24 September 2007 by Published in: General musings 13 comments

Maj. Gen. William Farrar “Baldy” Smith is an interesting fellow. I’ve learned to appreciate just how interesting a fellow he is from my work on the emergency militia forces that gathered in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to defend the Keystone State against the Confederate invasion in 1863. I had never looked at any of what I’m about to discuss until a couple of weeks ago, when I decided that one of the things that I wanted to focus on in the book on the retreat from Gettysburg was the role played by Smith’s command, which has never been given any sort of a detailed treatment anywhere. Consequently, I immersed myself into this, and boy, did I find some interesting stuff when I did.

Baldy Smith was a West Pointer, and was, by all accounts, a brilliant engineer. He was also a good soldier, but for his penchant for not knowing when to keep his big mouth shut. Smith, a Vermonter, was the first colonel of the 3rd Vermont Infantry. Before long, he was the commander of the First Vermont Brigade, and by the time of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, he was a major general commanding a division of the 6th Corps. His date of commission is May 4, 1862.

After McClellan was relieved of command and Burnside took command of the Army of the Potomac, Burnside instituted the Grand Division organizational scheme for the Army of the Potomac. Each Grand Division consisted of two corps of infantry. The 6th Corps was part of the Left Grand Division, which was commanded by Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin, who had been Smith’s corps commander int he 6th Corps. When Franklin was promoted to Grand Division command, Smith was promoted to command the 6th Corps.

Smith, however, was his own worst enemy. After the twin debacles at Fredericksburg and Burnside’s Mud March, Smith and Franklin sent a letter to the War Department complaining bitterly about Burnside and seeking his removal from command. Although Burnside was eventually relieved at his own request, that letter sealed the fates of both Franklin and Smith. When Joseph Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac, Smith was relieved of command of the 6th Corps and sent home to wait for orders.

In June 1863, when the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania began, Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch, whose commission as major general also dated back to May 4, 1862, was sent to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to assume command of the Department of the Susquehanna. Couch, who had commanded the 2nd Corps at Chancellorsville, ended up in de facto command of the Army of the Potomac when Hooker was dazed by an artillery shell that struck the wooden post where he was standing, leaving him sick and concussed. Disgusted by Hooker’s bungling at Chancellorsville, Couch, the army’s senior corps commander, refused to serve under Hooker’s command, and asked to be relieved of command of the 2nd Corps. His request was granted, and he was instead sent to Harrisburg.

Smith, aware of the crisis, and wanting to help his old friend Couch, volunteered his services, even offering to serve as a lieutenant if that’s what Couch wanted him to do. Couch was assembling a large force of raw militia from New York and Pennsylvania. These men were emergency troops, had virtually no training, had no experience soldiering, and were not good for much other than as cannon fodder. Couch gladly accepted Smith’s offer and placed him in command of these troops. Smith now commanded about 4,000 of the worst troops the American Civil War had to offer, and it’s no surprise that they made little impact on the Gettysburg Campaign.

After the Union victory at Gettysburg, the Army of the Potomac followed Lee’s beaten army to the banks of the flooded Potomac, and Smith’s ragtag command was ordered to march to Maryland to join the army. Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, needed every able body he could get, experienced or not.

These orders horrified Smith. After commanding the 6th Corps–now commanded by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, his junior, Smith now led troops that he himself described as useless. “If you send an order for this command to report to Meade, will you at the same time order me to return to you, leaving [Brig. Gen. Joseph] Knipe in command?” Smith begged Couch on July 6, 1863. “You can appreciate how unpleasant it would be for me to serve under existing circumstances with the Army of the Potomac.” Couch denied the request, and Smith, a good soldier, pressed on with his thankless duty and suffered the inevitable personal humiliation that undoubtedly accompanied his return to the Army of the Potomac at the head of a useless command.

His command finally reached the main body of the Army of the Potomac on July 11. It’s interesting to note that Smith outranked George Meade, whose date of commission as major general was in November 1862 (in fact, Henry Slocum also outranked Meade, but Slocum had specifically agreed to serve under a junior officer). Had Smith been anything but a good soldier, he could have made a big kerfuffle about serving under someone junior to him. However, and to his credit, he did not do so. Instead, Smith tolerated some pretty humiliating circumstances and performed admirable duty under some extremely difficult circumstances.

Smith certainly had his faults, but it’s hard to fault such selfless service as he performed during the Gettysburg Campaign. It’s episodes like this that demonstrate why I find the Gettysburg Campaign so fascinating, and why I find the pursuit of Lee’s army, in particular, intriguing.

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Comments

  1. Stefan
    Tue 25th Sep 2007 at 2:38 am

    Eric:

    Smith’s original commission as major general was dated 4 July 1862. His appointment expired 4 March 1863, when the senate withheld confirmation, and Smith reverted to brigadier general. He was reappointed major general on Grant’s recommendation in March 1864.

    In fact, Smith was junior to all the other generals mentioned, except Knipe.

    Best, Stefan

  2. Tue 25th Sep 2007 at 6:37 am

    Stefan,

    That might be true, but I don’t think that Smith or anyone else knew it. Smith signed all of his correspondence during this time as major general, and all of the correspondence to him is also addressed to him as major general.

    Eric

  3. Bill
    Tue 25th Sep 2007 at 10:47 am

    Was Smith not discussed in Wilbur Nye’s Here Come the Rebels, which, if I remember correctly, dealt in detail with Couch’s department and the infantry action north and northeast of Gettysburg before the battle?

  4. Noreen
    Tue 25th Sep 2007 at 10:53 am

    Hi Eric,

    I was looking for your email address (or link up here) but couldn’t find it so I hope you don’t mind me posting in your comments…

    I was reading your blog today and thought you may be interested in a new book we are publishing, Images of Civil War Medicine: A Photographic History by Gordon Dammann, DDS, Alfred Jay Bollet, MD.

    Author Dr Gordon Damman is the founder of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD. His co-author, Dr. Alfred J. Bollet is the author of the award winning Civil War Medicine: Challenges and Triumphs.

    If you would like me to send you a galley copy – just email me with your mailing address.

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  5. Tue 25th Sep 2007 at 11:40 am

    Bill,

    Couch’s command, and Smith’s role in it, were, in fact, covered in some detail in Nye’s book. However, Nye’s book doesn’t go into detail on the retreat, and that’s my real focus here.

    Eric

  6. Stefan
    Tue 25th Sep 2007 at 1:12 pm

    Objection, Eric 🙂

    Please check the OR: 27,3: 240, 326, 330, 507, 549.

    Stefan

  7. Ray Todd Knight
    Tue 25th Sep 2007 at 11:02 pm

    If I remember correctly Smith was pretty involved in the actions around Chattanooga before Missionary Ridge.

    Ray

  8. Bill Bergen
    Fri 28th Sep 2007 at 10:10 am

    Eric,

    Without checking the references to the OR, I am fairly certain that Stefan is right. Baldy Smith had to know that his promotion to major general had been rejected by the Senate in their early 1863 session. He probably signed his letters with the higher rank because . . . well, he was Baldy Smith. It is also possible that he was, in the emergency, again appointed to the higher rank pending Senate approval and that entitled him to use major general in his signature.

    The Senate also refused to promote Horatio Wright (then in departmental command in Ohio) and John Schofield (then in departmental command in Missouri). Schofield kept his job albeit at the inadequate rank of brigadier and Wright resigned. Also, Smith briefly commanded the IX Corps after Burnside was sacked in early 1863.

    Sedgwick, too, outranked Meade, his commission dating from July 1862.

  9. Fri 28th Sep 2007 at 10:57 am

    According to Eicher & Eicher Civil War High Commands, Smith was not nominated to MGUSV again until March 23, 1864. That nomination was confirmed by the senate two days later. Smith was appointed MGUSV on 3/24/64 to date from 3/9/64.

    After his 1862 nomination was rejected, Smith’s rank reverted to BGUSV on 3/4/63.

    Smith’s autobiography says he was replaced with Burnside at the head of 9th Corps on 3/5/1863, at wich time he was “taken off the active list”. He says he joined Couch as a “volunteer”.

  10. Jim Epperson
    Fri 28th Sep 2007 at 5:58 pm

    Eric, let me suggest you talk to Brooks Simpson for a different take on Smith. He was something other than selfless in 1864. I could give you a bit of the story, but Brooks of course knows it better than I do. You are right that Smith is “interesting.” We might disagree a bit on the details, however. He was potentially brilliant, but if things were not going exactly his way he could be very McClellan-like.

  11. bob
    Tue 15th Nov 2011 at 4:01 pm

    Hey Eric,
    Long time no shout! I’ve been doing extensive research into Darius Nash Couch and found a bit of dialog, dispatches, messages from Baldy Smith to Couch and vice versa. General Smith signed muchof this correspondence as Brig Gen. (ref.: University of Virginia library).
    And to correct the date of General Couch’s date of commission to Major General, the date was 4 July 1862. Couch was the senior corps commander at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and twice refused command of the AOP.

  12. bob
    Wed 16th Nov 2011 at 10:58 am

    Wow! I didn’t notice the date – 2007?
    Well better late than never, eh?

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