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Our History: Who the Heck Was Bill Arp?

Here's a little about the man behind the community.

Editor's note: Lisa Cooper's newest work can be found at douglascountyhistory.blogspot.com.

The Bill Arp community can be found five miles south of Douglasville along State Route 5 or Bill Arp Road per the street signs. There is a school and a park by the same name. Fannie Mae Davis’ history of Douglas County states, “No one is sure how the community came to be known as Bill Arp. The best guess is that many of the residents there in the 1880s and 1890s were subscribers to the weekly papers and the Atlanta Constitution, which published [pieces written by Bill Arp] for about 25 years, and in some manner the name came to be associated with the place.”

So the question has to be asked–who the heck is Bill Arp?

Do a little digging and the name Charles Henry Smith keeps popping up. 

During the Civil War and in the following years until 1903 he was one of the most famous writers in the South. He wrote popular pieces from the battlefields. He had a popular column for more than 40 years, wrote books and lectured. He also served as a Rome city mayor, alderman and in the Georgia Senate.

Charles Henry Smith was born in Lawrenceville, and eventually attended the University of Georgia back in the day when it was known as Franklin College. He returned home to help his ailing father and later studied law with his father-in-law. He practiced in Lawrenceville for a time before moving to Rome, Georgia where he continued his law career and added politics to his activities.

During the 1850s while he lived in Rome, Smith inhabited the home we remember as Oak Hill. Today the estate is part of the campus of Berry College. When the Smith family lived there the home was a smaller Victorian-style farmhouse. The Greek-revival mansion located on the grounds today was built following a fire in 1884 by Thomas Berry.

Smith was a Confederate and served on the committee in Rome that passed a resolution of non-intercourse with the North which was basically a call for a trade embargo. He served with the Eighth Georgia Voluntary Infantry also known as the Rome Light Guards with the rank of major. The soldiers from Rome saw action at battles such as First and Second Manassas, Gettysburg and Chickamauga as well as several others. It’s no surprise that Smith volunteered for the army considering his own father was from Massachusetts and had seen action at Lexington during the American Revolution.

Smith wrote his first piece as the Rome Light Guards were assembling and preparing to depart for Virginia following the surrender of Ft. Sumter in April, 1861. Literary critics agree there were many writers during Smith’s time who were far superior writers, but Smith gained popularity because he spoke to the average person and his Civil War pieces utilized the Cracker dialect mixed with humor. His first piece was a satire addressed to President Lincoln titled Mr. Lincoln, Sir responding to the President’s pleas to Southerners they should just stand down and go home following the events at Ft. Sumter.  Smith wrote, “I tried my damd’st  yesterday to disperse and retire, but it was a no go.”

Smith read the piece aloud to a crowd who had assembled. When he finished he asked them how he should sign the response to Lincoln.  A man in the crowd–an everyday simple man- told Smith he agreed completely with everything he had written. He directed Charles Henry Smith, “Sign my name!”    

What was the common citizen of Rome’s name? Why, Bill Arp, of course! From that moment, Smith used the name Bill Arp as his non de plume or pen name for all of his writing. As a politician Smith had to weigh his words carefully. As Bill Arp he could use harsher language and be freer with his personal opinions. The people loved it!

The Lincoln piece became very popular and Bill Arp became a well known Southern voice during the war. Smith’s wartime writing numbered at least 30 pieces where he attacked the Union for their policies and served to inspire the Confederates. He brought the war to the people in a way they could understand, feel and respond to.

An article that shares this statement written by Smith: “Upon entering 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, I felt almost like I was in the presence of some divinity. What a scene 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.”

This site explains how Smith’s family like many families who lived in North Georgia fled Sherman’s advancing armies as they entered Georgia. The Smith family fled first to Atlanta, then to Alabama, and finally to the home of his wife’s parents. In his writings Smith referred to his family as “runagees” instead of “refugees” giving a hint at the Irish humor Smith had inherited from his mother. Smith’s home in Rome, Rose Hill, was used by Union men as a headquarters location. The officers allowed their men to sack and gut the house when they moved on, but Smith kept his sense of humor.

After the war Smith lived in Cartersville on a farm his family named Fountainbleu and landed a weekly column with the Atlanta Constitution, but he left most of the Cracker dialect behind. His writing still spoke to the average man, however, his pieces focused on home, rural life, Georgia’s average citizens, and youthful memories. Smith gained much notoriety as his writing was printed and republished in papers far and wide including those published in northern cities.

Once the war was over Smith was ready to put the talk of the war and the Confederacy behind him. Like many Southerners he embraced the ideals of Henry W. Grady’s New South, but sometimes his message was a bit muddled.  An article in the New Georgia Encyclopedia states, “The message of Arp’s Constitution columns was ambiguous. On one hand he promoted the economic growth of Henry W. Grady’s New South program; on the other hand he criticized many aspects of New South society, and one can read his homely philosophy as implicit criticism of the new age. Perhaps this explains his popularity; he reflected the ambiguous feelings of many other New Southerners.”

His popularity and demand for speaking engagements cannot be denied. From 1870-1895, Smith penned five books and lectured extensively.

Right after the war he published some of this wartime writings in a book titled Bill Arp, So Called: A Side Show of the Southern Side of the War. This website states, “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.” Charles Henry Smith also wrote a history textbook under the name Bill Arp titled, A School History of Georgia as a Colony and a State, 1733-1893 that was used in Georgia schools, and the full text of his From the Uncivil War to Date: 1826-1903 can be found here for you to read.

He wrote his last column for the Atlanta Constitution on Aug. 9, 1903 and died   Aug. 24. He’s buried in Cartersville. Tragically one of his granddaughters died the same day as his funeral and was buried along with Smith in his coffin. You can view his burial spot here.

Amazingly, there is no record Charles Henry Smith aka Bill Arp ever visited the Douglas County community named for him.

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