Albans, Vermont on February 17, 1824. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1845, and was appointed to the corps of topographical engineers, and, after a year's service on lake survey duty, was assistant professor of mathematics at West Point in 1846-48. He was then engaged in surveys in Texas for the Mexican boundary commission, and in Florida until 1855, when he returned to his former duty at the military academy. In 1853 he became 1st lieutenant of topographical engineers. He was placed on lighthouse construction service in 1856, became captain of topographical engineers on July 1, 1859, and was engineer secretary of the light-house board from that year until April, 1861. After serving on mustering duty in New York for one month, he was on the staff of General Benjamin F. Butler in June and July, 1861, at Fort Monroe, Virginia, became colonel of the 3d Vermont volunteers in the latter month, and was engaged in the defences of Washington, D.C.

During the First Battle of Bull Run, Smith served on the staff of Major General Irvin McDowell. In August 1861, he became brigadier general of volunteers. He was brevetted lieutenant colonel in the Regular Army for his gallantry at the Battle of White Oak Swamp on June 30, 1862, in the Seven Days Battles. On July 4, 1862 he received promotion to the rank of major general of volunteers. Smith led his division with conspicuous valor at South Mountain and Antietam, receiving the brevet of colonel, United States army, on September 17, 1862, for the latter battle. When his corps commander, William B. Franklin, was reassigned to a superior command, Smith was placed at the head of the VI Corps of the Army of the Potomac, which he led at the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862.

The recriminations that followed Fredericksburg led to a famous general order in which army commander Ambrose Burnside proposed to dismiss several of the senior officers of the army. President Abraham Lincoln prevented this order from taking effect and relieved Burnside of his command. Smith was one of the affected officers, but it is to his credit that he did not leave the army. However, his indiscretion in communicating to Lincoln directly about Burnside's shortcomings, compounded by the fact that General Smith was a close friend of out-of-favor Major General George B. McClellan, resulted in his losing both his corps command and his rank; the Senate failed to confirm his nomination to major general, which expired on March 4, 1863. So, returned to the rank of brigadier general, he commanded troops of the Department of the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania during the critical days of the Gettysburg Campaign, including the unsuccessful pursuit of Robert E. Lee back to the Potomac River. He followed this in division command in West Virginia.

On October 3, 1863, Smith was assigned to duty as chief engineer of the Army of the Cumberland (and a couple of weeks later, the Military Division of the Mississippi). As such he conducted the engineer operations and launched the Battle of Wauhatchie, which opened the "Cracker Line" to provide supplies and reinforcements to the besieged troops in Chattanooga. Of this action the House Committee on Military Affairs reported in 1865 that "as a subordinate, General WF Smith had saved the Army of the Cumberland from capture, and afterwards directed it to victory." Smith was now again nominated for the rank of major general of volunteers, and Ulysses S. Grant, who was much impressed with Smith's work, insisted strongly that the nomination should be confirmed, which was accordingly done by the Senate on March 9, 1864. Grant, according to his own statement "was not long in finding out that the objections to Smith's promotion were well grounded," but he never stated the grounds of his complaint, and Smith, in the Battles and Leaders series, maintained that they were purely of a personal character.

For the Overland Campaign of 1864, Smith was assigned by Grant to command the XVIII Corps in Benjamin Butler's Army of the James, which he led in the Battle of Cold Harbor and the first operations against Petersburg. Smith's corps and a division of black troops (under Edward W. Hink) were ordered to take the city. Remembering the debacle at Cold Harbor, Smith performed exhaustive reconnaissance. Determining that the section of the defensive line was manned primarily by artillery, he ordered an attack. However, the attack was delayed and in the meantime he became apprehensive about a rumor circulating that Lee was about to arrive. He lost his nerve, perhaps because of the formidable character of the Confederate works or perhaps because of a recurring bout with malaria, but his hesitation may have lost him the opportunity to shorten the war by nearly a year. On July 19, 1864, he was relieved from command of the XVIII Corps and he spent the remainder of the war on "special duty."

On March 13, 1865, he received the brevets of brigadier-general, United States army, for "gallant and meritorious services at the battle of Chattanooga, Tennessee," and that of major-general for services in the field during the civil war. He resigned his volunteer commission in 1865, and that in the United States army in 1867. From 1865 to 1873 he was president of the International Telegraph Company, and from 1875 to 1881 served on the board of police commissioners of New York, becoming its president in 1877. After 1881 he was engaged in civil engineering work in Pennsylvania.

He died at Philadelphia in 1903 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.