General Joseph Kershaw

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General Joseph Kershaw
Joseph Brevard Kershaw
(January 5, 1822 – April 13, 1894)
Lawyer, Judge, and Confederate General

Brig. General Joseph Kershaw
Joseph Kershaw.jpg
(Battles & Leaders)

"But except to vindicate the truth, it is vain to inquire into the causes of our failure."

(Excerpt from "Kershaw's Brigade at Gettysburg" in Battles and Leaders of The Civil War, Volume III)

Born in Camden, South Carolina in 1822, Joseph Brevard Kershaw enjoyed a flourishing law practice in Camden before he volunteered to serve with South Carolina troops during the War with Mexico. He returned to his law practice and served for a time in the state legislature. In 1860, Kershaw was nominated to serve as a state representative in the secession convention of 1860 and began his Civil War career as colonel of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers. Colonel Kershaw had limited military training when he assumed command. With his assistant commanders, the 2nd became one of the better trained regiments in southern service. Kershaw also proved to be one of the Army of Northern Virginia's finest officers. During the Battle of Gettysburg, Kershaw was a brigadier general leading a South Carolina Brigade in McLaw's Division of Longstreet's Corps. His regiments fought in the woods and fields of the George Rose farm and were swept up in the "whirlpool" of the Wheatfield. Twenty years after the battle, there was an ongoing debate as to why the Confederacy had lost at Gettysburg. In reply to the many critics and notions of military mismanagement, an aged Kershaw wrote a brief article for Century Magazine on his brigade's participation in this monumental battle:

"My brigade, composed of South Carolinians, constituted, with Semmes's, Wofford's, and Barksdale's brigades, the division of Major General Lafayette McLaws. About sunset on the 1st of July we reached the top of a range of hills overlooking Gettysburg, from which could be seen and heard the smoke and din of battle then raging in the distance. We encamped two miles from Gettysburg, on the left of the Chambersburg Pike. On the 2d we were up and ready to move at 4 A.M. in obedience to orders, but, owing as we understood at the time to the occupancy of the road by trains of the Second Corps, did not march until about sunrise. With only a slight detention from trains in the way, we reached the high grounds near Gettysburg and moved to the right of the Third Corps, (my) brigade being at the head of the column. At length, General McLaws ordered me to move by a flank to the rear, get under the cover of the hill, and move along the bank of Marsh Creek toward the enemy, taking care to keep out of their view. In executing this order, we passed the Black Horse Tavern and followed the road leading from that point toward the Emmitsburg Pike, until the head of the column reached a point where the road passed over the top of a hill, from which our movement would have been plainly visible from the Federal signal station at Little Round Top. Here we were halted by General McLaws in person, while he and General Longstreet rode forward to reconnoiter. Very soon those gentlemen returned, both manifesting considerable irritation as I thought. General McLaws ordered me to countermarch and in doing so we passed Hood's division, which had been following us. We moved back to the place where we had rested during the morning and thence by a country road to Willoughby Run… and down to that school house beyond Pitzer's (farm)."

"General Longstreet here commanded me to advance with my brigade and attack the enemy at the Peach Orchard, which lay a little to the left of my line of march, some six hundred yards in front of us. I was directed to turn the flank of that position, extend my line along the road we were then in beyond the Emmitsburg pike, with my left resting on that road. At 3 P.M. the head of my column emerged from the woods and came into the open field in front of the stone wall which extends along by Flaherty's farm and to the east past Snyder's (farm).

View on Emmitsburg Road.jpg

View north on the Emmitsburg Road toward the Peach Orchard, with the George Rose Farm at right. Kershaw's South Carolina Brigade crossed this road from left to right before swinging north around the Rose barn. Half of the brigade and drove toward the peach orchard while the rest moved toward a "stony hill" between the Wheatfield and the Rose buildings. (Battles and Leaders)

"Here we were in full view of the Federal position. An advanced line occupied the Peach Orchard, heavily supported by artillery, and extended from that point toward our left along the Emmitsburg Road. The intervening ground was occupied by open fields, interspersed and divided by stone walls. I immediately formed line of battle along the stone wall... done under cover of my skirmishers, who engaged those of the enemy near the Emmitsburg Road. In the meantime I examined the position of the Federals with some care. I found them in superior force, strongly posted in the Peach Orchard, which bristled with artillery, with a main line of battle in their rear... and extending to if not upon, Little Round Top. I placed my command in position under cover of the stone wall, and communicated the condition of matters to Major General McLaws. The division was then formed on this line, Semmes's brigade two hundred yards in rear and supporting Kershaw's; Barksdale's on the left of (mine) with Wofford's in Barksdale's rear supporting him. Cabell's battalion of artillery was placed along the wall to (my brigade's) right, and the 15th South Carolina Regiment, Colonel (William D.) de Saussure, was thrown to their right to support them on that flank. In the meantime General Hood's division was moving in our rear to the right, to gain the enemy's left flank, and I was directed to commence the attack as soon as General Hood became engaged, swinging around the Peach Orchard, and at the same time establishing connection with Hood on my right, and cooperating with him.

George Rose Farm, ca. 1890.jpg

The George Rose Farm from the Peach Orchard and Wheatfield Road, about 1890. Kershaw's soldiers passed through these buildings to attack Union troops around the Wheatfield to the left of this picture. Two of his regiments ascended the slope in the foreground to attack Union batteries placed on the Wheatfield Road and orchard. The Snyder Farmhouse, situated on the Emmitsburg Road, is in the center background. (William Tipton Collection, National Archives)

"In my center-front was a stone farm-house (Rose's) with a barn also of stone. These buildings were about five hundred yards from our position and on a line with the crest of the Peach Orchard hill. The Federal infantry was posted along the front of the orchard, and also on the face looking toward Rose's. Six of their batteries were in position, three at the orchard near the crest of the hill, and the others about two hundred yards in rear... Behind Rose's was a morass and on the right of that, a stone wall running parallel with our line, some two hundred yards from Rose's. Beyond the morass was a stony hill covered with heavy timber and thick undergrowth, interspersed with boulders and large fragments of rock extending some distance toward the Federal line... (by) which a narrow road led in the direction of (Little Round Top). Looking down this road from Rose's a large wheat-field was seen. In rear of the wheat-field... a heavy force of Federals (were) posted in line behind a stone wall. About 4 o'clock I received the order to move, at a signal from Cabell's artillery. They were to fire for some minutes, then pause, and then fire three guns in rapid succession. At this time I was to move without further orders. I communicated these instructions to the commanders of each of the regiments in my command, directing them to convey (these orders) to the company officers. They were told, at the signal, to order the men to leap the wall... and to align the troops in front of it. Accordingly, at the signal, the men leaped over the wall and were properly aligned; the word was given and the brigade moved off... with great steadiness and precision, followed by Semmes with equal promptness. General Longstreet accompanied me in this advance on foot as far as the Emmitsburg Road. All the field and staff officers were dismounted on account of many obstacles in the way. When we were about the Emmitsburg Road, I heard Barksdale's drums beat the assembly, and knew then that I should have no immediate support on my left. The 2nd and 8th South Carolina regiments and James's (Third) Battalion constituted the left wing of the brigade and were then moving majestically across the fields to the left of the lane leading to Rose's with the steadiness of troops on parade. They were ordered to change direction to the left and attack the batteries in rear of the Peach Orchard, and accordingly moved rapidly on that point. In order to aid this attack, the direction of the 3rd and 7th regiments was changed to the left so as to occupy the stony hill and wood. After passing the buildings at Rose's, the charge of the left wing was no longer visible from my position; but the movement was reported to have been magnificently conducted... when the order was given to 'move by the right flank,' by some unauthorized person, and was immediately obeyed by the men. The Federals... opened on these doomed regiments a raking fire of grape and canister at short distance, which proved most disastrous, and for a time destroyed their usefulness. Hundreds of the bravest and best men of Carolina fell, victims of this fatal blunder. While this tragedy was being enacted, the 3rd and 7th regiments were conducted rapidly to the stony hill. In consequence of the obstructions in the way, the 7th regiment had lapped the 3rd a few paces, and when they reached the cover of the stony hill I halted the line at the edge of the wood for a moment, and ordered the 7th to move by the right flank to uncover the 3rd Regiment, which was promptly done. It was, no doubt, this movement observed by some one from the left, that led to the terrible mistake which cost so dearly.

"The... 7th and 3rd regiments advanced into the wood and occupied the stony hill, the left of the 3rd Regiment swinging around and attacking the batteries to the left of that position. Very soon a heavy column moved in two lines of battle across the wheat-field to attack my position in such manner as to take the 7th Regiment in flank on the right. The right wing of this regiment was then thrown back to meet this attack. I then hurried in person to General Semmes, then 150 yards in my right rear, to bring him up to meet the attack on my right and also to bring forward my right regiment, the 15th, commanded by Colonel W. (D.) deSaussure, which... was cut off by Semmes's brigade. In the act of leading his regiment, the gallant and accomplished commander of the 15th had just fallen when I reached it. He fell some paces in front of the line, with sword drawn, leading their advance. General Semmes promptly responded to my call, and put his brigade in motion toward the right, preparatory to moving to the front. While his troops were moving, he fell, mortally wounded. Returning to the 7th Regiment, I reached it just as the advancing column of Federals had arrived at a point some two hundred yards off, whence they poured into us a volley from their whole line and advanced to the charge. They were handsomely received and entertained by this veteran regiment, which long kept them at bay in front. One regiment in Semmes's brigade came at a double quick as far as the ravine in our rear, and checked the advance of the Federals in their front. There was still an interval on a hundred yards… between this regiment and the right of the 7th, and into this the enemy was forcing his way, causing my right to swing back more and more; still fighting, at a distance not exceeding thirty paces, until the two wings of the regiment were nearly doubled on each other.

"The enemy… swung around and lapped my whole line at close quarters, and the fighting was general and desperate all along the line, and so continued for some time. These men were brave veterans who had fought from Bull Run to Gettysburg, and knew the strength of their position and so held it as long as it was tenable. The 7th Regiment finally gave way, and I directed Colonel (David) Aiken to re-form it at the stone wall about Roses's. I passed to the 3rd Regiment, then hotly engaged on the crest of the ill, and gradually swung back its right as the enemy made progress around that flank. Semmes's advanced regiment had given way. One of his regiments had mingled with the 3rd and amid rocks and trees, within a few feet of each other, these brave men, Confederates and Federals, maintained a desperate conflict. The enemy could make no progress in front, but slowly extended around my right. Separated from view of my left… the position of the 15th Regiment being wholly unknown, the 7th having retreated, and nothing being heard of the other troops of the division, I feared the brave men around me would be surrounded by the large force of the enemy constantly increasing in numbers and all the while gradually enveloping us. In order to avoid such a catastrophe, I ordered a retreat to the buildings at Rose's. On emerging from the wood as I followed the retreat, I saw Wofford riding at the head of his fine brigade then coming in, his left being in the Peach Orchard, which was then clear of the enemy. His movement was such as to strike the stony hill on the left and thus turn the flank of the troops that had driven us from that position. On his approach the enemy retreated across the wheat-field, where, with the regiments of my left wing, Wofford attacked with great effect, driving the Federals upon and near to Little Round Top.

"I rallied the remainder of my brigade and a portion of Semmes's at Rose's, with the assistance of Colonel (Moxley) Sorrel of Longstreet's staff, and advanced with them to the support of Wofford, taking position at the stone wall overlooking the forest to the right of Rose's house. Finding that Wofford's men were coming out, I retained them at that point to check any attempt of the enemy to follow. It was now near nightfall and the operations of the day were over. That night we occupied the ground over which we had fought, with my left at the Peach Orchard, on the hill, and gathered the dead and wounded- a long list of brave officers and men. Captain Cunningham's company of the 2nd Regiment was reported to have gone into action with forty men, of whom but four remained unhurt to bury their fallen comrades. My losses exceeded 600 men killed and wounded- about one half the force engaged."

Kershaw South Carolina Graves.jpg
(Library of Congress)

The tragedy of war is graphically captured on film. Dead South Carolinians from General Kershaw's Brigade, killed in fighting near here on July 2, were photographed exactly where they were laid to rest on the George Rose Farm. The comrades of these men only had time to dig the graves and carve initials on simple wooden headboards before they were ordered to leave the scene. Battlefield burials such as these were hasty and the graves shallow. Thousands of graves such as this covered the Gettysburg area after the battle. Photographer Timothy O'Sullivan, who captured this scene, worked with Alexander Gardner during his photographic visit to the battlefield on July 5-6, 1863.

Kershaw and his brigade retreated with the army to Falling Waters, Maryland, and crossed the Potomac River on July 14. Kershaw commanded a division in Longstreet's Corps at the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia, and during the Wilderness to Richmond-Petersburg Campaign in 1864, (aka Siege of Petersburg in 1864). Promoted to major general on June 2, 1864, he was given permanent command of McLaw's old division, which he led during the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns to the final battle at Cedar Creek, Virginia, in October 1864. The general rallied and withdrew his shattered command from the battlefield, whereupon it returned to the Richmond defenses. During the retreat from Richmond and Petersburg in April 1865, Kershaw was captured along with most of his troops at Sailor's Creek, Virginia, three days before the end came at Appomattox Court House.
Paroled that July, Kershaw returned to Camden where he remained active in politics and again returned to the state legislature, this time as a senator. He later served as a judge for the Fifth Judicial Circuit of South Carolina. In 1894, Kershaw resigned from the bench due to ill health and accepted an appointment as postmaster in Camden, a position he held for only several weeks until his death on April 13, 1894. General Kershaw is buried in Camden.

South Carolina Monument .jpg

(Right) The South Carolina Monument at Gettysburg stands on that portion of Warfield Ridge where General Kershaw's command waited before going into the attack on the Rose Farm. (Gettysburg NMP)

(Sources and related reading below.)

Recommended Reading: Kershaw's Brigade - volume 1 - South Carolina's Regiments in the American Civil War - Manassas, Seven Pines, Sharpsburg (Antietam), Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville…Chattanooga, Fort Sanders & Bean Station. Description: Kershaw's Brigade - Volume one is the fascinating and compelling story of the several South Carolina regiments that comprised Kershaw’s Brigade and fought in the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Consequently, it is essentially the story of the overall conflict itself; since the state's forces were engaged from the very beginning at Fort Sumter to the eventual surrender of Gen. Lee at Appomattox. Continued below...

Published in two volumes (Volume two is listed below) by Leonaur, this substantial work graphically describes the brigade as it engages in many major battles of the war. It is carefully and meticulously drawn from soldiers’ recollections, memoirs and diaries, anecdotes, incidents, drama and even humor. Since regimental rosters, muster rolls, transfers, promotions and casualties, abound together with biographies of principle figures and officers, Kershaw's (South Carolina) Brigade will also be an invaluable source for anyone interested in tracing their genealogy, history and heritage.

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Recommended Reading: Kershaw's Brigade - volume 2 - South Carolina's Regiments in the American Civil War - at the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, The Shenandoah Valley & Cedar Creek. Description: Kershaw's Brigade - volume 2 begins with Kershaw's Brigade during its brief respite in winter quarters. The battle-hardened brigade had already fought in several major battles, which included the battles of Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and Chickamauga (covered in volume 1). Continued below...

Now, the tried and bloodied brigade advances and clashes at The Wilderness, Cold Harbor, the trenches of Petersburg, the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns, and concludes at Appomattox. It is a must have book for individuals interested in the War Between the States, as well as American and South Carolina history.
Recommended Reading: History of Kershaw's Brigade (716 pages) (2008). Description: The name of Kershaw's Brigade of South Carolinians is familiar to all who wore the gray and saw hard fighting on the fields of Virginia in the swamps of Carolina and the mountains of Tennessee.' (Excerpt from Chapter 1). Continued below...

The Kershaw Brigade history with complete roll of companies, biographical sketches, battles and campaigns, incidents, and anecdotes.


Recommended Reading: South Carolina: A History (Hardcover). Overall this was an excellent book on what is most likely the most controversial state in the Union...Since the first landing in St. Helena Parish, through the Colonial period and the Civil War era to the flag controversy in the late 1990's, South Carolinians have been different, in almost every way, then the rest of the country. While North Carolina’s motto is 'first in flight', South Carolina's could very well be 'first to fight'. Continued below.

The involvement in the Civil War, not to mention dozens of other controversial actions on the part of some of our ancestral fire-eaters, make this book not just a history every South Carolinian should read but one that every American should read. Like it or not, South Carolina has played an extremely vital role in the path our country has taken and the culture we have developed. This book attempts to cover this role... While some of the book may bog down, the majority is very well researched, flows smoothly, and is extremely interesting. You will find such topics as Colonial life in South Carolina, Antebellum life, the Revolutionary War, the state’s role in, perhaps, starting the Civil War, and how it bucked reconstruction. Overall, if you are a fan of good history then you will enjoy this book. Also makes for a great compliment to Kershaw’s Brigade (volumes I and II).


Recommended Reading: Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1836. Review: When William Freehling's Prelude to Civil War first appeared in 1965 it was immediately hailed as a brilliant and incisive study of the origins of the Civil War. Book Week called it "fresh, exciting, and convincing," while The Virginia Quarterly Review praised it as, quite simply, "history at its best." It was equally well-received by historical societies, garnering the Allan Nevins History Prize as well as a Bancroft Prize, the most prestigious history award of all. Now once again available, Prelude to Civil War is still the definitive work on the subject, and one of the most important in antebellum studies. Continued below.

It tells the story of the Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, describing how from 1816 to 1836 aristocratic planters of the Palmetto State tumbled from a contented and prosperous life of elegant balls and fine Madeira wines to a world rife with economic distress, guilt over slavery, and apprehension of slave rebellion. It shows in compelling detail how this reversal of fortune led the political leaders of South Carolina down the path to ever more radical states rights doctrines: in 1832 they were seeking to nullify federal law by refusing to obey it; four years later some of them were considering secession. As the story unfolds, we meet a colorful and skillfully drawn cast of characters, among them John C. Calhoun, who hoped that nullification would save both his highest priority, slavery, and his next priority, union; President Andrew Jackson, who threatened to hang Calhoun and lead federal troops into South Carolina; Denmark Vesey, who organized and nearly brought off a slave conspiracy; and Martin Van Buren, the "Little Magician," who plotted craftily to replace Calhoun in Jackson's esteem. These and other important figures come to life in these pages, and help to tell a tale--often in their own words--central to an understanding of the war which eventually engulfed the United States. Demonstrating how a profound sensitivity to the still-shadowy slavery issue--not serious economic problems alone--led to the Nullification Controversy, Freehling revises many theories previously held by historians. He describes how fear of abolitionists and their lobbying power in Congress prompted South Carolina's leaders to ban virtually any public discussion of the South's "peculiar institution," and shows that while the Civil War had many beginnings, none was more significant than this single, passionate controversy. Written in a lively and eminently readable style, Prelude to Civil War is must reading for anyone trying to discover the roots of the conflict that soon would tear the Union apart.


Recommended Reading: Generals in Gray Lives of the Confederate Commanders. Description: When Generals in Gray was published in 1959, scholars and critics immediately hailed it as one of the few indispensable books on the American Civil War. Historian Stanley Horn, for example, wrote, "It is difficult for a reviewer to restrain his enthusiasm in recommending a monumental book of this high quality and value." Here at last is the paperback edition of Ezra J. Warner’s magnum opus with its concise, detailed biographical sketches and—in an amazing feat of research—photographs of all 425 Confederate generals. Continued below.

The only exhaustive guide to the South’s command, Generals in Gray belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in the Civil War. RATED 5 STARS!

Sources: Gettysburg National Military Park; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; D. Augustus Dickert, History of Kershaw's South Carolina Brigade, Morningside Bookshop (reprint), Dayton, 1976; Mac Wyckoff, A History of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry: 1861-65, Sgt. Kirland's Museum and Historical Society, Inc., Fredericksburg, VA, 1994; Mac Wyckoff, A History of the 3rd South Carolina Infantry: 1861-65, Sgt. Kirland's Museum and Historical Society, Inc., Fredericksburg, VA, 1995.

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