Monday, July 26, 2010

Guerrilla Chieftain "Rebel Bill" Smith, CSA


Image from "History of Lawrence County"
by Regina Tackett, Patricia Jackson and Janice Thompson, 1991

One of the more colorful people to grace the Big Sandy Valley with his presence during the Civil War was William S. Smith, or better known as "Rebel Bill" Smith, from Wayne Co. West Virginia. Admired by the South and feared by the North, Smith captured the imagination and attention of friend and foe alike.

In his own words he, "was born on Whites Creek in Cabell County, W. Va., on February 6, 1830. My Father John N. Smith was born and raised in Beaver Co., Pa. My mother's name was Sarah Ann Brown, a native of the Big Sandy Valley. My father emigrated from Pa., to the wilds of W. Va., in early manhood, where he soon married, and I was the fourth son born to them." Smith's childhood was spent on the family homestead which was located on the westside of 12 Pole Creek, one mile from Wayne Court House, later known as the Burrel Cyrus farm.

In December 1847, Smith, "became dissatisfied with affairs as they existed and resolved to abandon home [and] the advice and protection of friends and shift for myself. I accordingly purchased a skiff of Smith & Adkins at Trout's Hill." His older brother David, "had become interested in my welfare and clandestinely assisted my departure. After I had secured my clothes, a little money (fifteen dollars) - as I remember from my brother's firm - I, without intimating such a thing to my parents or anyone except my brother, launched my skiff on the turbid Twelve Pole, a seething murky current then overflowing its banks from hill to hill, and on whose surface was borne adrift every conceivable thing that could float. My skiff shot down the wild mountain stream almost like an arrow. Had I not been adept at rowing, my perilous journey would doubtless have soon terminated. As I passed by my father's home one mile below, he and my mother stood in full view, watching with interest my fleet and dangerous windings on a trip that to ordinary minds would inevitably end in destruction, not knowing who I was from my having changed clothes at the store ..." He soon reached the Ohio River and managed to get jobs working on steamboats, eventually earning a river pilot's license and piloting on the Missouri River.

In February 1849, Smith hired on with government contractors Majors & Russell who supplied the army at Fort Leavenworth/Fort Laramie, Kansas, where they arrived in Oct. 1849. Fort Leavenworth, begun in 1827, was a popular stop for travelers who were moving across the western frontier. Smith's party wintered at Round Lake Valley until March 15, 1850, when it was decided to go on to California where the Gold Rush was in full motion since early 1848. Aside from having to deal with hostile Indians, the men also encountered perils of a different nature. In April 1850, Fielding Isaacs, from Lawrence County, KY, was killed by a grizzly.

In June 1850, the party finally arrived in California and proceeded to the gold fields and pitched tents. Smith remained only a short while, finding, "the surroundings being in no way compatible with my preconceived ideas of pleasure or profit." He went to see an old friend of his father's, Wade Hampton, formerly from Wayne Co. VA., who lived on the road from San Francisco to the gold region. Smith remained with Hampton for 9 months and worked for him as ferry keeper.

In Spring of 1851, after killing a man in a shoot out in San Francisco for a robbery committed on Hampton, it was time for Smith to leave California. With the help of Hampton and friends, he boarded the "New York Belle" to the Isthmus of Darian, from where he walked to the Gulf Coast. There he boarded the "Orleans Jessamine" to New Orleans, where he, upon arrival, hired in on the steamboat of Capt. F. Davidson, a native of South Point, OH. A month after leaving New Orleans, Davidson's boat arrived at Cincinnati and Smith returned home to Wayne Co. VA, much to the joy of his family and friends who had mourned him dead.

After nearly four years of adventure, Smith was finally ready to settle down. On Jan. 28, 1852, he married a girl from Lawrence Co. KY, Surilda Roberts, daughter of John C. Roberts and Esther Abbott. By 1860, the family had grown by three children. They are listed in the Federal Census of Wayne Co. VA, HH #115/115
Wm. S. Smith, 30, farmer, b. VA, $300 personal property
Wife Surilda, 28, b. VA
Harry H. Smith, 7, b. KY
Permelia, 5, b. VA
Mary A., 3, b. VA

When the Civil War broke out, Smith quickly sided with the Southern cause and joined Captain James Corns' company, styled the "Fairview Rifles". Corns' company completed organization on May 28, 1861 and were temporarily mustered as part of the 36th VA Infantry on July 15, 1861. Smith claimed that he participated in the Battle of Scary Creek on July 17, 1861, that was fought along the banks of the Kanawha River in Putnam County, 10 miles north of Charleston, WV, yet Smith's name does not appear on the rosters of the 36th Virginia.

During the next two months, no mention is made of Smith, but an affidavit by Wm. E. Feasel, dated October 7, 1861, clearly shows that Smith had not been sitting idle on the side lines. Feasel stated that a group of men from Wayne Co. VA, "have been engaged in aiding and assisting the armed Enemies of the United States and of this State, by furnishing material & information and being in arms themselves, and by armed force preventing the operation of the Civil laws in their respective counties to the terror of the Loyal inhabitants and the inaugeration of anarchy and that he verily believes they will continue to do so, unless superior force is used to restrain them in the future."

Feasel listed the following men -
"William Smith (son of Jno. N.), Wash. Adkins, David Smith, Jack Marcum, Jack. Miller, Samuel Wellman, John Plymale, Isaac E. Handley, James Stone, Calvin Fuller, R. P. Drown, Robt. H. Parks, Charles R. Parks, James V. Buskirk, Richard Apperson Fuller, Richard Johnson, Enoch Cyrus, Enoch Johnson, Marion Fuller, Micajer Parks, Franklin Downey, Samuel F. Vinson, Aly Vinson, F. M. Vinson, Joseph Parks, Hardin Scaggs, John Smith (son of Jno. N.), John W. Deskins, James Ferguson, Burwell Spurlock, Saunders Spurlock, John Ferguson (son of James), Wm. Ferguson (son of James), Perry Christian, Reuben Booten, Beverly Wilkinson, Wm. E. Wilkinson, of Wayne County."

A great number of the men mentioned served with Smith in the Fairview Rifles. Based on Feasel's statement, it stands to reason that Smith and his comrades were operating in Wayne Co. VA and vicinity, terrorizing Union supporters and seriously disrupting civil authorities in performing their duties.

On January 5, 1862, we find a possible reference to Smith and his men in a letter written by Col. James A. Garfield, commander of the Union forces in the Big Sandy Valley in Kentucky, to Capt. Bunker at Louisa, KY. "I am very much gratified with the intelligence that you have killed or disabled Smith and captured some of his associates. Send away all such men as fast as possible."

In early 1862, the Fairview Rifles became Co. K of the newly formed 8th VA Cavalry. The July 1862 Regimental Return for this company notes William S. Smith as "Detailed by Gen. Floyd". General John B. Floyd had command of the Virginia State Line, which operated mainly in western and southwestern Virginia. While on detached duty with Floyd, Smith began raising a company for Johnson's Rifle Battalion of Cavalry, which became Co. D, 2nd Battalion KY Mtd. Rifles. On August 26, 1862, the company was mustered into the service in Logan Co. VA, for three years - "paid by 'no one' and paid 'no time'".

In October 1862, Smith's company crossed the Big Sandy River into Kentucky and set up camp in Lawrence County. Before long, Smith and 17 other men of his unit were indicted by the Grand Jury of Lawrence County "in the name of the authority of the Commonwealth of Ky.", stating that Smith and his fellow comrades, "willfully & feloniously & as a part of an armed force of the so-called Confederate States, invaded the State of Kentucky, to make war upon her, against the peace + dignity of the Com"' of Kentucky." Smith remained in Lawrence County until November 1862 when his company was ordered out. According to his 2nd Sergeant Bill Wright, "We crossed Sandy at the mouth of Whites Creek. The day after we crossed we had a fight with Bob McCall. Bob fought very well but we made him trot and captured ten head of horses and accoutrements. We then went to Russell County, Virginia." On November 20, 1862, Bill Smith was elected Captain of Co. D, 2nd Battalion KY Mtd. Rifles. Thus began the long and eventful career of Captain "Rebel Bill" Smith in the Big Sandy Valley.

In February 1863, Captain "Rebel Bill" Smith and his company returned to Lawrence County, KY. On February 11th, Colonel Dils of the 39th KY Mounted Infantry [US], a newly organized regiment from the Big Sandy Valley, reported, "that the rebels were collecting a force with a view to an attack on his post at Peach Orchard, or at Louisa." On February 15, accompanied by his brother Samuel, William Holbrook, Andrew Pennington, and Lindsay Thompson, Smith proceeded to the house of John Ramey Wheeler who lived on Hood's Fork, near Blaine. Wheeler was a Union man and had a son who served in the 14th KY Infantry [US]. Here the men stole a horse, saddle & bridle & two overcoats.

John Ramey Wheeler House on Hood's Fork, near Blaine, KY

On the same day, a group of Union soldiers from the 14th KY Infantry [US] were halted by soldiers wearing U.S. uniform about 13 miles from Louisa. Much to their surprise they turned out to be Rebel Bill" Smith and his men. In this manner, Captain Smith captured and paroled two sergeants, two corporals, and 13 privates. Lieutenant Chilton Osborn, deemed too valuable to parole, was carried off as a prisoner. After receiving news of the incident at Louisa, the 10th Ky Cavalry was sent out to pursue Smith but to no avail. Noted one soldier,"they come almost in our Camp and we cant catch them."

Eventually, efforts by the Union forces at Louisa began to pay off. In March 1863, Smith's company began slowly to deteriorate, mainly because of desertions. In April 1863, Captain Smith's company took a hit when one of his Lieutenants, Jeremiah Riffe, was captured by Union soldiers and Henry and Andrew Young were killed by a Union patrol near their home in Lawrence Co. KY. This event apparently sparked more desertions.

Undaunted by these recent setbacks, Captain "Rebel Bill" Smith with a squad of men attacked the United States steamer "Transfer" about eight miles above Catlettsburg, on the Big Sandy River, on May 9, 1863. After the first volley, the crew headed her for the Kentucky side, and took up the bank as soon as she touched. Two or three of Smith's men crossed in a skiff and finding nothing on board, set the steamer on fire. Two strong detachments of Mclaughlin's Troopers were sent in pursuit of Smith. The troopers rode all night and reached Wayne Court House at daylight.

According to one of the troopers, "A short distance beyond that place the boys found what they were looking for - "Bill" Smith and his squad. But that did not seem to be the day that Smith wanted to fight. He preferred to run and he and his men put spurs to their horses and galloped away. The boys tried hard to catch him but without avail."

On August 25, 1863, Captain "Rebel Bill" Smith, with abt. 100 men, conducted a raid through Wayne Co. VA and stole all the horses they were able to find. On Dec. 1, 1863, Jefferson Gilkerson,a furloughed Union soldier, was killed from ambush by some of "Rebel Bill" Smith's men near the mouth of Elijah's Creek, Butler District, Wayne Co. WV. This location is near modern day Prichard.

Nothing else was heard from "Rebel Bill" and his men in 1863. It appears that he moved his unit from Eastern Kentucky, possibly into winter quarters. His absence from the Big Sandy Valley gave the Union forces as well as the civilian population a reprise from his activities. By February 29, 1864, Co. D, 2nd Battalion KY Mtd. Rifles was stationed at Camp Turkey Cove, near Dalton, GA.

During the summer of 1864, Captain "Rebel Bill" Smith and his company made a full comeback. In July of 1864, he made headlines once again when he captured the steamboat "Swan" and sank 3 hay boats on the Big Sandy River. The supplies on the boats were destined for the Union forces stationed in the Big Sandy Valley.

On Aug. 23, 1864, a "roving band of guerrillas" under the command of "Rebel Bill" Smith stopped at the home of 67 year old pioneer settler Jonathan Cooksey who lived in the Catt Fork area of Lawrence County. Cooksey, who had a son in the 14th KY Infantry [US], was accused of giving information to Union authorities about Smith's activities, and was killed accordingly. After their visit to Lawrence County, KY, "Rebel Bill Smith" was back in Wayne Co. Va and reportedly, "giving much trouble."

On the night of September 15, 1864, Captain "Rebel Bill Smith", with 110 men, surrounded Capt. Ben Hailey who who was stationed with his company of Independent Scouts at Ceredo. According to Hailey, he, along with 7 of his men, were captured, together with nine citizens, "whom I had cald in and armed to assist us in case we should be attacted we were all gobbled up with our arms and acouterments..." Next, Smith's men robbed the Post Office of stamps and stationary and $40. The citizens were relieved of all their horses and approximately $700. "Rebel Bill" and his men left in direction of Wayne Court House, "robbing citizens of their horses and other property".

In November 1864, "Rebel Bill" Smith's men combined forces with Vincent "Clawhammer" Witcher's men of the 34th Battalion VA Cavalry and entered Lawrence Co. KY from Wayne Co. VA. On November 4, 1864, Smith and Witcher raided Peach Orchard. They also burned the steamboats "Fawn" and "Barnum" near the forks of the Big Sandy River.

After the Peach Orchard raid, the Charleston Gazette ran an article on November 9, 1864, hailing Col. Bill Smith as the supreme commander in Wayne and Cabell counties. Smith soon left the Big Sandy Valley and set up headquarters at Abingdon, Virginia. On December 24, 1864, Smith came to a surprising decision. He resigned his commission as Captain of Co. D, 2nd KY Mounted Rifles, "by reason of being in command of a Battalion recently raised on the border of N. W. Va in the Counties of Wayne, Logan, &c."

Smith's resignation was active January 7, 1865 - by February, 1865, his presence was once again felt in the Big Sandy Valley. On February 14, 1865, "Rebel Bill" Smith went to Ceredo with 35 men and surrounded the house of Jesse Craig "Jack" Middaugh who was suspected of being a Union spy. During the fight that ensued, Middaugh was killed and his wife was wounded. "Rebel Bill" then ordered the house burned. The Charleston Journal later reported that the citizens of Ceredo were "awed into a painful condition of fear and dread. Nearly all the truly loyal and best men have left, under the belief that any of them may be the next victims of Bill Smith's barbary, as it is understood he has threatened that others must share a similar fate...Bill Smith has frequently claimed, I am told, that he is slandered by his enemies; that he is not cruel and revengeful, and not dishonorable. But turning a woman half-dressed out of her house to burn it, and refusing to permit her to save even her clothing, and she wounded, is very much like the atrocities by the Indians in the early times, and characterized as savage cruelty."

Less than a week later, "Rebel Bill" Smith's men under command of Lt. Wilkinson, appeared at the house of R. A. Fuller, a former member and scout of the 5th Va. Infantry [US], at Round Bottom, Wayne Co. WV. The design was, undoubtedly, to surprise Fuller in the same manner as Middaugh but this time, the intended victim was well prepared. Fuller not only survived but, with the help of two of his comrades, fought off his attackers, and captured two prisoners, four horses and three revolvers.

John Johnson, a member of the 54th KY Mtd. Infantry, who had been captured during the Saltville Raid in December 1864, made the acquaintance of Smith while a prisoner. Johnson managed to escape and returned to his home in Catlettsburg in February 1865, when "Bill Smith came with his rebel bushwackers, where he was compelled to leave his home to save his life, coming into Ohio, where he remained ..." He did not go back to Kentucky, "on account of rebel bushwackers while the war lasted."

On March 5, 1865, Major Edgar B. Blundon, who commanded a detachment of the 7th WV Cavalry, reported from Gyandotte, WV, that, "There is but one organized band of guerrillas, consisting of Bill Smith and fifteen or twenty men, in Wayne or Logan Counties, and no organization in Mason, Cabell, or Putnam. The depredations committed by them are comparatively few contrasted with the past. No boats, either steam or trading boats, have been interfered with, nor has navigation been stopped for a moment on account of guerrillas." Blundon noted that his unit had been, "very successful in capturing all the notorious rebels in this country except Smith, and we are sanguine that we shall soon rid the country of him and squad."

Apparently, Major Blundon's unit was successful in subduing "Rebel Bill" Smith's activities. In August 1865, he was finally captured by Union soldiers from Louisa, KY, at his home in Wayne Co. VA where he went, "after skulking around his home in the woods for five months, hiding out", and taken to Lexington, KY. A Ceredo citizen commented that Smith "pretends to believe that 'nothing will be done' with him, and that he will return home again. Who ever heard of one of this kind of criminals who did not claim he had always been honorable, and strictly observed the rules of honorable warfare?"

It is unclear whether "Rebel Bill" Smith ever had to answer to any charges of crimes committed during the Civil War. At any rate, Smith was back in Wayne Co. WV by 1866. Much had changed since the end of the Civil War. The old family homestead was gone - Smith's father had sold it, possibly upon the death of his wife, to Col. Milton J. Ferguson, their former neighbor and good family friend. Union men were fast gaining control in political matters but there still existed irregular bands of marauders that kept the population in fear. According to unconfirmed stories, Smith, with a few men, attacked the Wayne County Courthouse in order to free some of Smith's men from the jail.

We catch one last fleeting glimpse of "Rebel Bill" in a letter to WV governor Boreman, dated July 15, 1868, stating that the "notorious Bill Smith" and about 100 "bad men had designed to clean the county of all who would be likely to oppose them or detect their operations in stealing horses."

"Rebel Bill" Smith's father died in 1869 and by 1870, he had settled across the Big Sandy River, in Louisa, Lawrence County, KY. Ironically, his next door neighbor was Captain Thomas D. Marcum, formerly of the 14th KY Infantry [US].
By 1880, Smith and his wife Serilda were living with Waren C. Hall at the Falls of Blaine.

Captain Rebel Bill Smith spent his last days at the Confederate Veterans Home, at Pewee Valley in Oldham County, KY. Taking a leave of absence, with the intention of re-visiting the "old scenes along the Big Sandy River", he traveled to Huntington, WV. According to the Huntington, WV, Advertizer, dated April 6, 1903, Smith was, "now old and broken, and but a shadow of the former man." On April 11, 1903, Smith took a trip on a flat boat, renewing old acquaintances and visiting scenes of his exploits. While on the boat he was drenched by a hard rain, caught a severe cold and developed pneumonia. He was taken to the home of his brother-in-law Major C. E. Prichard, on 8th Street in Huntington, where he died. The Huntington Advertizer noted, "old warrior fights his last battle. Surviving shot and shell of the Civil War, surrender to pneumonia. "Rebel Bill" Smith died near midnight April 11, 1903, a guerrilla warrior in the Civil War, who survived bullets that pierced his body, died of pneumonia."

Burial took place in the Confederate section of Spring Hill Cemetery in Huntington, WV. His grave marker is simply engraved as follows - William S. Smith, Co. K, 8th Va. Cav. "Rebel Bill"


Article researched and written by Marlitta H. Perkins, July 2010

2 comments:

  1. Hi Marlitta,

    I have been doing some research on my family history, the Isaacs of Wayne county, WV. Recently, I found some information that one of my Great Uncles may have served in Co. E. 13th KY Cavalry, CSA. I don't know if that was true or not. His name was Jonathan Isaacs from Letcher County, KY his younger brother-my ancestor-was Samuel Isaacs.

    After reading your article, I noticed a lot of the family names mention in Wayne county associated with Rebel Bill matched ancestors in my family history or were their neighbors.

    I've been trying to find out the family history for my Great Grandmother Sarah Isaacs. All I know is that her Mother was Polly Lycans a descendant of Rev. Goodwin Lycans. The first Baptist preacher in Wayne county. But her father's name was Criton Smith according to the death certificate. I don't know if his name is spelled correctly, because I've noticed the names given on death certificates are not so accurate.

    Do you think Criton Smith may have been a relative of Rebel Bill? I've noticed that a lot of these people are related to each other in Wayne county, WV. Plus, I'm trying to find out why the Isaacs moved to Wayne county from Floyd/Letcher county KY post Civil War? I thought it might be tied to a blood feud but after reading your article I think there was something going on between the Isaacs and Smiths. Any feedback would be useful. I look forward to reading more of your articles.

    Best Regards,

    Neil Isaac Dingman

    neil.digman@usa.net

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  2. Thank you so much for this article! According to family story, my great-great-grandfather Jesse Stith was the co-owner of either the "Fawn" or the "Barnum," that Bill Smith's group burned. There is a historical plaque in Louisa recording that event.

    After the war ended, my family headed to Minnesota to try their luck at homesteading. But when my great-grandfather Oliver Stith got into trouble as a teenager, he came back to the Big Sandy Valley and worked on riverboats again, as an entertainer.

    John Stith
    john.stith@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete