William Barksdale, in many ways, epitomized the image of the southern general during and after the Civil War. He was born in Smyrna, Tennessee on August 21, 1821, the eldest son of William Barksdale and Nancy Hervey Lester Barksdale. He studied law at the University of Nashville, but for the remainder of his adult life, he would be a hardcore Mississippian where he continued his practice.
At the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, Barksdale enlisted with the 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment, thus launching his military career. He rose to the rank of captain and quartermaster and fought alongside the infantry during the most pivotal battles of the war.
After the war, Barksdale turned to politics and served in the US House of Representatives from March 4, 1853 until secession tore the country apart. Barksdale earned a reputation for himself as a “Fire-Eater” in Washington. He was vehemently outspoken about his views in favor of both slavery and secession, becoming one of the iconic Southern Democrats of the time. It’s reputed that he was beside Preston Brooks when he took a cane to Massachusetts representative, Charles Sumner, during one of the more heated debates pertaining to the future of their slowly dividing country.
This fiery enthusiasm for the Southern cause would get put to further use when Mississippi seceded from the Union in January of 1861. Barksdale resigned from his position in Washington and enlisted with the Confederate army. In May, he was given the rank of colonel for the 13th Mississippi Infantry, which saw action at Bull Run/Manassas, then again during the Peninsula Campaign the following summer of 1862.
It was that summer when Barksdale would rise in the ranks and be promoted to brigadier general during the failed and bloody charge at Malvern Hill. His brigade, consisting of the 13th, 17th, 18th, and 21st Mississippi regiments, lost its brigadier general, Richard Griffith. Barksdale rallied his men, but the steep ground they needed to take around Boatswain’s Swamp was too much for any Confederate regiment to carry. Despite this, the brigade earned the name of “Barksdale Mississippi Brigade” and its namesake was promoted August 12, 1862.
Barksdale’s brigade was assigned to the division of Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws in Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia and would assist in taking Maryland Heights at Harper’s Ferry before moving across the Potomac to join Lee’s forces in Maryland.
At Antietam, Barksdale’s men played a part in saving the Confederate left flank from total collapse at the hands of Union General John Sedgwick. In the West Woods to the north of the gleaming white Dunker Church, the Mississippians countercharged, sweeping the Federals from the woods in a flurry of musket fire.
Despite this defense of the Confederate line, Lee’s army was forced back into Virginia to resupply and lick their wounds. However, Barksdale was eager for his revenge on the Yankees.
When their next major engagement opened upon the banks of the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Barksdale and his Mississippi infantry defended the town by sniping at Union engineers as they tried to construct pontoon bridges. They delayed the Federals’ advance for almost an entire day. While homes burned and shells exploded around them, the Mississippi Fire-Eater firmly held his ground, even up to the point when bluecoats were snaking their way through the streets. This became one of the first instances of urban warfare in American military history. It was at Fredericksburg that Barksdale famously said, “If Lee wants a bridge of dead Yankees, I can furnish him with one.”
The following May, Barksdale would fight a familiar enemy on familiar ground. Once more at Fredericksburg, the Mississippi troops were now upon the heights that overlooked the town to the west, mostly upon Maryes Heights and half on Telegraph Hill. Sedgwick, the general he had bested at Antietam, led his troops against the heights in a storm of a charge. The Mississippians fought in hand-to-hand combat against the four Union regiments. They were unable to keep the ground, but gained it back the following day. Allegations abounded against Barksdale that his failure to hold his portion of the heights cost the Confederates the battle. That debate spilled over into newspapers, tainting some of his reputation as a hard-fighting general.
Barksdale’s greatest military achievement, and his last, came at Gettysburg in July of 1863. Still attached with McLaws’ division, he and the rest of Longstreet’s command were ordered to attack northeast, up the Emmitsburg Road, to roll up the Union left flank. Barksdale’s sector of the line sat squarely in front of a salient formed by the notorious Union General Dan Sickles around the Peach Orchard.
To Barksdale’s right was the straggling line of Kershaw’s South Carolinians, and ahead were several regiments of Pennsylvania troops along the Emmitsburg Road. With hat waving and white hair billowing in the wind, Barksdale and the rest of his officers upon horseback led the screaming Mississippians through the orchard. 1,400 southerners crashed into the Union line, peeling it wide open and sending the Federals scattering as far as the Wheatfield. An Alabamian witness described it as “grand beyond description.” A Union soldier shared in the sentiment and declared it, “The grandest charge that was ever made by mortal man.”
Barksdale, however, would not live to hear of the way historians interpret his charge or how the battle would end for the Confederates. He was struck three times, once in the knee, once in the foot, and the other in the chest. He was knocked from his horse, but couldn’t be carried off the field immediately. Knowing he would die, he told his aide, W.R. Boyd, “I am killed! Tell my wife and children that I died fighting at my post.” He was later captured and taken to a Union field hospital at the Joseph Hummelbaugh farmhouse, where he died the next day.
Knowing Barksdale’s zeal for the Southern cause, it might have been a blessing that he was killed before he could see the end of the war and the degradation of the Confederate army.
Barksdale’s remains were interred in the Barksdale family plot of Greenwood Cemetery, Jackson, Mississippi with no marker, but he has cenotaphs in both Greenwood Cemetery and in Friendship Cemetery, Columbus, Mississippi.
“Simply Murder: The Battle of Fredericksburg” by Chris Mackowski & Kristopher White
“Don’t Give An Inch: The Second Day at Gettysburg” by Chris Mackoswksi, Kristopher White, and Daniel Davis