William Smith was born in King George County, Virginia. Arriving in Culpeper in 1818 as a young lawyer, the married Elizabeth Bell, the eldest daughter of a Culpeper merchant, and they had 11 children (4 died in infancy). In 1825, Smith built his home on this very block—a stately white classical revival mansion with 20 foot columns on the front. Later demolished around 1930, the Culpeper Post Office was built on this site in 1932. The former Post Office building is used today as offices by Culpeper County.
In 1827, Mr. Smith obtained the contract to carry mail and passengers from Washington D.C. to and from Warrenton, and later Culpeper. Helped by his support of Andrew Jackson, his rout was eventually extended to cover the area from Alexandria/Washington to Milledgeville, Georgia (then Georgia's capital), a 650-mile route. Smith extended it with numerous spur routes, all generating extra fees. Passengers were sometimes even charged extra for carrying packages on their laps. During an investigation of the Post Office department, Smith's extra fees were publicized and he earned the nicknames "Surplus William" and "Extra Billy"—and the latter stuck.
"Extra Billy" began his political career in 1836 serving in the Virginia State Senate, followed by the House of Representatives. In 1846, he was elected Governor. During his term, he pushed hard for public schools, improved Capitol Square and the Governor's Mansion, worked for a railroad from the coast to the Shenandoah Valley, and saw that Virginia provided 1300 officers and men to fight in the Mexican War.
In 1849, after serving as Governor and needing to replenish his personal finances, Smith followed two of his sons to California for the Gold Rush. There, he invested in real estate, participated in California politics, and returned to Virginia a wealthy man. From 1853 to 1861 he served in the House of Representatives until Virginia seceded from the Union.
Smith then volunteered for the Confederate Army and served as Colonel and later Brigadier General. Having no formal military training, he preferred common sense over the formal tactics of a military education. He also distinguished himself with his unorthodox field uniform. During the Battle of First Manassas, when his uniform was not yet ready, he famously led a mounted charge in a "business suit, tall beaver hat, and holding a blue cotton umbrella in the hot sun. During the Battle of Gettysburg, Smith refused to pursue retreating Union troops, concerned that a Union force was approaching from his left. As a result, the Confederates failed to attack and take Cemetery Hill on July 1, 1863.
Smith served as Governor again from 1864 to the end of the war, when he returned to "Monterosa", his estate near Warrenton, Virginia, and engaged in agricultural pursuits. At the age of eighty, he became a member of the Virginia House of Delegates (1877-79). He died in Warrenton in 1887, and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. He is one of only two Governors of Virginia with an individual statue on Virginia Capitol grounds.