Gettysburg Off the Beaten Path: The Death of William Barksdale

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William Barksdale in the antebellum years.
William Barksdale in the antebellum years. He was still battling with Jubal Early over actions at Second Fredericksburg as the Gettysburg Campaign opened.

Brigadier General William Barksdale had been champing at the bit all day July 2nd to go into action. The 41 year old Tennessee native was one of the hardest charging leaders in Robert E. Lee’s army. A former politician with no formal military training, Barksdale served in the Mexican American War, and at the outbreak of the Civil War, was appointed colonel of the 13th Mississippi. At Fredericksburg, his 1,600 Mississippian’s held the Army of the Potomac at bay for the better part of a day. During the May 1863 Second Battle of Fredericksburg his men were not so lucky. Swept from the famed Sunken Road, and Marye’s Heights, the defeat at Second Fredericksburg was the only blight on an otherwise stunning Confederate victory at Chancellorsville.  After the campaign Barksdale took his battle with another Confederate general to the Richmond newspapers, in an attempt to defend his brigade’s honor. It took Lee himself to call a ceasefire between the two men.

Still smarting over accusations that his men cost the Confederates the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, Barksdale looked to take his fury out on the Yankees. The former politician, was “straining at the leash.” He implored Longstreet to allow his men to go in claiming that “I wish you would let me go in, General and I will take that battery in five minutes.” Longstreet replied “Wait a little, we are all going in presently.”

Calling together his regimental commanders, Barksdale told the officers that they were to go in on foot, and that he and his command staff would be the only ones on horseback. He also told them “The line before you must be broken—to do so let every officer and man animate his comrades by his personal presence in the front line.”

The assault on Cemetery Ridge, July 2nd, 1863. Map courtesy of Hal Jesperson.
The assault on Cemetery Ridge, July 2nd, 1863. Map courtesy of Hal Jesperson.

The all Mississippi brigade stood some 600 yards to the west of the Federal salient in the Peach Orchard, created by the forward movement of Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles 3rd Corps. The battle opened to Barksdale’s right and engulfed Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, and the Wheatfield. Near 6 P. M. the time had arrived to let Longstreet’s pit bull off the leash.

Barksdale rode to the front of the brigade and shouted, “Attention, Mississippians! Battalions, forward!” With that “Fourteen hundred rifles were grasped with firm hands, and as the line officers repeated the command ‘Forward, March’ the men sprang forward and fourteen hundred voices raised the ‘Rebel yell’….”

“General Barksdale gave the word, and waving, his hat, led the line forward himself and we all followed him,” proudly wrote one Mississippian. “[D]ress to the colors and forward to the foe!” were the orders. “When a solid shot tore a gap in your ranks it was instantly closed up, and the Brigade came on in almost perfect line.” Mounted atop an auburn charger, Barksdale, his shoulder length white hair blowing in the wind drove his attack home.

Confederate high water mark on July 2nd. Map courtesy of the Hal Jesperson.
Confederate high water mark on July 2nd. Map courtesy of the Hal Jesperson.

The Southerners rushed on behind their leader, “yelling at the top of their voices, without firing a shot, the brigade swept sped swiftly across the field and literally rushed the goal.” The Mississippi men engulfed the apex of Sickles line. Colonel Benjamin Humphreys and his 21st Mississippi swung around the southern tip of the apex and rolled north behind the Emmitsburg Road. Humphreys Mississippians were joined by the men of Joseph Kershaw’s South Carolina brigade, who, renewed their advance on a line of Federal cannon along the Wheatfield Road. The remaining three regiments of Barksdale’s pressed hard straight toward the orchard, and the Sherfy farm buildings. Colonel Calvin Craig of the 105th Pennsylvania stated that “the fire from the enemy….[was] very severe.”

One admiring Confederate wrote, “the Brigades of Kershaw and [Paul] Semmes were ordered to advance and then those of Barksdale and [William] Wofford, gallantly our men swept the enemy before them, away from the Peach orchard and on to the woods and hills beyond with great slaughter.”

One of Cadmus Wilcox’s Alabamians thought the charge was “grand beyond description.”

The Mississippians smashed the front and left flank of the Peach Orchard salient. All along the Emmitsburg Road Federal units attempted to stand and fight, but Barksdale’s men wheeled to the left and advanced northeast towards Cemetery Ridge. The men of Andrew A. Humphreys 3rd Corps division did what they could to slow the tide. Humphreys ordered his men to retreat for a short distance, about-face, and fire into the enemy. The tactic slowed, but could not stop the butternut wave.

Barksdale’s Mississippians, now aided by Cadmus Wilcox’s Alabamians, and Col. David Lang’s three Florida regiments continued to press towards the Union center. The Magnolia State soldiers outpaced their support. The fiery Barksdale fought with an intensity rarely seen. It was all about to come to an end though.

The Federals fed reinforcements into the fray as fast as they could find them. Federal 2nd Corps commander Winfield Scott Hancock stymied the Alabamians by throwing forward a forlorn hope, the 1st Minnesota, in a counterattack. An over-sized New York regiment also lent their weight to the counterattack.

David Lang’s Floridians tangled with Federal artillery and troops from Maine, New York, and remnants of the 3rd Corps.

Colonel George Willard
Colonel George Willard

Barksdale’s men were met by the majority of Colonel George Willard’s New York brigade. Willard was a 35 year old New York native, with no formal military education. After fighting in the Mexican-American War he joined the Regular Army and eventually rose to the rank of captain. In 1862 he accepted the colonelcy of the 125th New York. On September 15, 1862, the regiment was captured when the Harpers Ferry garrison surrendered to “Stonewall” Jackson. Paroled, and shipped to Camp Douglas, near Chicago, the units reputation was in limbo until the Gettysburg Campaign. The brigade, collectively known as “The Harper Ferry Regiments,” were also out for redemption.

As they approached the field, Willard’s men were approached by the omnipresent Hancock. His orders were short and sweet, “knock the Hell out of the Rebs….” With the battle cry “Remember Harpers Ferry!” Willard’s proud men plunged into the gap. It was a vicious stand up fight in the Codori Thicket. In a strange twist of fate, the New Yorkers were face-to-face with their old foes, Barksdale’s Mississippians. It was Barksdale’s men at Harpers Ferry that forced the Empire State troops from their position along Maryland Heights, and helped to force the Yankee capitulation.

“General Barksdale was trying to hold his men, cheering them and swearing, directly in front of the left of the 126th [New York] near the right of the 125th [New York] who both saw and heard him as they emerged from the bushes.”

Barksdale’s brigade on the other side had “Carried everything before it with cyclonic force.”

“Old Barks,” as the general was known to his men was in the midst of the charge throughout the afternoon. “Crowd them—we have them on the run. Move your regiments,” Barksdale bellowed above the din of battle. “[C]an nothing stop these desperate Mississippians?” asked one Southern officer. His question was answered moments later “death.”

“Gen. Barksdale was wounded, and he reeled but did not halt,” claimed the general’s nephew Capt. Harris Barksdale. The elder Barksdale was hit at least three. He fell to the earth. Lost in the tumult of the Union counter-attack, Barksdale was left behind as the Confederate’s retreated. His wounds proved fatal. Shot in the leg, ankle, and chest—according to one Confederate. When the general attempted to drink from a canteen the contents pour out through the gaping chest wound. A Union regimental historian wrote in 1864 that “the haughty and supercilious Barksdale…breathed his life away on the crimson fields of Gettysburg-abandoned by his own men, without a slave even to bring him a cup of cold water.”

The Hummelbaugh Farm at Gettysburg. Photo by Chris Mackowski
The Hummelbaugh Farm at Gettysburg. Photo by Chris Mackowski

Once Barksdale was felled, his men were unable to extract him from the field. After the conclusion of the fight a Federal search party came across a Mississippian from Barksdale’s brigade, who, informed Lt. George G. Benedict of the 14th Vermont that his commander was badly wounded. James G. Cooper of the 1st Massachusetts and Birch Herkizemer of the 26th PA located the fallen officer. The new captive “was very abusive to the men who carried him.”

The general was carried to the home of the widower Jacob Hummelbaugh, whose farm sat adjacent to the Taneytown Road. Dr. Alfred Hamilton of the 148th Pennsylvania worked at the 2nd Corps field hospital that was setup at the farm earlier in the day. Hamilton examined the wounds “He was shot through the left breast & the left leg was broken by two missiles. He asked whether I considered his wounds necessarily mortal. I told him I did. He stated that he desired peace, but only on terms that would recognize the Confederacy [and] he asked about our strength and was answered that heavy reinforcements are coming, He said that Lee would show us a trick before morning, that before we knew it Ewell would be thundering in our rear.”

Barksdale’s wound was indeed mortal and Robert A. Cassidy, a musician with the 148th PA. befriended the general. Cassidy tended to Old Barks in his final hours. “I found him just after dark,” Cassidy wrote to Narcissa Saunders Barksdale after the war, recounting her husband’s final hours.

“I came upon the General accidentally. Kneeling at his side, I asked him if he desired any assistance. He informed me that he was very thirsty, and I endeavored to give him water from the canteen but was unable to do so in consequence of his recumbent position, and the pain from his wounds…taking my spoon from my haversack [I] filled it several times and the General drank the water feverish avidity…the lung was cut  and at every inhalation the blood was force[ed] copiously—with a sputtering noise—from the wound…. Noticing that his strength was failing rapidly, I…continued to administer water; dissolved morphine and diluted liquor alternately until I saw he was on the edge of the dark river.”

The Hummelbaugh Farm along modern day Pleasonton Avenue. The Hummelbaugh Farm served as the headquarters of Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, the Federal Cavalry Corps commander from July 4-6. The farm sustained $234 in damage to the hay, corn, and other assorted crops; 330 fence rails, 26 fence posts, a horse, and other various accoutrements were also damaged or stolen during the battle.
The Hummelbaugh Farm along modern day Pleasonton Avenue. The Hummelbaugh Farm served as the headquarters of Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, the Federal Cavalry Corps commander from July 4-6. The farm sustained $234 in damage to the hay, corn, and other assorted crops; 330 fence rails, 26 fence posts, a horse, and other various accouterments were also damaged or stolen during the battle. Photo by Chris Mackowski

Although there was no slave to bring Barskdale a cold cup of water, there was a compassionate enemy that tended to the “haughty and supercilious” general in his final hours.

The Magnolia State general died on July 3rd. He was buried under a cherry tree in the yard of the Hummelbaugh Farm. A crude wooden headstone was made that said “Brigadier General Barksdale of Mississippi McLaw’s Division, Longstreet’s Corps Died on the morning of 3rd July, 1863 Eight years a representative in United States Congress. Shot through the left breast, and leg broken below the knee.” In January of 1867 his body was exhumed and sent to South Carolina. Later the body was retrieved by his nephew Harris Barksdale, and was finally laid to rest in Greenwood Cemetery, in Jackson, Mississippi.

Authors Note:

George Willard was felled in his counterattack of the Confederate’s. Willard was struck in the face, most likely by an artillery shell fired from Edward Porter Alexander’s guns that advanced to Lee’s “desired ground,” the Peach Orchard.

To reach the Hummelbaugh Farm:

-From the town square, head south on Baltimore Street for 0.5 miles.
-At the Y intersection with Steinwehr Ave. bear right and follow it for 0.2 miles.
-At the traffic light, turn left onto Taneytown Road and follow it for 0.9 miles.
-Turn right onto Pleasonton Ave. The home will be the first white farm on right.


Hummelbaugh Farm Map

10 Responses to Gettysburg Off the Beaten Path: The Death of William Barksdale

    1. Just read Sen. Charles Sumner’s 1860 speech “The Barbarism of Slavery”. Sumner mentioned that Barksdale, while in Congress, threatened and heaped scorn on free-state senators that opposed slavery. To oppose him was to risk a beating or a challenge to a duel. Men like Barksdale helped cause a war which resulted in 700,000 deaths. No sympathy for him. Union infantry humbled him down.

      1. Ohh ye of little knowledge. Massa Linculm started the war for the taxes and tariffs collected at the Southern Ports. He cared little for the slaves and supported returning them back to Africa. Your scorn for Ole Barks bravery proves you have little.

  1. Good story, they named the town of Barksdale Mississippi is named for William Barksdale.

  2. Robert A. Cassidy is my great-great uncle. He went on to be the mayor of Canton,Ohio. Nice to know he was so kind and compassionate. He was also a pallbearer for President McKinley.

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