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Chatham: Virginia's Capital for A Day

By Herman E. Melton
Gov. Extra Billy Smith

Major General William “Extra Billy” Smith, C.S.A., served as Virginia's governor 1864–1865.

William (“Extra Billy”) Smith, Governor of Virginia, was in church on Sunday morning, April 2, when C.S.A. President Jefferson Davis received General Lee's notification that Petersburg had fallen and it would be necessary to abandon the Capital at Richmond. Lee's exhausted and starving troops headed west for an appointment with fate at Appomattox.

Extra Billy Smith did not have to be told that it would be necessary to move the state government from Richmond as well. As Davis fled west to Danville, Smith, his son and aide P. Bell Smith, and a servant mounted horses and headed for Lynchburg. Finding no promise of security there, he and his companions galloped south to Danville to join Jefferson Davis with the idea of setting up a state government there. The governor arrived in Danville on the afternoon of April 10 and was greeted with word of Lee's surrender. Without even changing clothes, he hurried to the Sutherlin mansion only to find the president and the members of his cabinet furiously packing for a hasty exit by train to Greensboro. Davis offered the beseiged governor no consolation. He had troubles enough of his own and Smith was left to his own devices.

The doughty ex-General Smith had earned his nickname by being willing to take on extra duties and carry extra loads while serving as a mail carrier. He was willing to take on a staggering new load, was unwilling to accept defeat and therefore resolved to continue the struggle. Earlier, during the crisis, he had written Jefferson Davis to request that control of all Confederate forces in Virginia be placed in his hands. Davis refused of course.

Despite the sorrowful news from Appomattox, the redoubtable Smith stood his ground. He set up his headquarters at the home of the prominent William Keen (great-uncle of Lady Astor) but moved them later to the home of W.T. Clark at the corner of Main and Ridge Streets. He even issued a proclamation to the people of Virginia before the news of Lincoln's assassination arrived on April 15. This portended tough times ahead. Moreover, when Danville's mayor and town officials agreed to meet Federal military authorities, it became obvious that the “jig was up” for Smith.

Still vowing to continue the struggle, Extra Billy closed his Danville headquarters and headed for nearby Competition (later to be more appropriately named Chatham) where a military escort awaited.

In consequence thereof, a good argument could be made that since the Virginia state government was a “floating” one, the Chief Executive's presence in present-day Chatham made it, for a moment, the ad hoc capital of Virginia. After all, the city of Danville has made this same claim all these years. No details concerning the length of his stay in Competition is extant, but after leaving there, he resorted to guerrilla warfare and set out to raise an army.

It was predictable that his activities would provoke the officials in the occupying Union Army and not surprising that they offered a $25,000 reward for his scalp. Finally, even Extra Billy could see that the vast majority of Virginians were weary of war and saw no benefit in continuing the carnage. He finally sensed that they were ready to submit to the Union authority, a development that left him out of the mainstream. On June 13, the rebellious governor turned himself in at Richmond and agreed to turn over title of all state property to the new Federally appointed governor — Francis Pierpont. Smith then petitioned for a pardon, which was granted, and took the oath of loyalty to the U.S.

Except for his later opposition to suffrage for ex-slaves and a term in the General Assembly, the remainder of the life of one of Virginia's most colorful governors was largely uneventful.

Finally, if you were (a) born in Chatham, (b) are a newcomer who loves it, or (c) an incurable romantic, you can be proud that Governor Extra Billy Smith made present-day Chatham the state capital for a few hours on April 15, 1865.


Herman Melton's online articles are posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.