William Barksdale was born in 1821 in Tennessee. His father had served in the War of 1812. He moved to Columbus, Mississippi, became a lawyer and editor. He was a captain in the Mexican War and proved himself to be an excellent commander.
Returning from the Mexican War a hero, he was elected to the United States Congress where he served until Mississippi left the Union. He had never supported secession, but stated that he would join Mississippi if it should secede because the South had borne the burdens of maintaining the Federal government.
He began the Civil War as Colonel of the 13th Mississippi Infantry. At the battle of First Manassas, he and members of his regiment stumbled into a nest of angry yellow jackets, their only action in that battle. He was almost court-martialed for drunkenness, but promised to abstain from liquor for the duration of the war.
When Brigadier General Richard Griffith was killed at Savage's Station, Barksdale was promoted to Brigadier General. McLaws had recommended him for promotion after witnessing him leading his brigades charge with the Confederate battle flag at Malvern Hill. He missed Second Manassas, but fought at the Battle of Antietam.
His best day of the war came at Fredricksburg in December 1862. His brigade was assigned to defend Federal river crossings into town. He sent General Robert E. Lee a message, asking him if he wanted a bridge of dead Yankees. Once the Federal troops forded the river, Barksdale and his men fought an excellent rearguard action through the streets of town to the heights where Lee's main army was entrenched. He defended the stonewall at Fredericksburg during the Battle of Chancellorsville, helping to secure Lee's right flank. Heavily outnumbered they were pushed out of the way, but managed to move into the enemy's rear after he passed by to assault Lee and helped to save the day.
No uniformed photo of Barksdale exists (all are pre-war)
Barksdale and his brigade arrived at Gettysburg just after midnight on July 2, 1863. They formed on the right flank the next day which mean they would be assaulting the Peach Orchard. Beyond the Peach Orchard was the Trostle House where the Ninth Massachusetts Artillery was located. The Federal battery was shelling Barksdale's men furiously. Barksdale begged his division commander Lafayette McLaws and corps commander James Longstreet for permission to charge the little battery. Both instructed him to wait. Barksdale begged Longstreet to just give him five minutes and he would take those cannons. Longstreet told him that they would all be going in shortly.
William Barksdale then called all his brigade's officers for a conference. He stated, "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 was on a white horse and positioned himself just behind his line in the center of his brigade. When the message from McLaws reached Barksdale to advance, the man's face radiated with joy. He held his hat in his hand and his long white hair waved behind him. He instructed his men that they would advance to within seventy-five yards of the Federal battery, halt, fire and then charge with the bayonet. He then spurred his horse fifty yards in front of his brigade to lead them. Advancing toward the Trostle house, Barksdale's brigade captured fifty men and General Graham. He expertly maneuvered his brigade across the road. When two of his colonels begged him to stop and reform, he refused. Barksdale yelled, "We've got them on the run! Move your regiments!"
Area where Barksdale was wounded
He then shouted for his men to charge. He yelled, "Advance! Advance! Brave Mississippians, one more charge and the day is ours!"
Leading his men forward, William Barksdale was hit nine times by rifle fire. Legend has it that a Federal captain ordered his entire company to fire at the mounted officer. He told one of his couriers, "Tell my wife I am killed, but we fought like hell."
Barksdale's brigade would enter the battle with 1,420 men and lose 730 men killed, wounded or missing. His brigade broke the Federal line, overran the artillery battery, but just wasn't strong enough to hold the ground they'd won. Captured, Barksdale was carried to the Hummelbaugh house. He told surgeons there that Hancock had better watch his back because Pete (James Longstreet's nickname) would have a surprise for him in the morning.
Hummelbaugh house and backyard
He told the Federal soldiers who captured him that he had never regretted the choices he'd made and prayed that God would be a father to his boys and care for his wife. General Barksdale survived until the next day when he was seen lying in the backyard of the Hummelbaugh house. A young boy was there dipping water into his mouth, while the general burning with a fever, oblivious to the boy's presence was begging for water. Federal soldiers raided his body for souvenirs. They cut the buttons, collar insignia and gold lace from his uniform. He was buried in the backyard of the Hummelbaugh house.
Before the war was over, Misses Barksdale traveled to Gettysburg to retrieve the body of her husband. She took William's dog along. When they reached the grave where Barksdale was buried, the dog began to act peculiar. When they began digging, the dog began to behave irrationally. Once the body was removed and placed in the wagon, the dog could not be coaxed away from the grave. Misses Barksdale spent the night in Gettysburg and before leaving the next morning attempted once more to take the dog home. Still the dog would allow no one to approach the old grave. Barksdale's wife was forced to leave the dog in Gettysburg and return home to Mississippi. The dog refused to leave his masters old grave site and within a week died of dehydration. Barksdale's dog now rests in the original grave of William Barksdale, somewhere in the backyard of the Hummelbaugh house at Gettysburg.
Local legend states that Barksdale's voice can still be heard there begging for water and at other times his dog can still be heard howling mournfully for his lost master.
William Barksdale was one of the most aggressive general's who served during the Civil War. He was described as being fearless. I have an uncle and several cousins who fought under his command during the war. Some survived to return home, while a few did not.
General Barksdale rests today in Greenwood Cemetery, Jackson, Mississippi. He was forty-one years old. It was inevitable that a general possessing his personality would be killed in battle. The most amazing thing was that he lasted as long as he did.