Bill Arp was the pen name of Charles Henry Smith (1826 - 1903). A long time writer for The Atlanta Constitution, he made a name for himself as a humorist shortly after the South left the Union when he wrote the first of the satirical letters from a supposed, simple Georgia cracker named Bill Arp that he was to write for forty-two years. The great popularity of his Bill Arp letters caused him to emerge from the war as "a Southern institution, a kind of national jester for the Confederacy."
Bill Arp came into being because Smith thought that the proclamation Abraham Lincoln issued after the surrender of Fort Sumter was "very absurd and ridiculous." To vent his feelings, he wrote a satiric response to Lincoln in the form of a supposedly friendly letter of well meaning advice from a semi-literate backwoodsman. Among the listeners when he read this letter from the steps of the courthouse in Rome, Georgia was a man named Bill Arp. Because he agreed with the sentiments expressed in the letter, Arp asked Smith to put his name on it if he had it published. When it was published, the author's name was said to be Bill Arp. Like Joel Chandler Harris and other humorists in this period, Smith wrote in dialect. Later he abandoned this style. The last Bill Arp letter appeared in the Constitution on August 9, 1903. Smith died on August 24.
Shortly after the war he published his wartime Bill Arp letters in a book entitled Bill Arp, So Called: A Side Show of the Southern Side of the War. The Metropolitan Record, a Democratic newspaper in New York, quickly sold a thousand copies of this book. As a second printing was being readied, a mob of Republicans broke up the editor's office. Other collections of his letters were published as Bill Arp's Peace Papers (1873), Bill Arp's Scrap Book (1884), The Farm and the Fireside (1891), and Bill Arp: From the Uncivil War to Date (1903). As the title of the third of these indicates, in his later years his letters lost their earlier fire and brimstone as he turned to writing about his boyhood, his farm, and his family and friends. In 1893, this school teacher's son published A School History of Georgia: Georgia as a Colony and a State, 1733-1893 that was used in Georgia schools.
Smith was born in Lawrenceville, Georgia on June 15 to Asahel Reed Smith, a merchant born in Vermont who had taught school Massachusetts before moving to Georgia, and Caroline Ann Maguire, the daughter of an immigrant Irish linen merchant who had been one of her husband's students at a Savannah academy. One of ten children, Smith attended the Lawrenceville Academy and the Gwinnett County Manual Labor Institute that his father had helped found where he worked to pay his board. In 1844, he enrolled at Franklin College (now the University of Georgia). He left college a few months short of graduating to help his ailing father run his store. In 1849, he married Mary Octavia Hutchins, the daughter of a judge who owned a plantation on the upper Chattahoochee River worked by over 100 slaves. Mary Octavia, who outlived her husband, gave him ten children. The Smiths resided in Rome from 1851 to 1877 and in Cartersville until 1903.
After leaving college, where he had been a member of the literary and debating society and organized and edited a college newspaper, Smith worked in his father's store. After his father-in-law talked him into studying law, he passed the bar and began the practice of law in Lawrenceville. In 1850, he combined his practice with that of his father-in-law. He continued to practice law after moving to Rome.
Smith was a devoted Confederate. In 1860, he served on a committee of Rome citizens that passed a resolution of nonintercourse with the North. This, Smith said, was "the surest plan to bring the Northern fanatics to their senses." In 1861, he was appointed to General Francis Barrow's brigade. After Barrow was killed, Smith was transferred to General George Thomas "Tige" Anderson's brigade.
Upon entering General Robert E. Lee's tent one day, he found an exhausted General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson asleep under a table. "Reverently," he said, "I gazed upon him for a minute, for I felt almost like I was in the presence of some divinity. What a scene for a painter was that--the two greatest generals of the army, yes, of the age, together; one asleep on the straw, worn out with fatigue and excitement, the camp tables set above him; while the other, with his staff, dined in silence over him and watched his needed rest."
Sent home in 1863 on a medical discharge, he was a member of the home guard until the end of the war. When General Nathan Bedford Forrest saved Rome from federal troops by tricking them into surrendering, Smith and others organized a celebration in his honor. During the war Smith served briefly as an editor for an Atlanta newspaper, the Southern Confederacy.
When General Sherman's troops approached Rome the Smiths fled, first to Atlanta, then to Alabama, and finally to the home of his wife's parents, the Hutchins. When Yankee soldiers stole the Smith party's mules and horses, Smith and another man armed themselves and stole them back. Appointed by Confederate President Jefferson Davis to a special court to try Southerners accused of treason, Smith left his family at the Hutchins" plantation and went to Macon where this court met. In the Smith's absence from Rome, several Union generals, including Sherman, used their home, Rose Hill, as their headquarters. When the Smiths returned, they found their home had been sacked and gutted. The Reconstruction years were rough financially and otherwise for the Smiths.
Probably Bill Arp's view expressed after the war reflected his creator's:
But I'm a good Union man, so-called. I ain't agwine to fight no more, I shan't vote for the next war. I ain't no gurilla. I've done tuk the oath, and I'm gwine to keep it, but as for my being subjugated, and humilyated, and amalgamated, and enervated, as Mr. Chase says, it ain't so--nary time. I ain't ashamed of nuthin neither--ain't repentin--ain't axin for no one-horse, short-winded pardon. Nobody needn't be playin priest around me. I ain't got no twenty thousand dollars. Wish I had; I'd give it to those poor widders and orfins. I'd fatten my own numerous and interestin offspring in about two minits and a half. They shouldn't eat roots and drink branch-water no longer. Poor, unfortunate things! to cum into this subloonary world at sich a time. There's four of five of 'em that never saw a sirkis nor a monkey-show--never had a pocket-knife, nor a piece of cheese, nor a resin.
In 1865, Smith was elected to the Georgia State Senate. While serving in the Senate he wrote a Bill Arp letter in which he said: "My friends, our aim has onestly been to git you all back into the Union....Up to this time it have been an uphill business. The teem was a good one, and the gear all sound, and the waggin greased, but the rode is perhaps the ruffest in the world." In 1867, he was elected mayor of Rome. In addition to practicing law, he was briefly on the staff of the Rome Courier. Then, for a short while, he edited a competing newspaper, the Rome Commercial. From 1873 to 1874 Smith served as an alderman.
Although it helps to know what greenbacks were and what mackadamizing a road means, what he wrote about politicians in 1874 can still be appreciated by everybody today.
We are going to give protection to the manufacturers and free trade to the consumers. We are going to buy the farmers' corn at a dollar a bushel, and sell it to the poor for twenty-five cents. We are going to issue ten thousand millions of greenbacks so that everybody can have a hat full, and then we will build railroads to every town and open all the creeks and mackadamize all the roads, and give all soldiers and widows and orphans pensions, and have a general jubilee all over the country.
In 1877, the Smiths moved to a farm near Cartersville that they called Fountainbleu. About his farm, as Bill Arp he wrote, "If I depended on my farm for support, we wouldent exactly perish, but we would get awfully hungry sometimes." He supplemented his income from the farm with five dollars a week he earned writing weekly Bill Arp letters for the Constitution, whose editor, Henry W. Grady, had met Smith when Grady edited the Rome Commercial. Grady said that he doubted "if any papers ever produced a more thorough sensation than did the letters written by Major Smith during the war." When he died, Smith had contributed 1,250 pieces to the Constitution, many of which were reprinted by as many as 700 newspapers, including ones in Chicago, Detroit, New York, and San Francisco. In 1878, Smith began a career as a part time lecturer that he continued throughout the rest of his life.
In 1887, after all their children left home, the Smiths moved to a house on Erwin Street in Cartersville that they named The Shadows. There he served on the school board. One of he gifts the Smiths received on their fiftieth wedding anniversary was a cake cuter from Joel Chandler Harris inscribed "To Bill Arp from Uncle Remus."
The great popularity of Smith's writing led to three Georgia communities being named Bill Arp. Today one remains in Douglas County a few miles from Douglasville. Cartersville's stores were closed for Smith's funeral at the Presbyterian Church. His friend, Sam Jones, the famed Cartersville evangelist, conducted the service. "Though," Jones said, "we buried today Major Smith, 'Bill Arp' [will] live through future generations." One of Smith's granddaughters, who died on the day of his funeral, was placed in the grave with him.
Over time the style of humor changes dramatically. To be appreciated, satire requires that its readers be familiar with the culture that produced it. Many of Smith's views are today considered offensive. As a result, Smith's work has not lived through future generations.
Copyright: 2001, Carole E. Scott
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