Barksdale’s stand: Glorious or insubordinate?

The U.S. Army’s Center of Military History, has no doubt what happened on Dec. 11, 1862, or of what it meant:

“At Fredericksburg, Brig. Gen. William Barksdale’s Mississippians, firing from houses along the river, repeatedly stopped the bridge building. Artillery fire failed to dislodge these snipers. Eventually, Union volunteers crossed in boats and cleared the town.”

Likewise, on the Rebel side, the fabled stand of the pugnacious Mississippians, though ultimately futile, was seen as glorious.

Gen. Edward Porter Alexander remembered it this way for the Southern Historical Society in 1882:

“Groups of officers, and the refugee inhabitants, gathered on the hills to gaze, and many a word of praise was spoken of the indomitable Barksdale, who still held his position in the very focus of this feu d’enfer [French military term for concentrated artillery fire, literally “hellfire”], and whose rifles were still heard piping up a tiney [sic] treble in defiance of the mighty roar, and again driving back the bridge builders, who, under cover of this fire, had attempted to renew their work.

“After more than an hour’s continuance, and an expenditure of many thousand rounds of artillery ammunition, the bombardment was slackened in despair, and matters came to a standstill, so far as the town was concerned. The Confederates had suffered severe loss, but they still held their positions, and had driven the bridge builders from their work in nine separate efforts made to complete it…..

“About 7 P.M., there being no longer any object in holding the town, General McLaws ordered the force in the town to be withdrawn to the telegraph road, under Marye’s Hill, a position which he had selected for another obstinate stand. General Barksdale expressed his belief that he could hold the town, and begged permission to do so, but the order was reiterated…..”

According to Jess N. McLean, Private Sil J. Quinn of the Winston Guards recalled that their “gallantry…elicited the highest compliments from Gen. Lee who expressed himself surprised that any brigade should have held the advance of the army a longer period…than six hours.”

But there were dissenters. Robert Stiles of the Richmond Howitzers recounted in his 1904 memoir Four Years Under Marse Robert:

“They were ready to fight anything, from his Satanic Majesty down; but they were a very poor set indeed as to judging when not to fight, or when to stop fighting. [Fiser] must have had retiring orders and ought to have seen that the Federal batteries absolutely dominated our shore; and yet he sent word to General Barksdale that if he would just let the Howitzers come down, with a couple of their guns, he would ‘drive those people back anyhow.’

“And ‘Old Barksdale’ who was every bit as bad as Fizer [sic] and a little worse, actually sent the order. It would have been a practical impossibility to get these two poor little guns anywhere near the river. No two fragments of guns or men would have held together five minutes after they appeared on the plain that stretched out from the foot of the hills to the river and their intentions became known to the batteries on Stafford Heights.

“[McLaws countermanded the order and] it is fair to say for General Barksdale…that he himself withdrew his own order; but General McLaws had already acted….But Fizer [sic] was not the only officer….that could not get it into his head, even a little later, that the troops were to abandon the town and retire before the enemy, who had now gotten their pontoons down and the head of their column landed in the town….

“The Twenty-First Mississippi was the last regiment to leave the city. The last detachment was under the command of [Captain] Lane Brandon….He lost his head completely. He refused to retire…He was put under arrest and his subaltern brought the command out of town.”

So it now becomes perhaps understandable why the 13th’s Col. Carter, in his after-action report, remarked that his orders to retire were “promptly obeyed,” which would otherwise be an odd thing for an officer to write to his superior.

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About Dick Stanley

Retired Texas daily newspaperman
This entry was posted in Barksdale's Mississippi Brigade, Battles: Fredericksburg, Gen. Lafayette McLaws, Gen. William Barksdale, Richmond Howitzers, The Winston Guards and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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