Future Confederate general tours Pennsylvania before the war
During the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign, Major General Jubal A. Early led a veteran division of more than 5,000 men into southern Pennsylvania with a goal of capturing and ransoming York, and then marching across the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge into Lancaster County and then turning northward to Harrisburg. One of Early’s four brigade commanders has spent considerable time in Pennsylvania before the Civil War and had some familiarity with the region from multiple speaking tours in support of various Democratic presidential candidates.
One of the best stump speakers of the 19th century, William Smith was a five-term U.S. congressman, Virginia state senator, two-term Governor of Virginia, and a political leader in California during the 1849-52 Gold Rush. Known as “Extra Billy” for his ability to maneuver the system to create extra cash revenues when he was a government postal contraction in the early 1840s, Smith was 65-years-old and the governor-elect when he led his Virginia infantry brigade into York on June 28, 1863. There are some indications that he accompanied fellow Brigadier General John B. Gordon on his expedition to the Susquehanna River.
It would have been a smart move on Early’s part, for Smith had spent several days in Pennsylvania in 1856 while stumping for his friend James Buchanan’s election as president. However, there is no indication that he visited York County during that time frame, but he did travel through Lancaster County on his way from Philadelphia to Harrisburg and beyond to Montour and Columbia counties. It was not his first time in Pennsylvania. He had at least one previous significant speaking tour back in the election of 1840 when he spoke on behalf of Democrat Martin Van Buren.
The following is a brief excerpt from my manuscript for an upcoming biographical book on the life of Extra Billy Smith (whose troops devastated several farms in 1863 between North York and Emigsville).
It shows the extent of Smith’s travels in during the presidential campaign of 1856 in which Lancaster County’s James Buchanan won election. His fellow Democrats rallied to his support across the country to help him defeat Republican war hero and explorer John C. Fremont (famed as “the Pathfinder”).
In early October 1856, following a series of speeches in the Philadelphia area, the dynamic Smith spent a few days addressing the citizens of Columbia and Montour counties. The Columbia Democrat opined, “Gov. Smith is one of the most estimable men in all the social and political relations of life with whom it has ever been our fortune to associate. Frank, fearless and intelligent, plain of speech and honest of purpose, he is at once a model specimen of the true Virginia gentleman. Nor is this all. He is without exception the most logical reasoner, ablest debater and finest orator we have ever heard in Northern Pennsylvania.” The glowing endorsement echoed Smith’s lengthy speaking tour back in 1840 when he stumped Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York so adroitly for Martin Van Buren.
The reporter gushed, “Old Virginia may indeed be proud of her cherished son and patriotic statesman, upon whom she has bestowed the highest honors within her gift, and who now holds his seat in the National Legislature by a majority of over 6,000! Never have we heard a man before treat more fully and fairly all the issues of the day, than did Gov. Smith in all the thrilling speeches he delivered in Columbia. He supports Mr. Buchanan, not because he is pro-slavery or anti-slavery, but in the name of Democracy of the Old Dominion asks only the preservation of the Constitution and the Union.”
For several days Extra Billy embarked on a whirlwind speaking tour throughout central Pennsylvania. “Gov. Smith labored assiduously, whilst with us, and did yeoman’s service in the Democratic cause. The thousands who heard his instructive discourses and impressive eloquence will long cherish the recollection as a treasured reminiscence. He spoke on Friday afternoon at Rohrsburg; on Friday evening he addressed a large meeting in the Court House at Bloomsburg. On Saturday afternoon he addressed a meeting at Cambria, and in the evening another one at Orangeville. On Monday afternoon he spoke at Berwick, and in the evening at Espytown. On Tuesday he addressed a large meeting at Mordansville in Mount Pleasant, and on Wednesday, at Thomas Barr’s Hotel, in Limestone, Montour County. In the evening before leaving for Virginia, the Governor addressed the citizens of Danville, in the Court House, which was filled to overflowing, in one of the most eloquent and telling speeches ever delivered within that Hall of Justice, and which was received with rounds of cheers and applause.”
There have been suggestions that Extra Billy may have been better suited to accompany the army into Pennsylvania as a guide and consultant because of his past experience in the state rather than lead combat troops.