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William Barksdale (August 21, 1821 – July 3, 1863) was a lawyer, newspaper editor, U.S. Congressman, and a Confederate general in the American Civil War. A staunch secessionist, he was mortally wounded during the Battle of Gettysburgmarker while leading his brigade's attack on Union forces not far from Cemetery Ridgemarker.

Early life

William Barksdale was born in Smyrna, Tennesseemarker, the son of William Barksdale and Nancy Hervey Lester. He was the older brother of Ethelbert Barksdale, who would serve in both the antebellum U.S. Congress and then the Confederate States Congress during the Civil War.

Barksdale graduated from the University of Nashville and practiced law in Mississippimarker from the age of 21, but gave up his practice to become the editor of the Columbus [Mississippi] Democrat, a pro-slavery newspaper. He enlisted in the 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment and served in the Mexican War as a captain and quartermaster, but often participated in the infantry fighting as well.

After the war, he entered the U.S. House of Representatives and achieved national prominence as a States' rights Democrat, serving from March 4, 1853, to January 12, 1861. He was considered to be one of the most ferocious of all the "Fire-Eaters" in the House. He allegedly stood by the side of Representative Preston S. Brooks as Brooks attacked Massachusettsmarker abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber with a cane, although he was not one of the members that the House tried to censure after the incident.

Civil War

After the state of Mississippi seceded just before the start of the Civil War, Barksdale resigned from Congress to become adjutant general, and then quartermaster general, of the Mississippi Militia, at the rank of brigadier general. In May 1861, he was appointed colonel in the Confederate States Army of the 13th Mississippi Infantry, a regiment that he led in the First Battle of Bull Runmarker that summer. The following spring, he took his regiment to the Virginia Peninsulamarker and fought in the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days Battle. When his brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Richard Griffin, was mortally wounded at the Battle of Savage's Stationmarker on June 29, 1862, Barksdale assumed command of the brigade and led it in an heroic, but bloody and futile, charge at the Battle of Malvern Hillmarker. The brigade became known as "Barksdale's Mississippi Brigade." He was promoted to brigadier general on August 12, 1862.

In the Northern Virginia Campaignmarker, Barksdale's Brigade was stationed at Harpers Ferrymarker, and thus did not participate in the Second Battle of Bull Runmarker. In the Maryland Campaign, his 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. It was one of the brigades that attacked Maryland Heights, leading to the surrender of the Union garrison at Harpers Ferrymarker. At the subsequent Battle of Antietammarker, McLaws's Division defended the West Woods against the assault by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick's division, saving the Confederate left flank. At the Battle of Fredericksburgmarker, Barksdale's Brigade defended the waterfront of the city from Union forces attempting to cross the Rappahannock Rivermarker, sniping at infantry and engineer forces from buildings that had been turned into rubble by Union artillery.

At the Battle of Chancellorsvillemarker in May 1863, Barksdale's Brigade was one of the few units in James Longstreet's Corps that was present at the battle; most of the corps was detached for duty in Suffolk, Virginiamarker. Once again, Barksdale's brigade defended the heights above Fredericksburg, this time against his previous adversary, Sedgwick, whose VI Corps was over ten times the size of his brigade. Sedgwick's assault was successful and Barksdale pulled back after delaying the Union force, but he was able to rally his brigade and retake the lost ground the next day.

At the Battle of Gettysburg, Barksdale's Brigade arrived with McLaws's Division after the first day of battle, July 1, 1863. The plan from General Robert E. Lee was for Longstreet's Corps to maneuver into position and attack northeast, up the Emmitsburg Road, to roll up the Union left flank. Barksdale's sector of the attack placed him directly at the tip of the salient in the Union line anchored at the Peach Orchard, defended by the Union III Corps. At about 5:30 p.m., Barksdale's Brigade burst from the woods and started an irresistible assault, which has been described as one of the most breathtaking spectacles of the Civil War. A Union colonel was quoted as saying, "It was the grandest charge that was ever made by mortal man." Although he ordered his subordinate commanders to walk during the charge, Barksdale himself rode on horseback "in front, leading the way, hat off, his wispy hair shining so that it reminded [a Confederate staff officer] of 'the white plume of Navarre'."

The Confederates smashed the brigade manning the Peach Orchard line, wounding and capturing the Union brigade commander himself. Some of Barksdale's regiments turned to the north and shattered Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys's division. Others of his regiments went straight ahead. By the time his men had gone as far as Plum Run, a mile into the assault, they were counterattacked by a brigade under Colonel George L. Willard. Barksdale was wounded in his left knee, followed by a cannonball to his left foot, and finally was hit by another bullet to his chest, knocking him off his horse. He told his aide, W.R. Boyd, "I am killed! Tell my wife and children that I died fighting at my post." His troops were forced to leave him for dead on the field and he died the next morning in a Union field hospital (the Joseph Hummelbaugh farmhouse).

Barksdale is buried in Greenwood Cemeterymarker in Jackson, Mississippimarker.

Dates of Rank

  • Brigadier General (Mississippi Militia), March 1, 1861
  • Colonel, May 1, 1861
  • Brigadier General, August 12, 1862

In popular media

Barksdale is portrayed in the film Gettysburg and in the prequel, Gods and Generals, by Lester Kinsolving, who is a descendant of Barksdale.

Unrelated Barksdales

Jim Barksdale, one of the founders of Netscape, and a native of Mississippi, referred to General Barksdale in speeches, citing his aggressive nature as a model for business success, but there is no documentation to suggest that the two men were related.

Barksdale Air Force Basemarker, Louisianamarker, is named for Lt. Eugene Hoy Barksdale, a U.S. Army Air Corps test pilot, also apparently unrelated to the Civil War general.

See also

Eugene Hoy Barksdale descends from Nathaniel B. Barksdale (d. 1790). Brig. Gen. William Barksdale also descends from Nathaniel B. Barksdale. They are distant cousins with James Love Barksdale who descends from Thomas Henry Barksdale (d. 1788), brother of Nathaniel B. Barksdale.


  • Clark, Champ, and the Editors of Time-Life Books, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide, Time-Life Books, 1985, ISBN 0-8094-4758-4.
  • Eicher, John H., and Eicher, David J., Civil War High Commands, Stanford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
  • Pfanz, Harry W., Gettysburg – The Second Day, University of North Carolina Press, 1987, ISBN 0-8078-1749-X.
  • Tagg, Larry, The Generals of Gettysburg, Savas Publishing, 1998, ISBN 1-882810-30-9.
  • Warner, Ezra J., Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders, Louisiana State University Press, 1959, ISBN 0-8071-0823-5.


  1. Warner, p. 16.
  2. Clark, p. 102.
  3. Pfanz, pp. 320-21.
  4. William Barksdale biography, Sons of Confederate Veterans.

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