As the newly elected Governor-in-absentia of Virginia, he was nicknamed “Extra Billy” for his ability to charge extra for services he performed as manager of a mail service. At age sixty-six, he was the oldest Confederate officer on the field, old enough to be the grandfather of those he led. He spared no verbal expense in his conspicuous contempt for “West P’inters,” declaring that common sense was more important than a military education at West Point.
Ironically, he was not very competent as a commander. His claim of seeing an enemy presence that never materialized prevented his fellow generals from taking initiatives that could have changed the outcome of the fight. Instead, they waited for an enemy that never came. Smith’s lack of common sense, or perhaps poor eyesight, may have prevented the South from winning the battle of Gettysburg. He left the army soon after the battle, and six months later he returned to his office as Governor of Virginia.
An incident before the battle illustrated Smith’s approach to difficult circumstances and remarkable timing. Having a flare for public speaking, he could not resist the urge to speak from atop his horse to people in the street whose spirits he thought needed lifting. In enemy territory, addressing mostly women whose men were fighting to ensure that the southern states come back into the Union, he asked, “My friends, how do you like this way of [the South] coming back into the Union?…I have been in favor of it for a long time!… We are behaving ourselves like Christian gentlemen, which we are.”
Upon witnessing this spectacle, his commander scolded Extra Billy for causing a traffic jam. True to form Smith responded by saying that he was just “having a little fun, which is good for everybody.” It is not known if his humor insulted some of his listeners or inflamed their resentment of the Confederacy. In either case, he led people to a lighter moment in a harmless sideshow of the battle.
Smith knew not to take his circumstances too seriously, and to create a light moment when opportunity presented itself. Instead of allowing yourself to be caught up in negative emotions, have a little fun! Humor is what greases the emotional skids of a pressuring situation. It relieves the tension, soothes the pain, and lessens the stress. It is the great equalizer of perspectives.
Recheck your own claims.
When you observe what appears to be a negative situation, double-check your assessment. A misinterpretation will influence you to make a wrong decision. If you do what Smith did, making an observation without checking its veracity, the judgment you make can be disastrous to everyone’s interests.