How many of you know the Civil War tale of Henry Smith, the Razor Strop Man? I was quite ignorant of it until a friend of mine turned me in this direction.
Henry Smith was born in Waltham Abbey, England, on Christmas Eve 1815. (This made him forty-seven years old when he enlisted in the Civil War.) In 1842, Smith immigrated to New York, and for a while, wandered the streets of the Empire City, utterly jobless and barely able to live. With no other opportunities for social advancement, or so his memoir later claimed, Smith began hawking razor strops. Apparently, his humor and genial demeanor attracted throngs of interested clients. Usually, Smith attracted buyers by crafting ridiculous songs about his razor strops, regaling crowds with humorous tales of the misfortunes that befell men who purchased sub-par razor strops. (If you’re interested in these popular razor strop ballads, check out his book.) Known far and wide across Gotham, clients recognized Smith by his tagline, “One more left of the same sort,” a ploy to get gullible purchasers to believe that his razor strops were selling fast. Believe it or not, Smith’s success as a peddler earned him national acclaim. After netting fame in New York, he traveled the states, selling his razor strops in the major cities in New England, the South, and the Midwest. Few newspapers failed to mention the appearance of the Razor Strop Man. Eventually, Smith collected anecdotes of his travels, compiling them into a sort of happy-wanderer epic entitled, The Life and Adventures of Henry Smith, the Celebrated Razor Strop Man. Without question, Henry Smith became one of the few true humble-born celebrities of antebellum America.
Like most celebrities, the Razor Strop Man could not refrain from speaking his political beliefs. Smith delivered addresses on behalf of the Temperance Movement, and by the 1850s, he joined the anti-slavery movement. The beginning of the Civil War found him in Rochester, and during the turbulent summer of 1862, he went on a speaking tour, encouraging locals to enlist in a local regiment, the 140th New York.
Smith joined Company D of that regiment, but fell ill on its first march. When he recovered, he became a nurse, treating sufferers from the Chancellorsville Campaign. But then, at Gettysburg, he followed his regiment too closely during its defense of Little Round Top. A ball struck his right leg below the knee, and two of his comrades carried him from the field. Several surgeons examined Smith, and all agreed that if they extracted the ball, he might keep his leg. Sadly, in the shuffle of wounded men, the surgeons ignored him, and after eleven days, infection set in, and soon, Smith had to lose his limb, or lose his life.
This news sent a spark of anger through Rochester. Their favorite celebrity had just lost his leg in the war, for no good reason, it seemed. Smith tried to allay concerns by writing the newspapers, telling readers that the war had not sapped his fighting spirit. He wrote:
I think I hear you saying, ‘Are you not sick of the war, Smith?’ I will tell you. I wish, with all my heart, the war was over, but I would not take my discharge if I could get it; and if I was Abraham Lincoln, I would not give them one pin’s point more than he has offered them. I love the country. I have always been well treated, and if I am not worth a cent, it isn’t the country’s fault. . . . When the 140th left Rochester, we numbered 950 men—since that time we have taken 75 from the old 13th, and now as true as you live, we cannot muster for service more than 350 men. This is a high figure. About one year ago, if you spoke of negro soldiers, some white men would be almost ready to knock you down. But mark what I say—you ask a white man now about negroes fighting, and you find him on the side of letting them fight.
Naturally, Smith’s vote of confidence in Lincoln, the war, and the U.S.C.T. helped reinforce the Republican Party in New York. I guess when I think of this, I try to consider the way that public figures integrate themselves into America’s history. For lack of a better phrase, Smith put his money where his mouth was. As for the missing limb, he often told all inquirers, “I have one more left of the same sort.”
Henry Smith, The Razor Strop Man, from The Life and Adventures of Henry Smith