The 13th’s Colonel (later Brigadier General) William Barksdale was a politician with little military training, despite being a veteran of the Mexican War. For much of the 1850s, he’d been a “fire eater,” a pre-war secessionist, in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he wore a toupee and had a reputation for violence.
He also had a drinking habit that didn’t always serve him. And “Old Bark,” as some of his men called him, also had a temper which, when combined with too much liquor, could get away from him, as it memorably did on the 13th’s march from Centreville to Leesburg on Aug. 10, 1861:
Pvt. Albert Wymer Henley:
“…he imbibed too freely…having taken on more than he could possibly carry. While under its influence he ‘bucked and gagged’ a man who was generally regarded as half a fool [and] gave the order ‘route step’ [without] releas[ing] them from keeping the step.
“But worst of all he impeached the honesty of his men by asserting that they would all steal, while he avowed the officers would sanction the act by simply winking at the deed. Soon after which the liquor produced a drowsy feeling [and] he at last dismounted and laying his bald head on a rock…proceeded to sleep off the intoxication.”
Colonel Evans, the brigade commander, “took his sword from him and ordered him under arrest forthwith…”
Barksdale’s second-in-command, Lt. Col. Mackerness Hudson Whitaker took command of the 13th.
Barksdale was still under arrest eleven days later, when Quartermaster Clerk William H. Hill added, “charges have been preferred against [Major Isham Harrison, Jr.] for getting drunk and cursing the men at Stone Bridge.”
Almost a month after Barksdale’s arrest, either Evans or higher authority apparently finally resolved the issue to their satisfaction. A recent biography of Evans doesn’t mention the incident and I can’t find anything about it in the Official Records.
It was, however, a topic of interest to such diarists of the 13th as Hill and Henley. Nimrod Newton Nash also told his wife about it in some of his letters home.
The few histories that have anything on it say Barksdale had gotten off the hook by promising to go easy on the hooch. That probably was enough for Evans, a West Pointer and an old Indian fighter, who had his own reputation for temper and hard drinking.
Henley wrote on Sept. 6 that Barksdale and Harrison had been
“again restored to office and assumed command….While on Battalion drill that evening [Barksdale] took the occasion to openly acknowledge his error and made all the necessary apologies, and concluded by asking them to forgive him, assuring them that in the future he would give no cause to complain of him.”
Hill, lately returned to the regiment from Centreville, wrote on Sept. 11 that Barksdale’s apologies weren’t enough for all. The reinstatement: “…gives much dissatisfaction in the regiment. 32 of the commissioned officers have tendered their resignations on account of it, including [Lt. Col. Whitaker].”
The resignations were submitted to the war department, but rejected. They were resubmitted, and rejected again.
Nash wrote Mollie on Sept. 16:
“Barksdale has not resigned. The privates got up a petition for him to vacate his place, but he says he will keep command of the regiment at all hazards. I have just now learned that he is now in town [Leesburg] so drunk he doesn’t know anything. He has ruined himself in the estimation of the whole regiment.”
“The Regiment, though divided in sentiment…showed a more liberal spirit and were willing to overlook it. For my part, I must confess that however unbecoming his conduct and unfounded his accusations, I was perfectly willing to let it drop where it was….[Henceforth] Barksdale studied, to its highest degree, the art of flattery [and] succeeded in working himself into the good graces of his men.”
He was, after all, a politician. He would soon prove to be a soldier, as well.