No one might ever have known what happened to the Mississippi Brigade’s commander, General William Barksdale, but for the kindness of two Union soldiers: Private David Parker of the 14th Vermont and Musician Robert A. Cassidy of the 148th Pennsylvania.
They wrote the general’s wife, Narcissa Saunders Barksdale, after the war to tell her of the particulars of her husband’s death as they recalled them—Parker, in 1882, of finding the general west of Plum Run near midnight on July 2, 1863, and helping to carry him to a Second Corps aid station on the Taneytown Road behind Cemetery Ridge; and Cassidy, in 1866, of what happened next.
Cassidy was helping Assistant Surgeon Alfred T. Hamilton of the 148th who ran the aid station at the small, two-story home of Gettysburg shoemaker Jacob Hummelbaugh. The house was full of the wounded and dying so someone made a bed of blankets for the dying general in the dooryard.
Cassidy looked at Barksdale by candlelight and could see that he was a high-ranking officer. “He attempted to give him water from a canteen,” historian Harry W. Pfanz wrote in Gettysburg, The Second Day, “but the general could not sit up enough to drink that way.”
So Cassidy gave Barksdale water with a spoon and, when the general identified himself, Cassidy called Hamilton out to see their famous prisoner.
Hamilton, writing in The Story of Our Regiment, A History of the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteers, said his examination found wounds in the corpulent, bald Barksdale’s left chest, through his short, round jacket whose sleeves were trimmed with gold braid, and in his left leg, whose torn trousers were also trimmed with gold braid.
Barksdale’s blood was spraying from the chest wound with every breath he took. Yet he found the energy to have a last argument with his captors. “Beware!,” Cassidy reported him saying. “You will have Longstreet thundering in your rear in the morning.”
He died alone during the night and, after dawn, Cassidy saw that souvenir hunters had taken some of his gold braid and clipped the Mississippi star buttons from his jacket. Likewise the studs with Masonic emblems had been removed from his linen shirt. Cassidy took the last remaining button from his coat and a strap from his sword belt, both of which he later offered to Mrs. Barksdale.
A pre-war newspaper editor, Lieutenant George G. Benedict of the 12th Vermont Regiment, later wrote in a letter included his 1895 book Army Life in Virginia, that he recognized the dead general from having seen him on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1850s.
Now, Benedict wrote, Barksdale’s “bald head and broad face, with open, unblinking eyes, lay uncovered in the sunshine. There he lay alone, without a comrade to brush the flies from his corpse.”
Barksdale was buried in a temporary grave near the Hummelbaugh house. Narcissa Barksdale came to Gettysburg after the war with her husband’s favorite hunting dog to find and retrieve his corpse for re-burial in Jackson, Mississippi.
There were many curious stories about the war. One of them concerned Barksdale’s dog who supposedly refused to leave his master’s Pennsylvania grave even after his remains were removed. The story goes that the dog eventually had to be left behind when Mrs. Barksdale returned to Mississippi.