Barksdale's Brigade had forged a distinguished record on every battlefield. The individual regiments initially tasted battle at First Manassas, but were not brigaded together. That occured when they were shifted to Brigadier General Nathan Evans's Brigade soon after the battle. The brigade next took on Colonel Edward Baker's expeditionary force at the battle of Ball's Bluff in early October 1861, exacting a dreadful toll on the Federal troops. The Mississippians received a new brigade commander the following month. Brigadier General Richard Griffith led the brigade during the Peninsula campaign, but was mortally wounded at the battle of Savage Station.
William Barksdale of the 13th Mississippi assumed command of the brigade after Savage Station and led it to Gettysburg. A strong fire-eater, Barksdale was an attorney by training and subsequently served as a quartermaster in the Mexican War. He was a congressman when the war broke out, but quickly resigned to join the Confederate army. His first battle as brigade commander was at Malvern Hill, where he grabbed a flag and led his men up the hill. His fiery nature and love of battle were exhibited in many subsequent engagements. During the Maryland campaign, Barksdale's men were influential in capturing Harper's Ferry and then at the battle of Sharpsburg helped crush a Federal division. These were but preludes to even more glory. Barksdale's men patrolled the streets of Fredericksburg prior to the great battle there in December 1862. They tenaciously restricted the Federal troops from crossing the Rappahannock River, and when they finally did cross, Barksdale's men engaged them in street fighting. The Mississippian's star rose even higher at the battle of Chancellorsville, where they alone stood on Marye's Heights and held of a Federal corps for several hours.
The brigade crossed the Potomac River on June 26. The men noted that the water was very cold and two feet deep. The brigade, along with the rest of the division, made swift progress through Maryland and crossed the Pennsylvania state line the next day. Private Robert Moore of the 17th Mississippi recorded in his diary that "we find but few sympathizers & are not disappointed." The same day, General Lee's orders about respecting private property were read to the men. Nevertheless, Moore recorded that the "souldiers [sic] are committing some depredation on private property.
The men were not above playing triks on others, including their commanding officers. Private John Henley of the 17th Mississippi recalled that when the men saw General Barksdale approaching, they began looking up into a tree, pretending to see someone in its upper branches, "I reckon you will come down out of that tree, now, the General has come," they yelled out. Curious, Barksdale halted below the tree and intently gazed upward. "Of course there was no one up the tree, so we had a good laugh," reported Henley. Barksdale did not think it funny, and angrily announced that it was "unsubordination." The men played a similar prank on a farmer, causing him to rush over to his apple trees.
The men received rations of "flour and some pretty good beef" at about noon on July 1. Many used the flour to make shortening bread. Before it was completely cooked, however, the Long Roll beat, and the men rolled up their blankets, collected their other scant belongings, and took their place in line. However, General Edward Johson's Division appeared on the road, causing a delay in the march. Private William Abernathy of the 17th Mississippi uncharitably wrote after the war that Johnson's Divison "came piling into the road from some place they ought not to have been, and we lay there waiting for them to pass."
After Johnson's men had passed, a wagon train appeared. According to Abernathy, the major who led it "had less sense and more obsitnacy than any army mule in Longstreet's Corps." When the wagon train finally passed, Barksdale's men jumped to their feet and the march to Gettysburg continued. According to Private Moore, the march finally got under way at about 4:00 PM, and continued until about midnight, when the column reached Marsh Creek.
The men were roused at about 4:00 AM on July 2, and the final leg of the march to Gettysburg began soon after. Henley (17th Miss.) recalled that the brigade reached the vicinity of Gettysburg at about 9:00 AM. The column halted near Lee's headquarters, where the Chambersburg Pike intersected Seminary Ridge. The men rested there until approximately 11:30 AM, when they received orders to march to the right. None of the participants described the circuitous march to the Confederate right flank on Warfield and Seminary Ridges, but Major George Gerald of the 18th Miss. recalled the men turning to the right off Chambersburg Pike "into the woods and after moving through the timber for some distance halted and the order was given to 'strip for the fight."'
When the two-division column about-faced to retrace its steps, Barksdale's Brigade now formed the rear of the division. As a result, it formed the left flank of the division when it finally reached its final position on Seminary Ridge. To its left was Wilcox's Brigade (Anderson's Division, Third Corps) and to its right was Kershaw's Brigade. The brigade was deployed from left to right as 18th Mississippi-13th Miss.-17th Miss.-21st Miss. The men could see open fields, fences, and scattered farmhouses in front of them. According to General Longstreet, Barksdale's orders were to capture the elevated ground at the Peach Orchard "that General Lee desired me to take and hold for artillery."
The men watched as Moody's and Gilbert's batteries plied their trade in front of them. Unfortunately, many of the Federal rounds hit boththe batteries and Barksdale's infantry. A veteran of many battles, Private William Hill of the 13th Miss. recorded in his diary that the cannonading was the "most terrific that I ever heard." George Leftwich of the 17th Miss. noted that the projectiles "tore the limbs off of the trees and plowed gaps through his men." Those units occupying uprotected positions were especially hard hit. "They killed so many of our artillerymen that some of the infantrymen had to go and help them handle the guns," recalled Henley (17th Miss.).
The men remained under this artillery fire for at least ninety minutes. Despite the psychological difficulty of being under an artillery barrage, Barksdale's men held up well. In fact, they were ready for a fight. "Never was a body of soldiers fuller of the spirit of fight, and the confidence of victory," wrote John McNeily of the 21st Miss. The men chatted with each other and filled their canteens; some broke off branches of cherry trees to get the fruit.
Speaking at a reunion of veterans in 1878, division commander Lafayette McLaws noted that "Barksdale had been exceedingly impatient for the order to advance, and his enthusiasm was shared in by his command." Barksdale was probably both anxious to get at the enemy and also to vacate his present position in Pitzer's fire. Two or three times Barksdale approached McLaws, pleading, "General, let me go; General let me charge." But McLaws had not yet received orders to this effect and told his "fiery impetuous Mississippian" to be patient. When Longstreet appeared, Barksdale could not restrain himself and rode up to his corps commander, saluted and blurted out, "I wish you would let me go in, General; I would take that battery in five minutes." Longstreet's reply was as patient as McLaw's - "Wait a little - we are all going in presently."
Barksdale was at least now given his orders. Assembling his regimental officers, he pointed to the high ground along the Emmitsburg Road and said, " 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 officers below the rank of general were told that they would make the charge on foot because of the "difficulty of replacing the horses killed," noted Major George Gerald.
The time had finally arrived. Captain G.B. Lamar noted that "when I carried him the order to advance his (Barksdale's) face was radiat with joy!" Just before 6:00 PM, the men could see General Barksdale riding along the rear of thier line, which was the signal for the regimental commanders to prepare for action. The men stripped off their scant belongings and threw them in a pile by regiment, with one man left to guard them. The command of "Attention" could soon be heard ringing through the ranks. McNeily likened the command to an electric shock, for it "brought every man of his regiment up standing." By this time Barksdale had reached the end of the line, turned, and rode in front of his line, stopping in front of his old regiment, the 13th Mississippi. The men could see that "stamped on his face, and in his bearing, as he rode by, was a determination 'to do or die." As Barksdale halted and faced the enemy, Colonel Benjamin Humphreys of the 21st Miss. yelled for his men to "move forward and swing to the left." Major General of the 18th Miss. recalled that the order was "dress to the colors and forward to the foe!" Private Joseph Lloyd of the 13th Miss. noted that his colonel gave the following string of orders: "Attention! Fix bayonets! Forward march. Double quick march. Charge bayonets.
The men had not gone far when they heard the command, "Double-quick, charge!" and the line of battle responded accordingly. McNeily noted that the brigade, "yelling at the top of thier voices, without firing a shot, . . . sped swiftly across the field and literally rushed the goal." Henley (17th Miss.) recalled that "we went in perfect line. The would knock great gaps in our line. Then we would fill up the gaps and move on." Leftwich of the same regiment agreed. "When a solid shot tore a gap in your ranks it was instantly closed up, and the Brigade came on in an almost perfect line."
As the line moved rapidly forward some of the men of the 21st Miss. on the right flank could see that Kershaw's Brigade had obliqued toward the right, leaving their own right flank exposed. Those on the opposite flank could not see any support on their left either, as Wilcox's Brigade had not yet stepped off. As a result, Barksdale's men moved swiftly forward unsupported. The 21st Miss. on the right of the line smashed into the Peach Orchard salient occupied by Graham's Brigade (Birney's Division, III Corps), while the 18th Miss. on the left of the line approached the Sherfy buildings, filled with Pennsylvanians. In between, the 13th Miss. and 17th Miss. took on the rest of Graham's Brigade.
The 21st Miss. on the right crossed the Emmitsburg Road and continued on without pausing. It soon ran into the 68th Pennsylvania of Graham's Brigade and the 2nd New Hampshire of Burling's Brigade (Humphrey's Division, III Corps). The Federal troops held their ground, forcing the 21st Mississippi to stop at a fence, probably the one bordering Wheatfield Road, until the 17th Miss. arrived on its left. Before long the Federal troops began to back out. McNeily recalled that the Federal troops "fought back bravely, retiring slowly until the firing was at close quarters, when the retreat became a rout in which our men took [a] heavy toll for the losses inflicted on them." Many of the Federal troops tried to hide behind boulders, but were quickly captured. General Joseph Graham supervised the defense along this part of the line, and several Confederate soldiers observed his actions. "General graham with becoming courage rode out of the orchard behind his men. His horse was wounded and pitched the General over his head, leaving him in a dazed state of mind," recorded McNeily. The 21st Miss. quickly snatched him up along with hundreds of prisoners, and sent them rapidly to the rear. Several cannon were also captured at this point in the battle.
Over on the opposite end of the brigade, the 18th Miss. rapidly approached the Sherfy buildings, were it encountered units of the 57th Pennsylvania. After driving these troops back, the men could see that many Federal troops had taken refuge in the farm buildings and were throwing a deadly fire into their ranks. According to Major George Gerald, "[I] called to the colonel and the lieutenant colonel that the barn was occupied by the enemy and must be taken; they failed to respond promptly and I called to the men that the barn must be captured and to follow me and I would open the door." So heavy was the Federal fire that Gerald and his men could only see dense smoke filling the barn. "They followed me with a rush . . . and within less than two minutes we had killed, wounded or captured every man in the barn, " Gerald recounted.
In the center of the brigade, the 13th Miss. ran into the 114th Pennsylvania and parts of the 57th Pennsylvania. Lloyd (13th Miss.) recalled that "scarcely a minute and we are at the barn and scalin the fences at the lane and right across and in among the enemy and literally running over them." The 17th Miss. to the right hit the 114th Pennsylvania in the front and flank. Henley wrote that the Federal "regiment began to run, and we commenced firing on them, and they ran in crowds. You could not shoot without hitting two or three of them." He recalled that as the Mississippians continued forward, they ran into other Pennyslvania units, probably remnants of the 114th and 57th Pennsylvania and the intact 105th Pennsylvania "posted behind an embankment, and they killed lots of our boys." Most of the 17th Miss., with the 21st Miss. to their right, crossed Emmitsburg Road where they took on the flank of the 68th Pennsylvania and 2nd New Hampshire, driving them back. Federal reinforcements in the form of the 73rd New York from Brewster's Brigade (Humphrey's Division, III Corps) were also swept away. A wounded Captain Frank Moran of the latter regiment recalled how the 13th Miss. charged past him, "firing and shrieking like Indians."
These troops were quickly dispatched, and the 13th, 17th, and 18th Mississippi swung northward along the Emmitsburg Road, where they caught Carr's and Brewster's Brigades on the flank and sent them reeling as well. Barksdale actively encouraged his men, shouting to them, "Forward, men, forward," which Major Gerald recalled was the only command uttered.
As the three regiments swung to the north, Colonel Humphrey's of the 21st Miss. could see several batteries in front of him taking a toll on Kershaw's Brigade on his right. He realized that they could also send an enfilading fire against Barksdale's men, so he drove his men toward the guns, causing Clark's battery to limber up to leave. However, the volleys from the Mississippians, combined with the Confederate artillery fire, killed and wounded a number of horses, forcing the battery to leave a caisson behind. Thompson's battery on the right of Clark's suffered a similar fate. Some of the cannons, like Bigelow's were pulled back with prolonges, or long ropes while they continued firing. Up ahead, Bigelow's battery took a new position near the Trostle barn. Whitelaw Reid, the former minister of England, was present on the battlefield as a correspondent for the Cincinnati Gazette and happened to see the desperate fite between the battery and the 21st Miss. "Reserving his fire a little, then with depressed guns opening with double charges of grape and cannister, he smites and shatters, but cannot break the advancing line . . . he falls back on sperical case, and pours this in at the shortest range. On, still onward, comes the artillery-defying line, and still he holds his position. They are within six paces of the guns-he fires again. Once more, and he blows devoted soldiers from his very muzzles . . . They spring upon his carriages and shoot down his forces." John Bigelow wrote that the "enemy crowded to the very muzzles . . . but were blown away by the canister . . .the air was dark with smoke. . . the enemy were yelling like demons, yet my men kept up a rapid fire, with their guns each time loaded to the muzzle." In the end, the 21st Miss. captured four of Bigelow's guns.
After dispatching Bigelow's battery, Watshon's battery galloped up and deployed for action, again preventing Humphreys from reuniting with the rest of the brigade. The 21st Miss. overwhelmed this battery in short order as well. In fact the regiment was moving so rapidly that it captured the battery before it even had a chance to fire a shot. After the war, Humphreys recalled this moment:
From the position I occupied then, no enemy could be seen
or heard in my front. Nor a gun was being fired at me.
The federal army was cut in twain. Eight hundred
yards, to my right a confused mass was retreating,
driven by McLaws, and Hood. I attempted to turn
the guns just captured on them but no rammers or
friction wires could be found. Eight hundred yards
to my left the enemy's line was kept busy by Barksdale.
Before long. Humphreys could see both groups giving way. The situation quickly changed when the 39th New York (Willard's Brigade, Hays's Division, II Corps) drove forward on the Mississippians' left. A short time later, a dense mass of blue-clad figures suddenly materialized in front of him, which proved to be Lockwood's Brigade (Ruger's Division, XII Corps). Humphreys quickly ordered his men to retreat. They reluctantly left the five guns from Watson's battery, and in their haste, could not pull any of Bigelow's guns off the field either. They did spike one of the Napoleons though.
While Humphreys' 21st Miss. was crossing Plum Run, driving a wedge in the Union line, the rest of the brigade continued northward. While seemingly achieving great success, its future was becoming increasingly precarious. Barksdale's three remaining regiments were badly disorganized. Major Gerald of the 18th Miss. vividly recalled that during this part of the battle "Our entire line of battle . . . were badly scattered and in great confusion." Still the three regiments moved on under the orders of "forward with bayonets." The colonels of the 17th Miss. and 18th Miss. pleaded with Barksdale to halt to reform the line, but he would hear nothing of it. "No-Crowd them-we have them on the run," was his reply. The men approached Plum Run. No Federal troops were in view and it appeared that they had successfully breached the Federal center, possibly forcing the enemy to vacate Cemetery Ridge. A volley suddenly rang out from the other side of the run. Barksdale's slim and disordered lines were no up against a fresh Federal brigade, Willard's (Hays's Division, II Corps).
Barksdale was mortally wounded around this time. He was hit several times in his leg and foot, and sustained a large wound to his left breast, which was thought to have been caused by a cannon projectile. One of his men later noted that Barsdale "had a very thirst for battlefield glory, to lead his brigade in the charge." According to one of the men, Barksdale's last words were to "tell his family that he loved them, and that he died at his post." Colonel Thomas Griffin of the 18th Miss. now took command of the brigade, but he was wounded in a matter of minutes.
After exchanging volleys with Willard's Brigade for several minutes, the remaining officers realized that they were without support and that their lines were sadly depleted. The sun was setting, and the men soon heard the orders to retire. Falling back to Emmitsburg Road, the regiments reunited with the 21st Miss. and bivouacked near the Peach Orchard. While some of the men fell into a deep sleep, others, like Major George Gerald, resisted, as he was afraid that the full moon could encourage a night attack, similar to the one made at Chancellorsville a few months before.
Colonel Humphreys took command of the brigade during the morning of July 3, and was ordered to "drive the enemy pickets as far as they will go." General Lee rode by that morning and asked about the identity of the troops. Major George Gerald responded that "it is what is left of Barksdale's Brigade." Lee ordered the unit back toward Seminary Ridge to "prevent the artillery from being harassed by federal infantry." While there, the brigade was ordered to take cover down when the great bombardment preceding the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble charge began. After losing over half its men during July 2, the brigade lost but six on July 3, mostly though "premature explosion from bth sides during the bombardment."
Many of the men jumped to their feet to watch Pickett's men attack the Union center. "The enemy concentrated their fire on the charging line, endeavoring to demoralize it, and at one time I saw a concentrated fire cut out nearly all of the men in the line for thirty or forty yards like grass before a reaper, but the line closed up and moved on twoards the heights without ever losing the step," recalled Major George Gerald. The brigade spent July 4 resting, and began the retreat at 2:00 AM on July 5.
Bardsdale's Brigade's action were among the most spectacular of the battle. It almost single-handledly defeated two Federal brigades (Graham's and Brewster's), causing each to sustain heavy losses, and materially helped defeat a third (Carr's). It also temporarily captured at least nine cannon. The cost was heavy, as the Mississippians lost about half of their men in an attack that eventually blunted. Private Moore probably summed up the men's feelings when he recorded in his diary during the evening of July 2, "our loss was heavy . . . Every man acted the hero. Miss. has lost many of her best & bravest sons. How thankfule should all be to God who have escaped. Oh! The horrors of war." Moore would not be so lucky in his next battle - he would die at the battle of Chickamauga.