By some accounts, Gen. William Barksdale, of Columbus, Mississippi, the 13th Regiment’s colonel at muster in 1861, spent the late afternoon of July 2, 1863, in frustration.
He was trying to get his division and corps commanders to allow his Mississippi Brigade to attack the Union artillery and infantry salient in the Peach Orchard along the Emmitsburg Road.
“I wish you would let me go in, General,” J.S. McNeily, who claimed to have been a member of the brigade’s 21st Regiment (though he is not listed in Howell’s muster) wrote for the Mississippi Historical Society journal in 1913, “I would take that battery in five minutes.”
“Wait a little,” McNeily has corps commander Gen. James Longstreet replying, “we are all going in presently.”
During the wait, the often-quoted McNeily contends, Barksdale called his four regimental commanders together and, pointing to the rise of the ground along the Emmittsburg Road more than a quarter mile away, said: “The line before you must be broken—to do so let every officer and man animate his comrades by his personal presence in the front line.”
Finally, soon after 6 p.m., with Semmes’s Georgia and Kershaw’s South Carolina brigades already attacking on Barksdale’s right (Kershaw’s unsupported and exposed left flank was being hammered by the federal artillery) it was time.
In popular fiction, such as Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Longstreet personally orders Barksdale to advance. Historians such as Harry W. Pfanz, in his Gettysburg–The Second Day, instead attribute the order to Captain G.B. Lamar, Jr., an aide to division commander Gen. Lafayette McLaws. Lamar later wrote that the news made Barksdale’s pale face “radiant with joy.”
And then Barksdale, mounted on the Union horse that Rebel pickets had enticed across the Rapopahannock River back in June, ordered his regiments over the low, stone wall in front of them. He rode across their front from south to north, his long, thin hair resting on his shoulders, and halted in front of the 13th Regiment. According to his brother Ethelbert’s papers in the state archives, the general reminded the men it was time to do their duty. Then he shouted: “Attention, Mississippians! Battalions, Forward!”
And they were in motion, about fourteen hundred all told, barely enough men for one modern battalion, stretched out across about 350 yards of an undulating, grassy field.
Private Judge E. Woodruff of the Winston Guards, later told Confederate Veteran Magazine: “The field was clover and a gradual slope up to where the Yankee lines and batteries were. About six hundred yards away.”
Lamar remembered Barksdale’s long, wispy hair shining in the sunlight through the billows of powder smoke like “the white plume of Navarre,” a reference to King Henry IV of Navarre in Macaulay’s then-popular 1857 poem Ivry.
Lamar also remembered a rail fence in front of the advancing brigade: “I was anxious to see how they would get over and around it. When they reached it, the fence disappeared as if by magic, and the slaughter on the other side was terrible.”
Loading and firing as they advanced, cut up by Union artillery which punched bloody gaps through their line, the brigade swept through one Union skirmish line, and straight into the Zouaves of the 114th Pennsylvania in their red pantaloons, blue jackets and red fez caps.
One Union officer later famously called the Mississippi charge the most glorious ever made by mortal man. But it’s likely the troops in the Peace Orchard were more impressed by what was coming up in line behind and in support of the Mississippians: Wofford’s Georgia Brigade, which effectively doubled the number of attacking Rebels.
The 114th Pennsylvania formed the main line of troops awaiting them all in the Sherfy farmyard. Barksdale’s Brigade was making for them and the eight Federal artillery pieces there, just west of the Emmitsburg Road. These cannon had been pounding the Mississippians’ Pitzer’s Woods position for more than an hour. The Peach Orchard was just east of the road and it contained even more Federal artillery.
The Winston guard’s Woodruff again: “The Yankee battery was on top of the rise where there was a dwelling house and barn and orchard. In back of them were…other cannon firing on us. It seemed as if you could hold up your hat and catch it full of grapeshot.”
The artillery west of the Emmittsburg Road included Battery E of the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, near the Sherfy barn, and the Pennsylvania Light Batteries C and F, on Rhode Island’s right.
The 114th Pennsylvania had moved up to support the batteries while the Rhode Island unit, which had already lost almost a third of its men in a duel with Rebel artillery, was limbering up to retreat from the advancing Rebels. The 57th Pennsylvania regiment also moved just west of the Emmittsburg Road, taking shelter around the Sherfy buildings and trees. A third Pennsylvania regiment, the 105th, took position on the 57th’s right flank.
“Before us,” 18th Mississippi Major George Bruce Gerald wrote in 1913, “lay open fields dotted with houses and right in our front were some farm houses with a grove of trees to the left, and the enemy drawn up in a double line of battle…and supported by artillery.
“We steadily advanced, driving the enemy before us…the trees proved to be a peach orchard. On the end of the orchard was a barn in which a part of the enemy had taken refuge…I forced the door open and within less than two minutes we had killed, wounded or captured every man in the barn…the brigade moved through the orchard towards the heights [Cemetery Ridge], still driving the enemy before them.
“General Barksdale encouraged the men by shouting ‘Forward, men, forward,’ which was the only command that I ever heard him give after a battle commenced By this time we were under the heavy fire of two lines of battle and their artillery and our losses had been very heavy…”
The 18th, 13th and 17th Mississippi regiments were leaving dead and wounded all over the field as they moved north of the Wheatfield Road, their faces blackened from chewing powder cartridges as they reloaded. The 21st regiment, which was likewise being decimated, had moved farther south on the right of the brigade line, into the front of the 68th Pennsylvania regiment.
The Mississippi regiments north of the road smashed the Pennsylvania regiments there, forcing the survivors to withdraw fighting. The 21st, likewise, scattered the regiment in its front. But not without cost.
Among the 13th’s dying was Private Nimrod Newton Nash of the Minutemen of Attala whose letters to his wife Molly have enlivened this history to date. He was shot through the stomach near the Sherfy farm.
Nash was in a cluster of similarly mortally-wounded Minutemen: Private Clendinin Black, Private John W. Gilliland, who was Molly’s brother, and Private Isaiah D. Fletcher, brother of the Minutemen’s original captain Lorenzo Fletcher.
Also among the 13th’s dead was its commander Colonel James W. Carter and its assistant commander Lieutenant Colonel John M. Bradley, both of whom had been leading the regiment from the front.
The brigade line, gapped so often by enemy fire, was ragged and Colonel William Dunbar Holder of the 17th Mississippi and Colonel Thomas M. Griffin of the 18th Mississippi supposedly found time, according to McNeily, to urge General Barksdale to pause the advance and reform the line. “No,” McNeily has him replying. “Crowd them—we have them on the run. Move on your regimens.”
Later, Holder and Griffin would be severely wounded. Lieutenant Colonel John Calvin Fiser and Major Andrew J. Pulliam of the 17th Mississippi also would be wounded, and Lieutenant Colonel William Henry Luse of the 18th Mississippi would be captured.
The Federals formed a new line of battle, composed of regiments from New York, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Maine. Under fire from Rebel batteries which had been moved from Seminary Ridge to the rise in the ground in the vicinity of the Peach Orchard, the new line faired no better than the Pennsylvanians.
“Scarcely a minute,” wrote Private Joseph Charles Lloyd of the 13th’s Kemper Legion in 1913, “and we are at the [Trostle] barn and scaling the fences at the lane and right across and in among the enemy, literally running over them. A divergence to the left and we run over and capture a battery. Then a divergence to the right to face a force not yet driven back. Then on and on until no enemy was seen in our front.”
Of the New Hampshire regiment, whose survivors were ordered back to Cemetery Ridge, historian Pfanz wrote: “once 354 strong, [it] had 21 of its 24 officers and 136 of its 330 enlisted men killed or wounded in the Peach Orchard that day.”
“[A]s I remember it,” Lloyd continued, “[w]e cleared the whole of our front from the enemy as far as I could see up to the bushes around Plum run. A new line came out and advanced through the bushes firing on our line and there our General Barksdale was mortally wounded and I caught a minnie in my arm.”
The new line was mainly New York and Minnesota troops and “they had come out from the top of the hill and fresh,” Lloyd recalled. “That line marches over me and I go down into the bushes to find a rest for my arm and for protection from further damages.”
Plum Run, at the base of Cemetery Ridge, was the farthest east most of the Mississippi Brigade advanced, except for the 21st Mississippi, which had crossed the Run and taken under fire the New York and Minnesota troops. The commander of the latter later reported that “The fire we encountered was terrible and and although we inflicted severe punishment upon the enemy and stopped his advance, we there lost in killed and wounded more than two-thirds of our men.”
Lloyd, meanwhile, whose arm had been rigged in a sling by a passing humanitarian among the embattled Union troops and left to himself, heard “…a weak hail to my right, and turning to it find General Barksdale, and what a disappointment when I hold my canteen to his mouth for a drink of water and found a ball had gone through and let it all out.
“I took his last message to his brigade and left him, with the promise to send the litter bearers. I know that I was the last on that part of the field and the last man that saw General Barksdale. I thought I was safe now, but the first thing I knew I was in the lines of a regiment of Yankees. It was so smoky they did not notice me and I tacked back and made a wide circuit around…and then made my way on to the field hospital.”
It was about 7:30 p.m. when Colonel Griffin of the 18th Mississippi took command of what was left of the 18th, 13th and 17th regiments near the Plum Run swale, a broad ditch whose shroud of a thicket of bushes hide a collection of large, flat rocks and boulders.
The stench of the battlefield hung heavy in the air, primarily the smells of spilled blood and torn flesh and sulfur from the billows of white smoke from the black-powder arms. Griffin was wounded in the orderly withdrawal of the tired and outnumbered Mississippians.
Lloyd’s arm would be amputated, and neither he nor any other survivor of the brigade’s famous July 2 charge in the battle of Gettysburg would ever see Barksdale again.