Thursday, August 2, 2012

Another Representative at War--- William Barksdale

Representative William Barksdale of Mississippi resigned from the 36th Congress to join the Mississippi Militia. He entered the state’s militia as an adjutant general after Mississippi seceded and just prior to the outbreak of war.  He quickly rose in rank to quartermaster and then brigadier general on March 1, 1861.  Two months later Barksdale was appointed colonel of the 13th Mississippi in the CSA. In June 1862 Barksdale assumed command of Richard Griffith’s brigade after Griffith was killed at the Battle of Malvern Hill. Barksdale was promoted to Brigadier General on August 12, 1862 and from then on his brigade (13th, 17th, 18th, 21st) was known as Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade.

(Google Images)

During the Maryland Campaign, Barksdale was in Major General Lafayette McLaws’ division (Longstreet Corps ANV). Although at this time I will not be focusing on Harpers Ferry operations, it must be stated that Barksdale was engaged there and his was one of the brigades that attacked Maryland Heights. Instead, I will focus on Barksdale’s performance at Antietam as his brigade was crucial in saving the Confederate left flank against Major General John Sedgwick’s attack in the West Woods.

So I briefly go back to Harpers Ferry to put things in perspective. By the night of September 16,  Harper’s Ferry had surrendered and Lee had decided to remain in Maryland and offer battle to McClellen at Sharpsburg. McLaws had earlier received orders to hurry along to catch up with the rest of the Confederate Army at Sharpsburg. McLaws faced a host of problems, primarily moving his division across clogged bridges and through congested streets, not to mention his soldiers were tired and hungry. At 11am McLaws let his men rest but by 3pm, when an order from Lee urging McLaws to hurry arrived, they grudgingly got up and began moving again. The division marched along Sheperdstown Road until around 9pm when it reached a point 2 miles from Boteler’s Ford and made camp. Around 11pm a second order came from Lee that in no uncertain terms stated McLaws was due at Sharpsburg immediately. At 4am McLaws reached Sharpsburg and searched for Lee. He found Longstreet, then Jackson, and finally Lee. Lee directed McLaws to keep his division posted on Sheperdstown Road and allow his men to rest until they were needed. Meanwhile, McLaws swan-dived into the tall grass along the road and took a nap.

(Google Images)

Although the battle of Antietam opened around 530am, McLaws’ division did not engage until 9am. At 8am Jubal Early sent a dire request for reinforcements to Jackson and in turn Jackson made an appeal to Lee. Lee called up McLaws' division still resting along Shepardstown Road. During this hour, events in the West Woods were to become cataclysmic. Early had returned to his brigade and surveyed the situation.

125th PA

He saw the 125th Pennsylvania which “had gotten detached from its brigade, and all alone it was advancing in splendid ignorance down the Smoketown Road, a journey that, because of the sharp angle the road took in the East Woods, was carrying the regiment toward the Dunkard Church” placing them past Early’s right flank. Early observed Union artillery on the Dunker plateau facing the town which threatened to cut off Early from the town and the rest of the Confederate army. Early watched the beginnings of Sedgwick’s division emerge from the East Woods and head in his direction. Quite an hour!

34th NY

In response to this series of threats, Early snuck his brigade south behind Hauser’s Ridge and swung left to face east and open fire on those near the Dunker Church. Two of Sedgwick’s brigades, Gorman and Dana, entered the West Woods on Early’s left. Another wandering regiment, Gorman’s 34th NY, went astray and ended up taking position with the 125th PA at Dunker Church. This mistake would prove to be costly because it left a 300 yard gap between the left flank of Gorman’s brigade and the nearest Union regiment, the 15th MA. Even more worrisome was had the 34th NY been in the right place it would have filled a ravine in the West Woods that extended the length of the woods to Hagerstown Pike. Where the regiment currently stood, the ravine was neither noticed nor occupied by the 34th NY.  Just then, Early noticed reinforcements headed his way marching up Hagerstown Pike. However, Early also realized that if he continued his attack in an eastward direction then a case of friendly fire would occur. As Early attempted to call off the attack, the 125th PA and 34th NY realized the overextended pickle they were in and retreated and Early’s brigade gave chase. Early watched Sedgwick’s third brigade (Howard) enter the West Woods, regained control of his own brigade and moved them back to Hauser’s Ridge and did not participate in the fury of McLaws’ division smashing into Sedgwick’s division.

West Woods

A map that illustrates just how confusing the situation in the West Woods was.
(courtesy of CWT)
 As McLaws advanced up Hagerstown Pike he put his division in order (Kershaw, Barksdale, Semmes) to the left/west. Cobb wandered too far off to the right and was lost from this part of the battle’s action. McLaws noticed one of Sedgwick’s brigade entering the West Woods and assumed he would cross the open ground near Dunker Church and enter the woods catching the enemy unaware. McLaws stated “as the enemy were filling the woods so rapidly, I wished my troops to cross the open space between us and the woods before they were entirely occupied”. What he didn’t factor in was the 125th PA and 34th NY yet meandering about the church. Kershaw’s brigade attacked first. He pulled his brigade to the right in order to avoid the friendly fire scenario that had worried Early and inadvertently ended on the east side of Hagerstown Pike in the sights of the line of Union artillery. According to Kershaw, he “ordered forward, at double-quick, Colonel Kennedy’s 2nd South Carolina Regiment to march by a flank to the extreme point of the wood; then by front to enter it. Before the head of the regiment had reached the point, and when entangled in a rail fence, the enemy opened fire upon them from a point not more than 60 yards distant. They promptly faced to the front, and returned the fire so rapidly as to drive the enemy almost immediately. At the same time the brigades of Cobb (Kershaw meant Semmes) and Barksdale, now on their left, advanced to their support”. In the meanwhile, Semmes went off on a rescue mission and, just like Early, used Hauser’s Ridge to mask his movements as he snuck his brigade north to deal with Sedgwick’s front. With Cobb located at Sunken Lane, Kershaw halted on the east side of Hagerstown Pike, and Semmes forming a line in front of Hauser’s Ridge, McLaws had only Barksdale left.

Hauser's Ridge

Initially, things did not look to bode any better for Barksdale. In his Official Report, Barksdale noted “that a portion of men had fallen by the wayside from loss of sleep and excessive fatigue, having been constantly on duty for five or six days, and on march for almost the whole of the two preceding nights, and that I went into the fight with less than 800 men”. He formed a line of battle at 1000am and followed Kershaw in pursuit of the 125th PA and 34th NY but when he came under fire from the north Barksdale “discovered that a very large force of the enemy were attempting to flank me on the left. I therefore ordered the Eighteenth and Thirteenth to wheel in that direction, and not only succeeded in checking the movement they were making, but put them to flight”.  These two regiments, along with Semmes and the supporting brigade of GT Anderson unleashed a devastating fire along the Union lines. The men of Sedgwick’s division fled from the West Woods to the safety of the North and East Woods.

Battlefield Tablet
No. 357
 In his Official Report, McLaws stated “Brigadier-Generals Kershaw, Semmes, and Barksdale deserve high praise for their heroic conduct in the fight and for the skillful manner their brigades were handled”. Clearly, a man of few words.

Joseph Harsh "Taken at the Flood" pgs 364-392.
Marion Armstrong "Unfurl Those Colors" pg 184.
Official Reports of Lafayette McLaws, William Barksdale, Jubal Early, Paul Semmes, Willis Gorman, Joseph Kershaw.