Brigadier General William Barksdale
August 21, 1821 - July 3, 1863
Brigadier General William Barksdale

Brigadier General William Barksdale was born in Smyrna, Rutherford County Tennessee on August 21, 1821, the son of William Barksdale, and Nancy Hervey Lester. His Grandfather had removed his family from Virginia to Tennessee in 1808 and his father was a soldier in the War of 1812.

When William had reached the age of 16, he and his 3 brothers, Harrison, Fountain and Ethelbert left their family home and attended the University of Nashville, after which he studied law at Columbus Mississippi, being admitted to the Bar prior to his 21st Birthday.

He began the practice of Law, but within a year tired of it and became the editor of the Columbus (Miss) Democrat, a staunchly States Rights publication. Barksdale often used the paper as a soapbox for his own strongly secessionist views.

He enlisted in the Army during the Mexican War and soon rose to the rank of Captain and assistant - commissary of volunteers in the 2nd Mississippi Regiment from January of 1847 until August of 1848. Barksdale's natural love of the military was evident on several occasions during that time, such as the one recalled by Reubin Davis, also of Mississippi, whom he would later defeat for a Congressional seat.

Barksdale appeared on the scene in his shirt sleeves at a battle line at which I was present", said Davis. "When I asked why he was there at the front instead of in the Quartermaster's office, and why he was so dressed, he responded 'I thought you lads were in for some warm work presently, and, as it is a hot day, I thought I could do better without my coat!'"

Upon his return to Mississippi after the war, Barksdale soundly defeated Reubin Davis and General Alexander Bradford for Democratic Congressman in 1853, and was as soundly re-nominated in 1855, when the Know Nothing Party was at it's peak. He was re-elected serving in Congress until 1861, when he resigned his seat after proclaiming Mississippi's secession from the Union on January 12.

Upon his return to Mississippi from Washington, Barksdale was made quartermaster general of the Mississippi Army, from March of 1861 until he entered the Confederate service as Colonel of the 13th Mississippi regiment, organized in Virginia. His regiment saw action early in the war at Manassas, and Edwards Ferry, and he commanded his regiment in the action before Richmond. In April, 1862 General Griffith of the Mississippi Brigades recommended his colonel for promotion to Brigadier General from rank, but the appointment was not made.

At the battle of Savage Station, Griffith was mortally wounded, and Barksdale was given the command in Griffith's absence. The Mississippians gained a reputation for cool level-headed and reliable service under the command of Barksdale through the Pennisular campaign.

In July, McLaws recommended his promotion with the additional endorsement of General Lee, who said of his command at Malvern Hill that Barksdale "displayed the Highest qualities of the soldier - Seizing the colors himself, and advancing under a terrific fire of artillery and Infantry." In August the appointment was finally made, and Barksdale was assigned to the brigade to which his old regiment, the 13th , belonged.
Barksdale commanded his brigade in all of the ensuing battles of the Army of Northern Virginia, with the exception of Second Manassas, when he was at Harper's Ferry defending the  Confederate installations there.
Barksdale's Mississippians arrived into the field near Gettysburg well past midnight on July 2,1863. The Mississippi Brigades made Camp at Willoughby Run at about 9 o'clock on the morning of July 2nd, with Colonel E. P. Alexander and the Washington Artillery. According to Longstreet, Lee had not yet formalized his plans for an engagement at this time, having not yet heard from his Cavalry, nor was he totally aware of the strength or movements of the enemy, since his latest intelligence on the Union forces was from a Federal dispatch which was captured during the night of July 1st.

After copious reconnaissance, formulation of a plan and issuance of orders was finally achieved. Pursuant to those orders, the Divisions took their places of defense as follows:
    "The Confederate Left was covering the North and East curve of the enemy's line. Johnson's division near Culp's hill, Early and Rode's extending the line to the right through Gettysburg: Pender's division on the right of Rode's; the other divisions of the Third Corps resting on Seminary Ridge, with McLaws's division and Hood's three Brigades near General Headquarters"

In what he would later classify as a time - saving effort, Longstreet ordered the rear division to double on the front, which brought Anderson's regiments in line with the outpost guard of Sickles. Anderson's division was positioned from right to left in the following order of Brigades: Wilcox, Perry, Wright, Posey and Mahone.

At this point, in the absence of Cavalry for intelligence, General Hood was ordered to send his scouts in advance of the double line of deployment, which brought McLaws on the right of Anderson with Hood's division on McLaws' right, directly across from the Peach Orchard, so that Hood almost enflanked Sickle's left.

While waiting across from the Peach Orchard, Barksdale repeatedly requested of McLaws and Longstreet permission to charge "that little battery across the way, "referring to the 9th Massachusetts Battery at the Trostle house. He was told to wait. Chafing at the bit, he implored Longstreet "Give me just five minutes, and that battery and it's guns will be ours". Longstreet's reply was "Just hold on, we'll all be going in presently".

Colonel E. Porter Alexander and the Washington artillery had been brought up onto the line of McLaws's to provide artillery support for the impending infantry advance to the Federal batteries and infantry regiments of Sickle's corps placed on a line against the Emmitsburg road from the fields before the Roundtops to the Cemetery facing Cemetery Ridge. Alexander's report states that "About 4 p.m. I placed five batteries in action against a heavy artillery and infantry force of the enemy about 500 yards distant in a Peach Orchard on the Emmetsburg pike. After a spirited engagement of a half hour, the enemy's guns were silenced and the position was immediately carried by the infantry and the enemy fell back to its position on the mountain where our infantry gallantly pursued him. The sum total of my losses were killed, 19, wounded 114. There were also 2 killed and 3 wounded of a detachment of 8 gallant Mississippians at Captain Moody's guns, who volunteered to help maneuver them on very difficult ground." The "difficult ground" most likely refers to bringing these batteries into position from the Pitzer woods behind the Confederate line to this position about 500 yards. from the Peach Orchard.

It was during the cannonade which Alexander described that Barksdale repeatedly requested permission to advance to "that little battery" in the Peach Orchard. The fiery Mississippian was certain that his men would show the same mettle they had shown at Fredericksburg the previous December, and could hold off the entire Army of the Potomac if necessary. Every time McLaws would near the Mississippians, Barksdale would assure him that the Federal battery could "be taken in five minutes."

McLaws was in a quandary of his own , due to the apparently severed communication between Longstreet and Lee, the result of difference of opinion in the order of battle for the day. As any good soldier, McLaws wanted to please his superior, and would not presume to issue an order without the knowledge that this was Longstreet's wish, yet Longstreet inquired as to his plans. Added to this, Barksdale's impetuous nature and desire for ending the nagging inconvenience of the Federal Battery in the Peach Orchard had him asking repeatedly of McLaws for permission to charge the battery. Longsteet rode to Mc Laws line and Barksdale saw the opportunity to lobby for his cause. He emplored "General, I wish you would let me go in, I could take that battery in five minutes!" "Wait a little," Longstreet responded, "We shall all be going in presently."

Finally, as J.C. Lloyd of the 13th Mississippi remembered it, "Directly in our front, only a few steps, are Generals Longstreet, McLaws, Barksdale, and our beloved Colonel Carter, with their glasses, taking a last look over the field". At this point, two men of the 17th Mississippi were ordered forward to remove the rails from a fence, so the line could charge unbroken across the field.

Barksdale called all of the commanders of his regiments together to issue the orders he had just formulated with Longstreet and Mc Laws, and, referring to the Federals some 600 yards in front, said "The line in front must be broken. To do so, let every Officer and man animate his comrades by his personal presence in the front line." Barksdale mounted a fine White charger, and rode across the rear of his line as the drums beat assembly, and each officer moved to the front and called his line to attention.

The brigades were lined from the left with the 18th, then the 13th, 17th and the 21st on the right. Barksdale emerged from the rear of his Brigade and rode to the left passed the 21st and 17th, and stopped in front of his old regiment, the 13th, awaiting the arrival of Captain G.B. Lamar, McLaws' aide de camp, to issue the direct order to advance from his divisional commander.

Harry Pfanz in Gettsyburg-The Second Day remarks that "Perhaps McLaws sent Lamar to Barksdale after it was apparent that his brigade was delayed: no one said. But when Lamar reached Barksdale with the order to go forward, the news made the general's face 'radiant with joy'. Barksdale ordered his four regiments over the wall. (Had they gone beyond the wall too soon they would have masked Moody's and Gilbert's batteries and exposed themselves to Federal fire unnecessarily.)"
Lamar recalled that, as he received the order, Barksdale was "radiant with joy. He was in front of his men with his hat off, and his long, white hair reminded me of the white plume of Navarre."

Pvt. T. M. Scanlon of the 17th Mississippi recalls Barksdale's speech to his men prior to the charge: "These were his commands: Halt! Front! Order Arms! Load! Fix Bayonets! The entrenchment 500 yards in front of you at the red barn, and that park of artillery as well as the cone mountain (Little Round Top), which is covered with riflemen screened by huge boulders, and beside that entrenched line there is another 200 yards beyond which we are also expected to take. This is an heroic undertaking and most of us will bite the dust making this effort. Now if there is a man here that feels this is too much for him, just step two paces to the front and I will excuse him. We will proceed to within 75 yards of the entrenchment withholding our fire. There you will receive the command, Halt! Ready! Fire!, after which, without command you will charge with the bayonet."

Barksdale then snapped out his order "Attention, Mississippians! Battalions  forward! Dress to the colors and Forward to the foe! Onward, Brave Mississippians, for Glory,!" and rode out to lead the charge, as far as fifty yards in front of his men.

Within minutes the Brigades had crossed this farmland up and down a series of  gentle swales which lay in front of the skirmish lines of the Pennsylvanian regiments of Brigadier General Charles A. Graham, and the rifled guns of the New Jersey Light, 2nd battery under the command of Captain A. Judson Clark.

The Mississippians showed their veteran strength and determination as they swept forward, through the fire of the artillery rending huge gaps through them that would immediately close as the Mississippians drew together and forward through the fields. Barksdale's men simply overran the Federal troops going forward to the Peach Orchard, capturing at least fifty Union Infantry men, including General Graham.

By this time, Barksdale and his men had reached the Emmitsburg road and, gaining the high ground, Barksdale wheeled the 13th, 17th and 18th to the left up the road, as the 21st continued deeper into the Peach Orchard then followed the line to the left.

In front of the 21st, Colonels Holder and Griffin of the Mississippians (17th and 18th) implored Barksdale to stop and reform, to which Barksdale replied "NO!  Crowd them now, We've got them on the run! Move your regiments!"

Barksdale barked at his men in a gruff authoritarian manner "Advance, advance! Brave Mississippians, one more charge and the day is ours!" This statement brought cheers from his men, according to J. S. McNeily, who chronicled the charge at the Peach Orchard in Barksdale's Mississippi Brigade at Gettysburg: Most Magnificent Charge of the War in 1913. He goes on : "Barksdale moved bravely on, the guiding spirit of the battle."

When he was wounded in the area of Plum Run, North and East of the Trostle Farm, he saw his courier, W.R.Boyd and said "I am killed! Tell my wife and children that I died fighting at my post." At that time, Boyd was wounded in the leg, which made it impossible for him to assist his General. He left Barksdale's side with the Federals closing in on them from less than fifty yards. As Boyd was retreating, his horse was shot out from under him. Boyd closed in on Barksdale again, and was told that, if he could get to a battery of the Washington Artillery which had moved to a distance of about 250 yards away, to "order them to the front."

Boyd was successful in so doing, and attempted to return to Barksdale's side, but could only get within 40 yards of where the General lay. Boyd closes his report by saying "The last words of this ardent patriot, gallant man and dying hero that ever fell upon the ears of his own countrymen should nerve and incite them to his highest standards of duty. The ordeal through which his brigade passed in this fight may be judged when it is told that of the 1,420 bayonets carried into it, 730 were lost in Killed, Wounded and Missing."

Barksdale and his Mississippi Brigade had severed the Union line, but could not hold this position, or advance to establish stronger defenses, due to failure of Wofford and Semmes to follow the Mississippians through at the point of the break in the federal line, and due to the almost limitless refreshment of the Union forces under Hancock which battled the Confederate lines.

Barksdale had boasted upon entering Pennsylvania on June 24th that his men had not been bested previously, nor would they be now. His optimism extended throughout his charge, and, as he lay mortally wounded on a make shift surgeon's table at the Hummelbaugh farm he warned the blue clad officers and surgeons that "Hancock had better watch his back, Old Peter has a surprise for you in the morning!"

From Harper's Weekly, Feb 2 1861:
WILLIAM BARKSDALE,  the popular member from the Third Representative District of Mississippi, was born on the 21st of August, 1821, in Rutherford County, Tennessee, at the homestead from which his father had gone, in the war of 1812, to fight the battles of the Confederacy. After receiving his education at the Nashville University, William removed to Columbus, Mississippi, where he read law, and was admitted to the bar before he was of age. Entering upon a successful practice, he also conducted the Columbus Democrat, in which he sustained the doctrine of Jefferson and Madison, that the right to judge of "infractions of the Constitution, as well as the mode and measure of redress," has never been delegated to the Federal Government, and consequently each State has the right of peaceable secession. In 1847 he went to Mexico, as a staff officer in the Second Mississippi Regiment, performing his arduous duties with recognized ability. Opposed to the compromise measures of 1850, he was a member of the State Convention called to discuss them in 1851; and in 1853 (the Legislature having failed to redistrict the State) he was elected to Congress on the general ticket. Since then, he has been a leading member of the States Rights wing of the Democratic party, and his frank manners, pleasing countenance, and social courtesy have given weight to his decided remarks. " Never," said he, in a speech delivered in January last, "have I desired a dissolution of this Union ; but should the Republican party obtain the control of the Government, I shall be for disunion. Heretofore its burdens have been chiefly borne by the South, as the statistics which I have before me will clearly prove : and we have patriotically submitted to it because of our veneration for the Union of our fathers. For the future, I would demand that all the compromises and guarantees of the Constitution shall be rigidly enforced, and I would stake the Union upon the issue. And even in the event of its dissolution, I shall have no fears for the South. With a territory larger than all of Europe; with our cotton now swelling up in value to more than two hundred million dollars; with our rice, and sugar, and tobacco; with a people united in feeling and sentiment, she has within her own borders all the elements of a splendid republic. If, then, we are to have no peace; if these aggressions are still to be continued; if this sectional warfare is never to cease, the South, with the strong arms and brave hearts of her gallant sons, will build up her own eternal destiny."  

          William Barksdale Cenotaph Friendship           Cenotaph William Barksdale, Greenwood, Jackson
                    Cenotaph at Confederate Memorial                                     Cenotaph in Confederate Section
             Friendship Cemetery, Columbus, Mississippi                  Greenwood Cemetery, Jackson, Mississippi
                                                                                                             Interment is in unmarked grave in family plot
                                                                                                                                  in this Cemetery

Historic Marker Barksdale Plantation

On Mississippi Highway 182
at intersection of  Phillips Hill Road
about 5 miles east of downtown Columbus

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The MIDI file of "The Night before the Battle.mid" is used by permission of Benjamin Robert Tubb from his website at Public Domain Music <>.