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Barksdale’s Charge: The True High Tide of the Confederacy at Gettysburg, July 2, 1863

Phillip Thomas Tucker, Casemate

On July 2, 1863, Brig. Gen. William Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade, part of Lafayette McLaws’ Division in James Longstreet’s First Corps, launched a ferocious assault late in the day against the Federal left at Gettysburg, where former congressman Dan Sickles had unwisely shifted troops forward to occupy a peach orchard. The corpulent, white-haired Barksdale— a fire-eating Democratic congressman from Mississippi before the war—led his men into battle with raised sword. Phillip Tucker’s well-researched book provides a breathless account of that assault, what one Union officer called “the grandest charge ever seen by mortal man.”

The 13th, 17th, 18th and 21st Mississippi regiments, which constituted Barksdale’s Brigade, had already seen action at First Manassas, Ball’s Bluff, Malvern Hill, Antietam and Fredericksburg. But it was their effort at Gettysburg, which Tucker considers “the true high tide of the Confederacy,” that earned them a prominent place in the war’s history. Some 1,600 men raced across Emmitsburg Road and into the Peach Orchard, assaulted the salient created by Sickles’ move forward, and drove Union forces back more than a mile. The 21st Mississippi veered southeast past the Trostle House, while the other regiments pressed ahead to Plum Run.

But the complete breach of Maj. Gen. George Meade’s left-center, and an unobstructed path to Cemetery Ridge, was not to be. Longstreet had not provided supporting troops to follow behind Barksdale, Meade’s reserve artillery arrived just after Captain John Bigelow’s 9th Massachusetts Light Artillery made a desperate last stand, and New Yorkers in Colonel George Willard’s brigade in Hancock’s II Corps, who’d been humiliated by these Mississippians at Harpers Ferry in September 1862, redeemed themselves by plugging the line. Barksdale was mortally wounded in the charge, and the brigade suffered 145 killed, 550 wounded and 178 missing out of 1,598 present: a casualty rate of 55 percent.

Tucker’s desire to replace Pickett’s Charge with Barksdale’s as the high tide of the Confederacy is a bit overwrought and blinds him to other near-misses on July 2 that would have equally threatened the Army of the Potomac: the near-capture of Little Round Top, the failure on Culp’s Hill, the repulse of the Louisiana Tigers on Cemetery Hill or the counterattack of the 1st Minnesota against Cadmus Wilcox’s Alabamians. Barksdale’s assault was one of several tides that nearly engulfed Union forces on July 2. But the highest of tides was yet to come.

Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.