Biography of William O. Smith

William O. Smith. For more than half a century a resident of Champaign County, William O. Smith is known to the people of this section as a man who did his brave and efficient duty in the Civil W T ar, as an active and industrious farmer, and as one who in all the relations of a long and busy life has lived up to the best standards of citizenship. He is also known through his children, a number of whom now occupy worthy and honorable places in community affairs.

Mr. Smith was born at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, January 5, 1839, a son of S. B. and Mary Ellen (Sheperd) Smith. His father’s native home was near Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. William O. Smith was one of a family of five sons and two daughters. In 1846, when he was seven years of age, the family removed to Sangamon County, Illinois, and rented a house in Sheldon’s Row in the city of Springfield. For two years they had the distinction of living in the same house with Abraham Lincoln and his wife. The house was a double apartment, the Smiths occupying one side and the Lincolns the other. S. B. Smith served eighteen years as justice of the peace in Sangamon County.

Mr. W. O. Smith as a boy attended the Lake Creek District School in Sangamon County. After leaving the common schools and working for a year he realized the need of more education and saved and earned the money necessary to give him a course in the Springfield High School.

While in high school he was invited to join a debating club. The rules of the club were that members should be called upon for extempore speeches, limited to fifteen minutes on any given topic. Failure to make a speech made the member subject to a forfeit or fine of twenty-five cents.

When young Smith was first called upon for such an ordeal the chairman reached in a box, as was the custom, drew out a subject for the speech and handed it to the young man. Much to his suprise the slip contained the one word, soap. That was a test of quick thinking and ready wit. Another factor was that young Smith was not troubled with many quarter dollars in those days, and he promptly waded into his subject. He elucidated every phase and fact concerning soap, and much to the amusement and delight of the audience. Finally the time was up and the president had to ring him down. About sixty-five years later Mr. Smith met in Springfield one of his old schoolmates, who after mutual greeting laughingly asked “Smith, how is soap in Champaign County?”

Mr. Smith was a young man of twenty-two when the war cloud broke and deluged the country with hostilities. Filled with enthusiasm, he enlisted in his country’s service at Springfield in 1861 and became a member of Company I, Twenty-ninth Illinois Infantry. This regiment it has been frequently said was the regiment that “put down the rebellion.” He signed his enlistment papers August 7, 1861, at one o’clock in the afternoon. He immediately went home and bid his mother goodbye and next morning ate his breakfast at Cairo, Illinois. For nearly three years of his service Mr. Smith was employed as a United States scout. He was in many of the principal engagements, including Fort Donaldson and Fort Heniy, Pittsburg Landing or Shiloh, Black River, and many other scenes of carnage and bloodshed that have never effaced themselves from his memory. Even yet he shrinks from talking about the terrific side of war. It is only such men who can completely realize the tremendous sacrifices that were made in making this country a free and united people. He became a corporal in his company and was subsequently promoted to the post of deputy to a general. Finally General Grant took him to his headquarters and employed him there for two years. Some years later, when General Grant was in his second term as president, Mr. Smith visited Washington. Desiring to see his old general he presented himself at the door of the White House. The soldier on guard asked him to ‘ present his card. This Illinois veteran was not prepared with visiting cards and consequently was told that the President could not see him. It chanced that the President was close by, and recognizing the voice of the old soldier called him in and gave him his warm and characteristically kind greeting. They spent some time talking over old days in the army.

Mr. Smith was one time taken prisoner but was paroled. Eleven days after the expiration of his term of enlistment he was mustered out at Natchez, Mississippi, and received his honorable discharge at Springfield August 27, 1864. He was under Capt. Samuel H. Russell, the brave soldier who subsequently accompanied General Custer on the expedition against the Indians in the Northwest and fell another victim to the frenzy of the red men under Sitting Bull in the massacre of 1876.

After the war Mr. Smith engaged in farming in Champaign County and in 1865, at Mahomet, married Miss Louzsa Rea. Five children were born to them: Ida Lillian, Grace Eleanor, Jessie R., William O., Jr., Mary Ellen. These children were well educated in the Ludlow schools and the Paxton schools. W. O. Jr., after his education in these institutions studied law at Normal University three years, graduated, and has since practiced as a successful young attorney. He married Martha Whitcome and has one child, Raymond. The daughter Ida married Charles Hammerlin, and their children are Charles, Lew, Vera, Myrtle, Chester, Dewey, Rex and Clara. Grace E. is the wife of Charles Coon. Their children are Flossie, Bede, Carl, Lois, Lillian, Glen, Jay, Marian and June. Jessie R. is the wife of Charles S. Wallace. Mr. Smith now makes his home with this daughter, Mrs. Jessie Wallace, at Champaign. By a former marriage Mrs. Wallace has one daughter, Lou Iris, who married T. H. Doty, and they have one child, Robert Hurrel Doty. This great-grandchild, a great comfort and the pride of his great-grandfather, was born November 17, 1913. The daughter Mary E. married William Clark, and their children are William, Robert, Laurel, Evelyn, Richard and Opal. The Clark family reside in Urbana.

After a happy home life of nearly a half a century Mr. Smith’s companionship with his beloved sharer of joys and sorrows was terminated in the death of Mrs. Smith on March 30, 1914. She was a loving mother and true and noble wife. Mr. Smith is a kind hearted and most hospitable man, and his long experience has made him the delightful companion of both old and young. One of his aims has been to make a new friend each day, and his motto, oft repeated and a constant abiding principle with him is “he who is armed with right is thrice doubly armed and need have no fear.”


Stewart, J. R. A Standard History of Champaign County Illinois. The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago and New York. 1918.

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