Even in an army full of fire-eaters, William Barksdale stood out. "The fiery impetuous Mississippian," was how division commander Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws referred to him. Large and heavy, Barksdale did not present a classic figure on a horse--when he rode he leaned forward as if trying to push his horse faster out of sheer eagerness to get at the Yankees. "He had a thirst for battle glory," said one of his men. Many noticed that Barksdale achieved a kind of incandescence when he was about to go into a fight. He helped create this effect by his habit of leading his brigade from the front, on horseback, with his hat off--he had a light complexion and thin, wispy white hair, and it shone like a beacon to his men during a charge, "like the white plume of Navarre," according to one captain.

Born in Tennessee and graduated from the University of Nashville, Barksdale moved to Mississippi to practice as a lawyer, but left his practice to edit the Columbus Democrat, a pro-slavery newspaper. He took part in the Mexican War as a quartermaster, but frequently appeared, coatless and with a big sword, in the front when the fighting started. After that war he entered Congress, where in the 1850's he attained national prominence as a hot-headed states' rights Democrat. He was alleged to have stood by the side of his friend and fellow Representative Preston S. Brooks when Brooks, in an infamous incident, nearly killed Massachusetts abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate Chamber by beating him repeatedly over the head with a gutta-percha cane. In one shoving match in the House, Barksdale lost his wig.

When the South seceded in the spring of 1861 congressman Barksdale resigned his seat in the House to become quartermaster general of Mississippi's forces. In May, however, he was made colonel of the 13th Mississippi, and took his regiment to First Manassas that summer, arriving on the Federal flank at the moment of decision. That fall, however, Colonel Barksdale got so drunk that his superior, "Shanks" Evans (himself a notorious tippler), brought him up on charges. Barksdale escaped punishment by giving "a solemn pledge" not to touch a drop for the duration of the war.

He devoted the following months to training his regiment and learning the ropes himself. He took his regiment to the Peninsula the following spring. When brigade leader Brig. Gen. Richard Griffith was killed by a stray shell at Savage Station on June 29, Barksdale took over command of the brigade, then led it two days later at Malvern Hill. Lee himself wrote of Barksdale there: "seizing the colors himself and advancing under a terrific fire of artillery and infantry" he displayed "the highest qualities of the soldier." He was made brigadier general in August 1862.

In the Maryland Campaign, where Barksdale was acting for the first time under the divisional leadership of McLaws, the Mississippians, along with Kershaw's brigade, pried a Yankee regiment off the rugged Maryland Heights and thus sealed the doom of the Union garrison at Harper's Ferry below. A few days later at Sharpsburg, McLaws's division rushed onto the field and crushed Sedgwick's division in the West Woods, ending the Federal threat on the Confederate left.

At Fredericksburg in December 1862, Barksdale and his brigade won lasting renown with their solitary, gritty defense of the waterfront, where they repulsed Federal attempts to bridge the Rappahannock River by firing from cellars and rifle pits in the riverfront buildings of the town. Barksdale's men clung to their position even after a concentrated Yankee artillery bombardment that pounded the buildings into rubble.

One facet of Barksdale's leadership style was on display the night before fighting started in earnest at Chancellorsville in May 1863. Barksdale's brigade had a prayer service and pep rally. Mississippi ex-governor Albert Gallatin Brown and other politicians delivered speeches, and Barksdale himself gave "a very interesting 'family talk,'" one of his soldiers wrote. "He is very much attached to the boys, as the boys are to him." Barksdale's assignment in that campaign was to hold the heights above Fredericksburg with his brigade alone. When they were overrun by Sedgwick's 23,000-strong Sixth Corps, Barksdale showed pluck and resilience: "Our center has been pierced, that's all," Barksdale announced cheerfully; "we will be all right in a little while." He managed to evacuate his survivors, rally his brigade, and take back the lost ground the next day.

Forty-two years old, Barksdale was one of the Confederacy's most inspirational brigadiers, and his brigade of big, rangy, straight-shooting Mississippians was second to none. Barksdale was a political general, and couldn't be asked to achieve anything tactically sophisticated, but as a charismatic leader of a brigade of fellow Mississippians, he could work wonders in either attack or defense. Marching into position at Gettysburg, the general wore trousers trimmed with gold braid, a short round jacket trimmed with gold braid on its sleeves and closed by Mississippi buttons bearing a star. The jacket's collar had three stars. The general's shirt was of cotton or fine linen, and Barksdale fastened it with studs bearing Masonic emblems.

At Gettysburg
Barksdale's brigade was with the two lead divisions of Longstreet's corp, which moved east over South Mountain on the night of July 1-2 and camped at Marsh Creek about 3_ miles west of Gettysburg.

At noon on July 2, Barksdale's men marched with the rest of McLaws's division on a long, frustrating, back-and-forth route from Herr Ridge to a line facing east from Pitzer's Woods, their jump-off position for the attack on the Union left flank--a flank thought to be somewhere north of the Wheatfield Road. The brigade arrived in place at about 3:30 P.M.. Barksdale could see through the trees that the Peach Orchard immediately opposite his men's line--supposed to be empty--was instead bristling with Yankee infantry and artillery.

Plans were changed, and all McLaws's brigades waited for Hood's division to attack first, from McLaws's right. Then, at about 5:30 P.M., Longstreet gave the order for McLaws's division to charge. Kershaw's brigade, on Barksdale's immediate right, burst forward, but Barksdale was for some reason delayed in getting started.

Barksdale made a short speech, then shouted, "Attention, Mississippians! Battalions, Forward!" and the brigade exploded from the woods. It was, by all accounts, an irresistible tide, one of the most breathtaking spectacles of the War. One Confederate called it "the most magnificent charge I witnessed during the war." A Northern colonel was quoted as saying, "It was the grandest charge that was ever made by mortal man." Barksdale's tightly packed line surged forward, not stopping while the Union muskets and cannon tore at the line. It swept up and over the Federal front, and smashed Graham's brigade manning the Peach Orchard line, wounding and capturing Graham himself. Still the charge hurtled ahead. Some of the regiments turned to the north and caused Humphreys's division to crumple and fall back--eventually a full half-mile, to Cemetery Ridge. Other Mississippi regiments went straight ahead. Barksdale kept urging the men on: "Brave Mississippians, one more charge and the day is ours."

But the attack was slowed by shredded, disordered lines and fatigue. Barksdale's men had gone about a mile, as far as Plum Run, when they were counterattacked by Willard's "Harper's Ferry" brigade. Barksdale was first hit by a bullet above the left knee but stayed in command. Next his left foot was hit by a cannonball and nearly taken off at the ankle. Then he was hit by another bullet in the left side of the chest which knocked him off his horse, never to rise. Left for dead, he was later taken on a litter to a Union hospital, where he died before dawn the next morning.

For further reading:
Hawley, Steve C. "Barksdale's Mississippi Brigade at Fredericksburg." Civil War History 40, Mar 1994
Humphreys, Benjamin G. "Recollections of Fredericksburg." Land We Love 3, 1867
McKee, James W. "William Barksdale: The Intrepid Mississippian." Ph.D. diss., Mississippi St. Univ., 1966
McNiely, J.S. Barksdale's Mississippi Brigade at Gettysburg: "Most Magnificent Charge of the War." Gaithersburg, MD, 1987
Rand, Clayton. Men of Spine in Mississippi. Gulfport, Miss., 1940
Winschel, Terrence J. "Their Supreme Moment: Barksdale's Brigade at Gettysburg." Gettysburg Magazine 1, Jul 1989

Excerpted from "The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America's Greatest Battle" by Larry Tagg