Civil War General and Smyrna, Tennessee native William Barksdale

Susan Harber, The Daily News Journal, June 5, 2016

Civil War general and Smyrna native William Barksdale

Civil War general and Smyrna native William Barksdale

General Barksdale Drive in Smyrna is a longstanding homage to a man of local heritage, who has been portrayed in the films ‘Gettysburg’ and ‘Gods and Generals’. William Barksdale Sr (1778-1834) and Nancy Lester, immigrants from England, gave life to a son William Barksdale, Jr in Smyrna on August 21, 1821. William Sr had served in the War of 1812.

In 1837, William attended the University of Nashville with his brothers Harrison, Ethelbert, and Fountain. His older brother Ethelbert served in U.S. Congress and the Confederate States Congress. After attaining his legal degree at age 18, William practiced law in Columbus, Mississippi and was editor of the periodical Columbus Democrat, a paper that supported his strong secessionist views on states-rights.

In 1847, William enlisted in the Mexican War and served as Captain of the Mississippi Volunteers in the 2nd Regiment. An ambitious man, he ran for Congress in 1853 as a States’ Rights Democrat and was re-elected for three terms through 1861, at which time he withdrew to enlist in the Civil War. William was known as a ferocious ‘fire-eater’ in the House of Representatives and was not a man to back down on key issues. The fire-eater movement represented an elite group of politicians fighting for separation of North and South.

By 1861, William served as state quartermaster general of the Mississippi Militia and then joined the Confederate Army as a colonel in the 13th Mississippi. William saw action early in the war at Manassas and Edwards Ferry, and he commanded his regiment in Richmond. In Spring 1862, he fought in the Seven Day Battle of the Virginia Peninsula. On June 29, 1862, Barksdale’s commander Richard Griffith was mortally wounded at the Battle of Savage Station, and Barksdale assumed command in the bloody charge at Malvern Hill. William was now Brigadier General in the Civil War and known as a decisive and cool-headed leader. General Robert E. Lee stated Barksdale ‘manifested the highest qualities of a soldier.’

During the Northern Virginian campaign, Barksdale’s Brigade was stationed at Harpers Ferry. His brigade attacked Maryland Heights with the Union in surrender. In Fredericksburg, Barksdale’s Brigade defended the Rappahannock River from Union Forces. In Chancellorsville in May 1863, the brigade (under Longstreet) defended Fredericksburg delaying the Union force.

Barksdale’s Brigade, 17th Mississippi, arrived in Gettysburg on July 1, 1863 unaware of the strength of the Union position. General Lee positioned the brigade in the dangerous Peach Orchard. At 5:30 pm, the brigade sparked an incredible assault. A Union colonel quoted ‘it was the grandest charge every made by mortal man.’ Barksdale rode on horse in front leading the way. The Confederates were victorious in severing the Union brigade and overtook General Andrew Humphrey’s division. Nonetheless, at Plum Run, his brigade was counterattacked. William was wounded in his left leg by a cannon and a bullet to his chest knocking him off his horse. William told his courier W.R. Boyd ‘I am killed! Tell my wife and children I died fighting at my post.’ William perished on July 2, 1863 at age 42 years old in a Union field hospital. He left behind his wife Narcissa (1840-1875) and son Ethelbert named for his brother. Narcissa traveled to Gettysburg with his prize hunting dog to take his body home. Upon his temporary gravesite, the dog whimpered and refused to leave. Hence, Narcissa left the dog, who remained at the grave. Resisting food and water, the dog died of a broken heart. William is buried today at the Greenwood Cemetery in Jackson, Mississippi.

Known as aggressive, William was always far ahead of his troops during charges. Barksdale’s Brigade’s fusillade from the woods of Gettsyburg was described by a Union commander as the most breathtaking spectacle of the Civil War. These words echo the magnitude of a man from a small Southern town of Smyrna.

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