Joseph Kershaw was the embodiment of the Confederate gentleman-turned-soldier ideal, a lawyer from the "Cradle of the Rebellion," South Carolina. He was intelligent, literate, and dignified, a man of high character in whose life religion had first place. Blond, with light blue eyes, refined features and a resolute expression, he was clean-shaven except for a drooping blond mustache. He had the bearing of command and a clear voice that seemed to inspire courage when it was raised in battle. "Gallant and pious," was how division commander McLaws described him; "cool and judicious."
His father was several times mayor of Camden, S.C., and served a term as a member of Congress. Young Joseph, though orphaned at seven, studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1843. In addition to his law career Kershaw had some military experience, having been a lieutenant with South Carolina's "Palmetto Regiment" in the Mexican War. Later a member of the state legislature and a member of his state's secession convention, he raised a militia regiment which went into Confederate service as the 2nd South Carolina regiment when the Civil War began. When he went off to war, his beautiful wife Lucretia made herself a necklace and bracelets woven from locks of his hair.
Kershaw's regiment was present at Fort Sumter and First Manassas. He had some rough edges early on--he annoyed commanding general Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard after First Manassas by not filing a report with him and instead writing an article for a South Carolina newspaper in which it appeared that Kershaw had won the battle himself. Beauregard later referred to him as "that militia idiot." Fortunately for Kershaw, Beauregard was transferred away from the Virginia army, and in January 1862 Kershaw took command of his brigade when the previous commander, Brig. Gen. Milledge Bonham, resigned in a huff over a seniority dispute. Two weeks later Kershaw was promoted to brigadier general.
On the Peninsula the next summer, Kershaw led his brigade in action at Williamsburg and again at Savage Station during the Seven Days' Battles. In division commander Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws's official report after those battles, he wrote "I beg leave to call attention to the gallantry, cool, yet daring, courage and skill in the management of his gallant command exhibited by Brigadier-General Kershaw." Thus there was already much expected of Kershaw and and his men before the Maryland Campaign in September, where Kershaw's men forced Union soldiers off the critical Maryland Heights before the capture of Harper's Ferry. There, some of the men had to load and fire from positions where they had to use one arm to keep from rolling down the mountainside. After the Battle of Sharpsburg at the climax of that campaign, Kershaw was again highly praised by McLaws.
At Fredericksburg, Kershaw had his finest hour, reinforcing Brig. Gen. Thomas Cobb's brigade behind the Stone Wall on Marye's Heights and taking command of that embattled salient when Cobb was mortally wounded. Leading his brigade on horseback, Kershaw emerged on the crest of the hill a conspicuous and defiant target, seen and admired by thousands on both sides. It was said later that when he reined in his horse, the Yankees withheld their fire as if out of respect, and that Kershaw took off his cap in acknowledgment before he disappeared behind the bastion of the Stone Wall.
At Chancellorsville, for once, Kershaw was not heavily engaged.
By the summer of 1863, Kershaw, forty-one years old, had been a brigadier for a year and a half, and had distinguished himself in almost every battle Lee's army had fought. Kershaw showed an ability for quick rational decisions--he had both dash and good sense. His brigade was always well put in, and Kershaw never endangered his men rashly. McLaws had complete faith in him and his brigade, and he was much admired by his South Carolinians. The official reports Kershaw wrote are graceful, literate, and restrained. He was a man who passed among the whistling bullets and shrieking shells with a calm center, never losing his dignity.
| Kershaw was in the van of Longstreet's two divisions moving east from
Greenwood over South Mountain on the night of July 1-2.|
Kershaw's brigade was again in the lead at noon on July 2 when the two divisions started their march from Herr Ridge to the jump-off point for their attack on the Union left flank. After a frustrating series of marches and countermarches, Kershaw deployed his men about 3:30 P.M. on the extreme right of McLaws's division, in Biesecker's Woods along the southern end of the crest of Seminary Ridge. When he peered through the trees he was astounded to see Union infantry and artillery in strength in his front. Whereas he had expected his own brigade to be in the front line of Longstreet's attack, a new plan was quickly developed whereby Hood's division, now shaking out their lines on Kershaw's right, would attack first and drive in the Union left.
Kershaw thus waited to attack until about 5:30 P.M., when Longstreet gave the signal and McLaws's division went forward. Right away there was trouble--Wofford and Barksdale on his left were delayed in their attack and Kershaw's men suffered cruelly at first from flanking fire from the Union musketry and artillery around the Peach Orchard. When Kershaw reached the wooded Stony Hill 500 yards in his front, he realized that Hood's division would not be aiding his attack. Hood's men were barely hanging on around the Wheatfield on the other side of the Stony Hill. Kershaw would be aiding them.
Tilton's, Sweitzer's and DeTrobriand's Union brigades, the first faced by Kershaw on the Stony Hill, all withdrew. Then Caldwell's division poured in. Kershaw faced Zook's and Kelly's brigades, who drove his men back. Soon, however, Wofford's brigade stormed by on Kershaw's left, outflanking Caldwell's brigades, and they also fled. Kershaw's men went forward again and drove back Sweitzer's brigade (which had returned), then Ayres's two Regular brigades; each Yankee brigade was flanked by Wofford in turn. By the time the Pennsylania Reserves appeared in front of them directly north of Little Round Top, Kershaw's force was spent. Longstreet gave the order to retire, and Kershaw's men withdrew to the Peach Orchard.
The next day, July 3, Kershaw's men were withdrawn to the wall in Biesecker's Woods where they had formed for the attack the afternoon before.
Kershaw deservedly appeared on Longstreet's list of those "most distinguished for the exhibition of great gallantry and skill" after Gettysburg. His star was still on the rise. After the Knoxville Campaign in the fall, he succeeded to command of the division when McLaws was relieved and arrested by Longstreet. Kershaw was made major general in May 1864 and remained in command of the division for the rest of the war, a proud exception--with Maj. Gens. Wade Hampton and John B. Gordon--to Lee's rule that a division commander must be a professionally trained soldier.
For further reading:
Capers, Ellison. South Carolina, Vol. 5 of Confederate Military History. Ed. by Clement A. Evans, Atlanta, 1899. Vol. 6 of extended ed., Wilmington, 1987
Dickert, D. Augustus. History of Kershaw's Brigade. Dayton, 1976
McDowell, John E. and William C. Davis, "General Joseph B. Kershaw." Civil War Times Illustrated 8, Feb 1970
McLaws, Lafayette. "Gettysburg." Southern Historical Society Papers 7, 1879. Reprint, Wilmington, 1990
Wyckoff, Mac. "Kershaw's Brigade at Gettysburg." Gettysburg Magazine 5, Jul 1991