Smith, William Ruthven (1868–1941)

By: Lonnie J. White

Type: Biography

Published: June 1, 1995

Updated: July 30, 2020

William Ruthven Smith, commanding general of the Thirty-sixth Infantry Division overseas in World War I, was born in Nashville, Tennessee, on April 2, 1868, to Robert McPhail and Lititia (Trimble) Smith. He attended Vanderbilt University and was commissioned in the artillery upon his graduation from West Point in 1892. He married Mary Davis on December 4, 1901; they had two children. Smith taught at West Point, was assistant chief of coast artillery from 1911 to 1914, and served as a departmental director in the coast artillery school at Fort Monroe, Virginia. During the wartime expansion of 1917 he was appointed brigadier general in the United States Army and given command of the Sixty-second Field Artillery Brigade, Thirty-seventh (Ohio) Division, at Camp Sheridan, Alabama. Smith received his second star on June 26, 1918, and assumed command of the Thirty-sixth Division at New York, the port of embarkation, on July 13. At Bar-sur-Aube, France, he put the division through a rigorous precombat training course. Early in October 1918 the Thirty-sixth joined the Second Division at the front, after the Second had suffered severe casualties, and the two divisions spearheaded the French drive in Champagne. The Thirty-sixth drove the Germans from St. Étienne to the Aisne River. On October 27, in one of the most brilliant operations of the war, the Thirty-sixth dislodged the Germans from their position at Forest Farm. Smith's leadership won him four decorations, as well as the esteem of his troops and the people of Texas and Oklahoma. After the armistice Smith led the Thirty-sixth to the Tonnerre area to await transportation home. To his credit, troop morale continued relatively high. His association with the Thirty-sixth ended at the Camp Bowie (Tarrant County), Texas, demobilization center in June 1919. Smith remained in the service in his permanent rank of colonel and eventually became a major general again. His postwar assignments took him to the Philippines, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Fort Monroe, and Honolulu. He was superintendent of West Point from 1928 until his retirement from the army in 1932. Afterward he served as superintendent of Sewanee Military Academy in Tennessee until his death, on July 15, 1941.

Ben-Hur Chastaine, Story of the 36th: The Experiences of the 36th Division in the World War (Oklahoma City: Harlow, 1920). Order of Battle of the United States Land Forces in the World War (3 vols., Washington: GPO, 1931–49; facsimile, Washington: United States Army, 1988). Lonnie J. White, "Chief of the Arrowheads: Major General William R. Smith and the 36th Division in France, 1918–1919," Military History of Texas and the Southwest 16 (1982). Lonnie J. White, Panthers to Arrowheads: The 36th (Texas-Oklahoma) Division in World War I (Austin: Presidial Press, 1984). Who Was Who in American History: The Military (Chicago: Marquis Who's Who, 1975).

Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Lonnie J. White, “Smith, William Ruthven,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 1, 1995
July 30, 2020