WILLIAM SMITH was born in Marengo in King George County, Virginia. He attended an old-field school near home, studied privately in Fredericksburg, Virginia, attended the Plainfield Academy in Plainfield, Connecticut, and studied at Thomas Nelson’s English and Classical School in Hanover County, Virginia. He went on to study law and went into private practice in Culpeper, Virginia in 1818. In 1827, he organized a mail-coach service from Fairfax Courthouse to Culpeper and rapidly expanded the system overland from Washington, D.C. to Georgia. He added steamboat connections from Washington to Baltimore, Norfolk, Pensacola, and Galveston, and secured postal delivery contracts from the federal government for each leg of his system, coming to be known as “Extra Billy” Smith for keeping the Post Office Department busy making extra payments for his services. In 1841, Smith won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, which he held for just one term, after which gerrymandering of his district cost him reelection. In 1844 he campaigned for the Democratic presidential nominee, James Polk, and was rewarded with support for his gubernatorial bid in 1845. Shortly after Smith was inaugurated, the U.S. went to war with Mexico and Smith met with success in his efforts to recruit Virginia’s share of the volunteer army. He also was successful in promoting internal state improvements and public education. After leaving office, he moved to San Francisco during the gold rush and did well in real estate while remaining active in both civic and political affairs. He returned to Virginia, however, and was elected to Congress in 1853, winning reelection to three more terms. Although sixty-four years old when the Civil War broke out, Smith was appointed a colonel in the Forty-ninth Virginia Regiment, where he served under Pierre Beauregard, among other generals. He was seriously wounded at Antietam, and after recuperating at home, was promoted to Major General, assigned to recruiting duties. In 1863, he successfully sought the governorship a second time, serving during the difficult days of the war. After the Confederacy collapsed, President Andrew Johnson declared all acts of the Confederate state government of Virginia null and void and recognized Unionist Francis Pierpont as governor. Smith retired to his estate near Warrenton, after which he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates Assembly of 1875-1877.
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