No descendant of a 13th Mississippi soldier or aficionado of the regiment could fail to be pleased and intrigued by historian Phillip Thomas Tucker’s new book Barksdale’s Charge: The True High Tide of the Confederacy at Gettysburg, July 2, 1863.
Tucker insists (properly, I think) that the more famous but wholly inconsequential Pickett’s Charge of July 3 upstaged Barkdale’s because it was later promoted by influential Virginians who were seconded by Yankees who didn’t want to discuss the near-penetration of their lines in strength by rude Mississippi frontiersmen. Pickett’s Charge has been sullied of late by a dispute over whether its namesake actually participated.
Tucker quotes General John Bell Hood writing post-war: “…no shaft marks the spot where [Barksdale fell because] Federal authorities refused to allow the point they reached [the western slope of Cemetery Ridge] to be designated by appropriate stones, but that gallant charge is written upon the hearts of his countrymen…”
Tucker cites this blog several times as a source for some of the soldier commentary in his very readable, driving narrative, particularly the literate, introspective letters Minutemen of Attala Private Newton Nash wrote home to his wife Mollie. Newt was killed in the charge and buried the next day in an unidentified farmer’s garden by Minutemen comrades. Some of his descendants are uncertain whether his remains are still there. He’d previously written Mollie that he didn’t want them recovered should he be slain anywhere in the war.
My main criticism of the book, besides its sometimes overwrought prose, numerous cliches and constant repetition of the same modifiers, is that Tucker makes General Barksdale almost a saint, “a father” to his subordinates, without mentioning his regrettable traits.
It’s not entirely wrong, of course. Newt, for instance, once wrote Mollie that he planned to borrow Barksdale’s horse for the afternoon. But entirely missing is “Old Bark’s” penchant for drunkenness, his furious cursing of the 13th regiment on its march to Leesburg in 1861, his temporary dismissal for it, his subsequent restoration to command, possibly by his old Mississippi friend President Jefferson Davis, and Richmond’s refusal to allow his senior officers to resign in protest.
Newt commented on the matter several times, though he subsequently decided that Barksdale had redeemed himself. For a political general with little military experience, the former Congressman and newspaper editor was always brave and leading from the front, not least in the murderous Malvern Hill disaster, which wasn’t his fault, as well as at Gettysburg where his death in the charge rightfully immortalized his name.
Otherwise, Tucker’s examination of the charge from the Rebel and Union sides seems much more thorough than previous efforts, relying in the modern manner on soldier memoirs, diaries and letters as well as senior officer reports. There are only a few obvious mistakes. He creates a company, the Columbus Rifles, for the 13th that didn’t exist and, in the end, mistakenly puts Newt and his brother-in-law Frank M. Ross in the brigade’s 17th regiment. But I recommend the book, in paper or in its cheaper ebook format. Tucker is a Defense Department historian so he has the resources and expertise for a tactical history and he has demonstrated both in previous books on other military subjects.
You should enjoy the book for what there is in it to enjoy, which is most of it. It’s an overdue view of the 13th and the rest of Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade, though, of course, it’s primarily focused on Gettysburg. It’s certainly better late than never, and may even inspire future analyses by others who disagree with it.