William Barksdale was an important political figure in antebellum Mississippi. He was born on 21 August 1821, near Smyrna, Rutherford County, Tennessee. His parents were descended from prominent southerners whose civil and patriotic achievements inspired William, an ambitious and intelligent youth. Barksdale attended public school in Rutherford County and later pursued a partial course of classical study at the University of Nashville. In 1837, at age sixteen, he emigrated with his brothers to Mississippi and settled in the recently formed county of Lowndes, where he first mastered the intricacies of frontier law and then established a successful legal practice in Columbus. He prospered, investing his capital in land and slaves and acquiring more of the latter through his 1849 marriage to Narcissa Saunders of Louisiana. By 1860 he owned thirty-six slaves and a plantation valued at ten thousand dollars. In 1844, not content as a lawyer-planter, he purchased half of a local newspaper, the Columbus Democrat, and became its coeditor. He immersed himself in local and state politics and began to consider running for office. That endeavor was interrupted by the outbreak of armed conflict with Mexico. A captain, he served as assistant commissary of the 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment.
In response to the 1851 secession crisis Barksdale aligned himself with the moderate faction of the Democratic Party, which tried to guide the state to accept the Compromise of 1850. That effort, coupled with his recent military service, contributed substantially to his initial success as a candidate. In November 1852, after several months of intense campaigning, he was elected as a states’ rights Democrat to the US House of Representatives, winning reelection three times and serving until 1861. The most controversial issue before the national assembly was the question of expanding slavery in federal territory, and as a representative from one of the South’s largest slaveholding states, Barksdale was frequently called on to defend southern rights and institutions. He was a firm advocate of low tariffs, the institution of slavery, and a social order based on the concept of white supremacy.
He was especially adamant when confronted with legislative proposals that might deprive his region of its proper share of the spoils of the Mexican War. He also had a penchant for dueling and fisticuffs that left him open to severe criticism and eventually caused some northern congressmen to regard him as a fire-eating secessionist. His adverse experiences at the center of the political maelstrom in Washington left him equally embittered and distrustful of his northern counterparts. Nevertheless, Barksdale remained more moderate in his views of important issues than some of his more radical contemporaries and did not sanction disunion as the best safeguard of southern institutions until after the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860.
During the Civil War, Barksdale commanded a brigade of Mississippi infantry in the Army of Northern Virginia. On the eve of hostilities, he was appointed quartermaster general of the Army of Mississippi but soon entrained for the front lines in Northern Virginia as a colonel of the 13th Mississippi Infantry Regiment, which he personally led into combat at First Manassas. On 12 August 1862 he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and assigned command of the 13th, 17th, 18th, and 21st Mississippi Infantry Regiments. His record as a brigade commander was characterized by conspicuous personal gallantry on the battlefield, especially at Antietam and Fredericksburg. Altogether, he participated in six major campaigns in the eastern theater but remained unscathed until the summer of 1863. During the fighting on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Barksdale was mortally wounded while leading his now famous brigade in resolute attack against a formidable enemy near the Peach Orchard and died the following day, 3 July 1863.
- John A. Barksdale, Barksdale Family History and Genealogy (1940)
- Douglas S. Freeman, Lee’s Lieutenants (1942)
- W. L. Lipscomb, A History of Columbus, Mississippi, during the Nineteenth Century (1909)
- Harry W. Pfanz, Gettysburg: The Second Day (1987)