Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade formed in the Pitzer Woods on Seminary Ridge, behind a low stone wall in the late afternoon of July 2, 1863. It was a clear and warm Thursday.
“…the order was given to ‘strip for the fight,’ 18th Regiment Major George Bruce Gerald recalled for the fiftieth anniversary in 1913. “The men carried their scanty change of clothing wrapped in their blankets and thrown over their shoulders; each regiment piled these in a heap and each left a man with the baggage.”
On the left end of the line under the trees was the 18th Regiment, followed on the right in order by the 13th, the 17th and the 21st. And there they waited under bombardment from Union artillery for more than an hour. The exploding shells tore branches from the trees above and killed and wounded several men where they lay.
Times vary considerably from one diary or memoir to the next. Gen. Longstreet’s staff aide William Youngblood later recalled for Confederate Veteran Magazine that Barksdale’s Brigade was in position “by about 2 p.m.” Others put the time at after 4 p.m.
Each regiment was greatly reduced from their thousand or so volunteers at the beginning of the war. The 13th’s Minutemen of Attala, for instance, which once had numbered more than one hundred would take just 44 guns into the fight.
Gen. Edward Porter Alexander, Longstreet’s artillery chief, estimated for Longstreet in 1878 that the brigade’s strength was 1,590—500 of them in the 13th Regiment. At the time, the brigade’s four regiments were stretched out more than 400 yards under the trees.
Gen. Barksdale has been memorialized in history, fiction and art as chafing at the delay that now ensued. Longstreet and McLaws reported that Barksdale begged them repeatedly to let his brigade take the Union batteries a quarter mile away, just east of the Peach Orchard, which were doing the shelling. By then, Alexander’s batteries were also in place farther south in front of Hood’s Division and Kershaw’s Brigade and busy shelling the Union batteries.
Spartan Band diarist William H. Hill recorded: “The cannonading was the most terrific I have ever heard.”
McLaws kept putting Barksdale off because he was waiting for Hood’s four brigades to get fully into position on the right and begin what would later be dignified as Longstreet’s en echelon, or progressive, attack by brigades one after another.
Actually it would be piecemeal as the brigades went in separately, widely apart without supporting each other, while fruitlessly trying to sweep up the Union left. Hood’s brigades would be first, followed by Kershaw’s Brigade on Hood’s left, and, only then would Barksdale’s Brigade, on Kershaw’s left, join in the attack.
Several brigade commanders later said they had understood the attack was to be general, with all brigades going in at once. Alexander later concluded that management of the corps attack was “conspicuously bad” where “one advance by the eight brigades would have won a quicker victory with far less loss.”
“While waiting their turn,” J.S. McNeily, who claimed to be a member of the 21st Regiment, wrote for the Mississippi Historical Society in 1913, “Barksdale’s men lay under fire of artillery and infantry in their front, which they were not allowed to return for an hour or more…
“Some strolled down to the little stream in their rear, where canteens were filled. Others crossed over and broke off great branches from the numerous cherry trees, which were in full bearing. Relief and diversion came when a score or more guns were unlimbered in the depression behind us and quietly rolled up by hand on our infantry line.
“As soon as they were placed they opened up in concert and with a din that was deafening. As fast as the gunners could load they concentrated a fire on the Peach Orchard…This was kept up for half an hour though the Union guns were silenced after the first discharges.”
The guns McNeily referred to, according to historian Harry W. Pfanz, were eight guns of a pair of Alexander’s batteries: Moody’s Louisiana Madison Light Artillery, and Gilbert’s South Carolina Brooks Artillery.
They dropped trail in front of the brigade’s right wing, in front of the 21st Regiment, and behind the low stone wall the men were sheltering behind. They immediately drew fire from the Union artillery, adding to the brigade’s casualties.
The four brigades of Hood’s division apparently attacked sometime after 4 p.m. McNeily thought Kershaw’s South Carolina Brigade went in sometime after 5 p.m., followed by Semmes’s Georgia Brigade in their support. By some accounts Barksdale’s Mississippians did not step off into their charge until after 6 p.m., with Wofford’s Georgians following them.
Michael Shaara’s famous 1974 novel The Killer Angels schooled a generation of Civil War students to believe that Barksdale was on foot in the attack, forbidden to ride.
Pfanz indicated in his 1987 Gettysburg, The Second Day, that Shaara’s assertion was a misinterpretation, and that only officers below the rank of brigadier were forbidden to ride, to save a dwindling supply of horses. Pfanz, as did McNeily and many others before Shaara, put Barksdale on horseback.
And there he was, apparently soon after 6 p.m., in front of his old regiment, the 13th, ready to charge the offending Union artillery.
His hat was off, and his long, thin, white hair was hanging down to his shoulders. When he was in Congress, Barksdale wore a toupee to cover his bald crown, but if he wore one at Gettysburg, no history, memoir or diary has remarked on it.