From primary sources such as letters, diaries, and memoirs, to a volume of secondary studies on almost every aspect of the field, Gettysburg is possibly the most widely documented battle in the Civil War. Barring a miracle, our understanding of the “big picture” is not going to change. This leaves to Gettysburg buffs those small kernels of new information that do not change our knowledge of the battle, but simply adds more color to what we already know -such is the case with William Barksdale and his Mississippi brigade.
Hailing from Tennessee, William Barksdale attended the University of Nashville, later becoming a lawyer in Columbus, Mississippi. He branched off into journalism and became the editor of the Columbus Democrat. In 1852, Barksdale gained election to the United States House of Representatives and ardently advanced the South’s constitutional rights. In 1861, he became colonel of the 13th Mississippi, assumed brigade command a year later and led his men at Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. On the afternoon of July 2nd, James Longstreet’s First Corps attacked the Union left flank. Barksdale’s brigade was one of the last units to enter the fight, but the first to achieve a significant breakthrough. The gallant Barksdale, leading his men onward on horseback, pierced the Union line at the Peach Orchard, wheeled his brigade to the left and proceeded to roll up the rest of the Union position along the Emmitsburg Road. These facts are well known. Every once in awhile, a new source emerges in the most unlikely of places. In the early 1900’s, E. H. Sutton penned a short but interesting memoir titled Grandpa’s War Stories. His narrative is in the same style as Sam Watkin’s Co. Aytch with witty tales of camp life, foraging, and close calls. E. H. Sutton enlisted on June 30, 1862, in the 24th Georgia, a “high” private from the rocky hills of Batesville, Georgia. Sutton arrived in Virginia in time for the Battle of Second Manassas. He remembered many of the boys were barefoot during the campaign. “A shoemaker would cut moccasins from beef hides and the raw hides would be stitched together on the foot of the poor fellows,” Sutton recalled later. “They saved their feet and did very well till it rained, then they stretched and got out of shape and were soon discarded.”
On the subsequent march into Maryland, Sutton recalled that many soldiers were afflicted with chronic diarrhea, including him. As a result, he struggled to keep up with his unit and barely made the trek to South Mountain as the battle commenced. After a load of “buck and ball” passed between his legs, grazing his inner thigh, Sutton decided that was all he wanted and “ignominiously fled to the rear, and realizing that we were defeated I kept going.” Due to his dysentery, Sutton made his way back to Virginia, missing the Battle of Sharpsburg. He was back in fighting form though for the Battle of Fredericksburg three months later and again at Chancellorsville in May, 1863. In a bid to end the war, Lee turned his columns north toward Pennsylvania and E. H. Sutton marched along with his comrades in W. T. Wofford’s brigade. On the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Wofford deployed his men into line behind Barksdale. A simple twist of fate now brought the two men together in Pennsylvania; the well educated lawyer, editor, and politician next to the home spun “high” private. Sutton recalled the moment: “There was a field just in advance of us, and Barksdale’s Mississippians were in the edge of the woods some forty paces to our front. I got leave of my Captain to go forward to the edge of the field and reconnoiter, promising to return at once if the line was formed. When I reached the edge of the wood, Barksdale’s men had formed line in the edge of the field, preparing to charge. General Barksdale came back to near where I stood, hidden by the undergrowth, and stepping behind a large white oak tree, uncovered his head, and with his right hand and face lifted up, began his silent prayer. I could see his lips move, but heard no sound. Before his devotions were ended a courier came with an order. One of his aides went to him and touched him and gave him the message. He replaced his cap, walked rapidly to his horse, mounted, and gave the order….”
Barksdale galloped to the front of his brigade and personally led the charge from the front. He finally fell from multiple wounds along with 46% of his 1600 man brigade. During the evening of July 2nd, Union stretcher bearers removed the General from the field. Barksdale’s last words addressed his love for his family, “God ever watch over and care for my dear wife and my boys may God be a father to them, tell them to be good men and brave and always defend the right.” We will never know what Barksdale uttered in his prayer or the thoughts that crossed his mind as he prepared for the charge. The prayer scene recorded by Sutton helps to transform a fearless warrior into a mortal man – a man worried about the future. Sutton, captured by a “burly Irishman” at the close of the fighting, would spend the next twenty-one months in such notorious Union prisons as Fort McHenry, Fort Delaware, and Point Lookout. Upon his exchange in February, 1865, he eventually made it back all the way to Batesville, Georgia to share his tale. In this case, history was not written by the gallant general, but by the “high” private. A story that Sutton did not think overly important at the time now provides us another window into the narrative of Barksdale’s charge at Gettysburg. His small book lending its own layer to the story we know so well.
Matt Atkinson, Park Ranger