Extra Billy’s Famous Speech at York: Fact, fiction, or faulty memory?
William Smith (September 6, 1797 – May 18, 1887) was a lawyer, U.S. and Confederate congressman, two-time Governor of Virginia and one of the oldest Confederate generals in the Civil War.
In the early 1831, Smith received a Federal contract from the administration of President Andrew Jackson to develop and oversee mail routes between Washington D.C. and the capital of Georgia, Milledgeville. On his own initiative, he set up numerous side routes, which generated extra income. A subsequent investigation revealed his shenanigans, and he became widely known as “Extra Billy.” During the Gettysburg Campaign, he commanded the Virginia brigade led earlier in the war by his divisional commander, Major General Jubal A. Early. He left two of his five regiments back in Winchester, Virginia, to help process and guard thousands of Union prisoners after the Second Battle of Winchester.
General Smith was known for his unorthodox field uniform, which often included a tall beaver hat and a blue cotton umbrella. Personally brave, although requiring close supervision on the battlefield, Smith had a penchant for making loud speeches.One of these orations has become fairly common in Gettysburg Campaign overviews, appearing in several leading secondary sources that are among the best-selling tomes on the battle. An artillery major named Robert Stiles wrote a post-war account of “Extra Billy” Smith making a spectacle in downtown York, Pennsylvania, as Early’s division first occupied the town. Stiles, whose battery (Carrington’s Courtney Battery) camped in the old York Fairgrounds, was certainly in the column of troops that entered York.
However, was Extra Billy there to make the rambling speech that Stiles claimed he did in his classic 1904 book Four Years Under Marse Robert? So many talented authors, many of them quite well known in Civil War circles, take this somewhat questionable account as fact.
Here is Stiles’ rather colorful account of the Virginian’s pause in York:
1860 map of York, Pennsylvania, showing the route that Colonel Isaac E. Avery‘s North Carolina brigade took to reach their two main campsites downtown after marching all morning from Big Mount via Weigelstown. The route marked with the red arrow is North George Street (the old Harrisburg Road). Did Smith’s brigade precede them into York and then leave for some reason?
“We were about entering the beautiful Pennsylvania town of York, General Smith’s brigade in the lead. Under these conditions, feeling sure there was likely to be a breeze stirring about the head of the column, I rode forward so as to be near the General and not to miss the fun. As we approached, the population seemed to be very generally in the streets, and I saw at a glance that the old Governor had blood in his eye. Turning to Fred, his aide,–who was also his son, and about the strongest marked case of second edition I ever saw,–he told him to “Go back and look up those tooting fellows,” as he called the brigade band, “and tell them first to be sure their drums and horns are all right, and then to come up here to the front and march into town tooting ‘Yankee Doodle’ in their very best style.”
Fred was off in a jiffy, and soon here came the band, their instruments looking bright and smart and glistening in the June sunlight–playing, however, not “Yankee Doodle,” but “Dixie,” the musicians appearing to think it important to be entirely impartial in rendering these national airs, and therefore giving us “Dixie” by way of prelude to “Yankee Doodle.”
When they got to the head of the column, and struck up “Yankee Doodle,” and the Governor, riding alone and bareheaded in front of his staff, began bowing and saluting first one side and then the other, and especially every pretty girl he saw, with that manly, hearty smile which no man or woman ever doubted or resisted–the Yorkers seemed at first astounded, then pleased, and finally, by the time we reached the public square, they had reached the point of ebullition, and broke into enthusiastic cheers as they crowded about the head of the column, actually embarrassing its progress, till the old Governor,–the “Governor-General,” we might call him,–nothing loth, acceded to the half suggestion and called a halt, his brigade stacking arms, and constituting, if not formally organizing, themselves and the people of York into a political meeting.
It was a rare scene–the vanguard of an invading army and the invaded and hostile population hobnobbing on the public green in an enthusiastic public gathering. The General did not dismount, but from the saddle he made a rattling, humorous speech, which both the Pennsylvanians and his own brigade applauded to the echo. He said substantially :
“My friends, how do you like this way of coming back into the Union ? I hope you like it; I have been in favor of it for a good while. But don’t misunderstand us. We are not here with any hostile intent–unless the conduct of your side shall render hostilities unavoidable. You can see for yourselves we are not conducting ourselves like enemies today. We are not burning your houses or butchering your children. On the contrary, we are behaving ourselves like Christian gentlemen, as we are.
“You see, it was getting a little warm down our way. We needed a summer outing and thought we would take it at the North, instead of patronizing the Virginia springs, as we generally do. We are sorry, and apologize that we are not in better guise for a visit of courtesy, but we regret to say our trunks haven’t gotten up yet; we were in such a hurry to see you that we could not wait for them. You must really excuse us.
“What we all need, on both sides, is to mingle more with each other, so that we shall learn to know and appreciate each other. Now here’s my brigade–I wish you knew them as I do. They are such a hospitable, whole-hearted, fascinating lot of gentlemen. Why, just think of it–of course this part of Pennsylvania is ours to-day; we’ve got it, we hold it, we can destroy it, or do what we please with it. Yet we sincerely and heartily invite you to stay. You are quite welcome to remain here and to make yourselves entirely at home–so long as you behave yourselves pleasantly and agreeably as you are doing now. Are we not a fine set of fellows? You must admit that we are.”
At this point my attention was called to a volley of very heated profanity poured forth in a piping, querulous treble, coming up from the rear, and being mounted and located where I commanded a view of the road, I saw that the second brigade in column, which had been some distance in the rear, had caught up, and was now held up by our public meeting, which filled and obstructed the entire street, and that Old Jube, who had ridden forward to ascertain the cause of the dead-lock, was fairly blistering the air about him and making furious but for the time futile efforts to get at Extra Billy, who in plain sight, and not far off, yet blissfully unconscious of the presence of the major-general and of his agreeable observations and comments, was still holding forth with great fluency and acceptability.
The jam was solid and impervious. As D. H. Hill’s report phrased it, “Not a dog, no, not even a sneaking exempt, could have made his way through”–and at first and for some time, Old Jube couldn’t do it, and no one would help him. But at last officers and men were compelled to recognize the division commander, and he made his way so far that, by leaning forward, a long stretch, and a frantic grab, he managed to catch General Smith by the back of his coat collar. Even Jube did not dare curse the old General in an offensive way, but he did jerk him back and around pretty vigorously and half screamed:
“General Smith, what the devil are you about! stopping the head of this column in this cursed town?”
With unruffled composure the old fellow replied: “Having a little fun, General, which is good for all of us, and at the same time teaching these people something that will be good for them and won’t do us any harm.”
Suffice it to say the matter was amicably arranged and the brigade and its unique commander moved on, leaving the honest burghers of York wondering what manner of men we were. I should add that General Early had the greatest regard and admiration for General Smith, which indeed he could not well avoid, in view of his intense patriotic devotion and his other sterling and heroic qualities. I have seldom heard him speak of any other officer or soldier in the service, save of course Lee and Jackson, in such exalted terms as of the old “Governor-General.”
That concludes Major Stiles’ narration. However, is it a record of a factual event that really happened in York? Let’s examine the evidence, pro and con.
1. “Now here’s my brigade–I wish you knew them as I do,” supposedly Extra Billy uttered. However, Smith’s Brigade itself never physically entered York, having been dropped off from the column near Emigsville a few miles north of the town. There are state damage claims filed after the war that actually identify Smith’s men as being the culprits for some thievery in that region, and a handful of farmers along the Harrisburg Road filed claims that Rebel infantry camped on their lands. Would Smith have left his men as they were setting up camp deep in enemy country to accompany another column into the town? Perhaps, as he did have a love for attention and recognition. Avery was just a colonel, and perhaps Early may have assigned Smith to help lead the North Carolina troops into York?? Yet, Stiles’ old account speaks of at least two brigades entering town, separated by some distance until the alleged traffic jam.
2. Earlier that morning, Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon‘s brigade had marched through York, and he indeed had made a speech to the patriotic ladies of York in front of what is today the Lafayette Club (then the home of business tycoon Philip Albright Small and his family). Gordon’s speech is not only recorded in his own reminiscences, it is verified by a letter one of Small’s daughters wrote within days of the occupation. Could Major Stiles somehow have intermixed Gordon and Smith in his faulty post-war memory? Gordon’s men did pause several times to rip down flags, and their band is known to have been playing. Could Smith have been with that column??? There are some accounts in secondary sources, although brief and unsubstantiated to date that at least part of Smith’s Brigade accompanied Gordon to Wrightsville. We know that at Gettysburg on July 1, Gordon was ordered by Early to take command of his and Smith’s brigades in a reconnaissance along the York Road after Smith reported seeing masses of enemy troops in that vicinity. However, the fact that General Early is with the second brigade in line seems to preclude a mix-up with Gordon’s speech, as Early was not with Gordon’s troops during this part of the campaign.
3. If this happened in York, why was Early so upset at stopping in “this cursed town?” York was his primary target and objective for his three-day march from Greenwood, and stopping there was his goal. It would not have been “cursed” in his mind, but instead a rich plum to be ransomed for money and supplies. One intriguing option is that Stiles’ account really did take place, but not in York itself. His memory of the location may have become blurred with the passage of years. Perhaps it was at another location, such as East Berlin or Emigsville? Again, however, no corroboration for another location has been found in the old records and archives.
4. “hobnobbing on the public green in an enthusiastic public gathering…” and “the population seemed to be very generally in the streets.” However, York is the only known location in southern Pennsylvania where there are records of any enthusiasm being shown for the Rebels as they invaded the region. Some of the towns that this event may have occurred in did not have public greens.
I avoided mentioning this incident in Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Gordon Expedition, June 1863 because it was a little out of the scope of the book’s main topic – Gordon’s march through town. It also has so many unanswered questions that I still doubt its veracity, at least as far as the details go. However, in Major Stiles’ defense, I have read his book several times, and there are not very many other incidents that he is clearly mistaken about.
So, did Extra Billy’s Virginians somehow march into York before Avery’s brigade, listen to an amusing speech by their politician-general in front of an enthusiastic crowd, watch as their major general scolded their commander, and then retrace their steps back up to Emigsville to camp?
I doubt it.
But, somewhere out there may be the answer lying in some musty file cabinet in a historical society. We only know of one (!!!!) account left by any of Smith’s 800 Virginians regarding their stay in the York area and it is so brief as to shed no light on the situation.