Kershaw's Brigade - Overview

Kershaw's Brigade
By Mac Wyckoff

While it is difficult to compare the quality of various units, it is certain that this brigade was among the elite brigades of Lee's army. Ed Bearss, the world's leading authority on the Civil War, noted that "few if any units in the Army of Northern Virginia were more capable or terrible in battle as Kershaw's Brigade." Not only did the soldiers of the brigade establish a first rate combat record, but the history of the units that compose the brigade is the longest of the war.

Several companies were formed as early as the first week of January 1861, four months before Fort Sumter. The brigade existed until General Joe Johnston surrendered to General William T. Sherman at the Bennett House on April 26, 1865, over two weeks after Appomattox.

The brigade originally consisted of four South Carolina regiments; 2nd, 3rd, 7th, and 8th, plus the 11th North Carolina, 8th Louisiana, 30th Virginia Cavalry, Kemper's Virginia Battery, and the 1st Company of the Richmond Howitzers. They were commanded by Brigadier General Milledge Like Bonham. Few, if any, South Carolinians could match his background for command when the war erupted in 1861. Bonham had served as an orderly sergeant in the Seminole War and as a lieutenant colonel in the Mexican War. He practiced law and at the time of South Carolina's secession, Bonham represented the Palmetto State in Congress. Governor Francis Pickens appointed him Commander-in-Chief of South Carolina forces with the rank of major general. When the Confederacy was formed, President Jefferson Davis appointed Bonham has a brigadier general in the Confederate army. The exact date when the brigade was formed is not known, but occurred in the second half of June 1861 or very early July. After Maxcy Gregg's three-month regiment went home in early July, Bonham's men took over the point of honor as the furthest advanced Confederate troops in northern Virginia. On July 17, 1861, the Federal advance forced them back to Bull Run. As the biggest, most experienced, and best unit in General P.G.T. Beaurgard's army, they again held the point of honor where an attack was expected at Mitchell's Ford. Instead, the attack on the 18th occurred at nearby Blackburn's Ford. During the Battle of 1st Manassas on July 21st, the 2nd and 8th South Carolina were rushed to the scene of action on Henry House Hill where they assisted in the counterattack which broke the Union lines. With some cavalry, Kemper's Battery, the 2nd and 8th South Carolina led the pursuit. It was shots from Kemper's Battery that caused the blockage of the bridge over Cub Run which created the mass panic. Afterwards, the brigade was reduced to the four South Carolina units.

They spent the latter part of the Summer and early Fall on the front line around Falls Church before retiring into winter camp near Centreville. In January Bonham resigned over a perceived injustice by President Davis and Colonel Joseph Brevard Kershaw was promoted to brigadier general to take command of the brigade for which it would forever afterward be known.

Kershaw practiced law in Camden before the war and like Bonham possessed a background in both military and political experience. He had served in the Mexican War and in the state legislature before raising the 2nd South Carolina Regiment.

In early March, the army now under General Joe Johnston retreated from Centreville to south of the Rapidan River in Orange County. In early April, they went to Yorktown to reinforce General John B. Magruder's forces. They took part in Magruder's theatrical display to fool the huge army assembled on the Virginia Peninsula by Union commander George B. McClellan. The brigade helped cover the retreat from the Yorktown line and fought at Willamsburg on May 4.

On May 13, each of the regiments and companies elected officers. For the most part, the men elected younger and more aggressive leaders. At Seven Pines on the last day of May, the unit was held in reserve. On that fateful day, Johnston was wounded and Robert E. Lee took over. The retreating had ended, the fighting was about to begin in earnest. The men and their officers would get a chance to prove their worth. Lee took the offensive in the Seven Days Campaign near Richmond. After the Confederates pried the Yankees loose from their supply base at White House Landing, Thomas J. "Stonewall: Jackson's men were to pursue south and attack the tail of McClellan's retreating army while Magruder's command attacked the tail from the west. However, the over ambitious plan of Lee and passive actions of Jackson, Magruder and others left it largely up to Kershaw's Brigade to bare the brunt of the Confederate fighting at Savage Station on June 29th. The 2nd, 3rd and 7th South Carolina sustained almost all of the Confederate casualties in this battle. The Confederate failure on that day can hardly be attributed to the gallant efforts of Kershaw's boys. Two days later, the brigade was involved in the bloody fiasco at Malvern Hill. Despite glaring mistakes, the Seven Days proved to be a major strategic success for Lee's Army. Richmond had been saved and the initiative lay in the aggressive hands of Robert E. Lee.

The brigade remained near Richmond until the third week of August when they began to move north to rejoin the main body of Lee's army. They arrived at Manassas several days after a second battle at occurred there. Lee's reunited army crossed the Potomac River and spent a few days in Frederick. Lee now divided his army into four parts. Kershaw's Brigade became part of a three-prong movement to seize Harpers Ferry. The South Carolinians' role was to capture Maryland Heights, the key to capturing Harpers Ferry. On the morning of September 12, Kershaw led his own brigade plus that of General William Barksdale up the steep slopes and then along the rocky spine toward the waiting defenders on a flat plateau. On the morning of the 13th, Kershaw's men attacked while Barksdale's Mississippi's maneuvered along a ledge to get behind the Federals. The 3rd and 7th South Carolina fought so hard that the Yankees broke and ran down the mountain before Barksdale could get in the rear. Four days later, the brigade fought at Antietam near the Dunker Church and modern day Visitor Center.

After a lengthy rest to recover from September's exhausting marching and fighting, Kershaw's Brigade led the march south to Fredericksburg. On November 15, the 15th South Carolina and 3rd South Carolina Battalion joined the brigade to replace heavy losses during the summer campaigns. These two units had gained combat experience at Port Royal on the South Carolina coast as well as 2nd Manassas, South Mountain, and Antietam. The foggy morning of December 13th, found the Palmetto State boys on Telegraph (now called Lee) Hill. In the early afternoon, like at 1st Manassas the 2nd and 8th rushed to the scene of action behind a conveniently located stone wall. Later the 3rd and 7th followed their fellow South Carolinians but stopped on the high ground called Marye's Heights. The 15th eventually joined the 2nd and 8th behind the stone wall while the 3rd Battalion guarded the crossing of Hazel Run near the southern base of Marye's Heights. The four original regiments of the brigade in particular played important roles in the slaughter that occurred in front of the heights. While the wall largely protected the Southern boys lucky enough to stand behind it, the 3rd stood on an exposed knoll in front of the Marye House. Their seven highest ranking officers all fell and three of the ten companies suffered over 70% casualties! The following day, Richard Kirkland, a youthful Sergeant in the 2nd South Carolina, would perform one of the great humanitarian acts of the war in earning the nickname, "The Angel of Marye's Heights."

Both armies went into winter camp while they waited for warmer temperatures to dry out the muddy roads of central Virginia.

On the night of April 30th, the brigade marched west of Fredericksburg toward an intersection known as Chancellorsville. On May 2nd while "Stonewall" Jackson's men made their famous flank march around the Union army, Kershaw's Brigade were part of the 15,000 man force that held the attention of Hooker's 1000,000 men. While great praise has been bestowed upon Jackson and his men for the flank march and attack, the efficient service rendered by Kershaw's Brigade and the rest of McLaws' and Anderson's divisions is usually overlooked. The following day, the brigade participated in the advance toward Chancellorsville and in the afternoon marched to Salem Church. Late of May 4th, they pursued the Union Sixth Corps as far as Banks Ford only to find the Federals had escaped. The next afternoon they returned to the Chancellorsville area, but during the night the main Union force retreated across the Rappahannock River. One member of the brigade wrote that we "occupied some important positions, but had very little active fighting." The armies remained in camp for nearly a month before Lee resumed the offensive by pushing north into Pennsylvania where the armies clashed in a little college town called Gettysburg.

About 4:00 p.m. of July 2, 1863 the soldiers of Kershaw's Brigade leaped a stone wall and headed toward their destiny. The brigade soon split with the left wing (8th, 3rd Battalion and 2nd) turning left in an unsuccessful attempt to silence the cannon along the Wheatfield Road. The 3rd and 7th continued straight across the Rose Farm to the Stony Hill. A Federal counterattack by General John Caldwell's division forced the 3rd and 7th back as well as the 15th which had come up on the far right. The timely arrival of General Wofford Brigade on the Wheatfield Road picked up the 2nd and possibly some of the 8th as they advanced all the way to the base of Little Round Top. Some of Wofford's men actually went up the slope before another Union counter thrust pushed them back to the Rose Farm. It had been a phenomenal day for the South Carolinians.

General James Longstreet described the actions of his corps of which Kershaw's Brigade belonged as the best four hours of fighting during the war. The brigade suffered 650 casualties, their longest casualty list of the war including Colonel William DeSaussure of the 15th South Carolina.

The armies then returned to central Virginia for another lengthy rest.

On the morning of September 8th, the brigade began their journey to Chickamauga Creek, an Indian word meaning river of death. Late on the night of the 19th the Palmetto State boys crossed the creek and went into camp in the rear of two lines of Confederate soldiers. About 11:00 the next morning, a momentary gap opened in the Union lines at the moment that Longstreet advanced his men in three columns. Kershaw's Brigade traveling in the wake of the initial movement crossed the Brotherton Farm to the Dyer Fields. Pivoting to the right, the brigade charged toward a ridge known in history as Snodgrass Hill. Repeated attacks by Kershaw and other Confederate units failed to break the Union resistance although the blue-coats did retreat under the cover of darkness toward Chattanooga. The brigade again lost heavily including Lieutenant Colonel Elbert Bland and Major John Hard the highest ranking officers of the 7th South Carolina and "The Angel of Marye's Heights" - Richard Kirkland. Despite a massive buildup of Union soldiers in besieged Chattanooga, General Braxton Bragg detached Longstreet's Corps to rid East Tennessee of a force under General Ambrose Burnside. The Union commander skillfully fell back to Knoxville drawing Longstreet's men further from Bragg. On November 17th and 18th, Longstreet called upon his trusted Carolinians to open the road to Knoxville. The successful mission was largely accomplished by the 2nd and 3rd South Carolina, but with heavy losses in the 3rd. The loss of regimental commanders continued as Colonel John Doby Kennedy was seriously wounded, Major William M. Gist of the 15th was killed, and Colonel William G. Rice of the 3rd Battalion was so severely wounded that he did not return. On the night of December 4th, Longstreet gave up on his siege of Knoxville and headed northeast. Ten days later, Longstreet resumed his offensive with a surprise attack at Bean Station in which he brigade saw only limited fighting. Kershaw was elevated to division command to replace General McLaws who had been court martialed for Fort Sanders. Three of the regimental commanders held the same rank with equal seniority; Colonel Kennedy of the 2nd, Colonel James Drayton Nance of the 3rd, and Colonel John Henagan of the 8th. With Kennedy on furlough to recover from his wound at Knoxville, colonels Nance and Henagan alternated in command of the brigade.

The winter of 1863-64 was the worst of the war for Longstreet's Corps. The weather was cold and food and supplies were hard to get in this area inhabited largely by unfriendly pro Union supporters.

In early Spring, Longstreet's command began to move north and by mid-April had returned to Lee's army in Central Virginia. On the early morning of May 4, 1864, the Union army with General-In-Chief Ulysses S. Grant personally present moved out of their winter camp into a tangled mass of trees and undergrowth known as The Wilderness. Like at Gettysburg and Chickamauga, Longstreet's command arrived too late to participate in the first day of the battle. However, their timely arrival about 6:00 on the morning of May 6th saved the day for Lee's army. While the famous Texas Brigade usually receives the most credit, it was actually Kershaw's Brigade that arrived first. While the losses in the brigade were relatively light, they included Colonel Nance of the 3rd who was killed, Colonel Kennedy of the 2nd who was very seriously wounded and out for the most of the year, and Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Gaillard of the 2nd who was killed. The brigade now belonged to Henagan and although some historians would call it Henagan's Brigade, the survivors after the war would always refer to their unit as Kershaw's Brigade.

On the night of May 7th, the Federals began to move southwest out of The Wilderness towards the crossroads community of Spotsylvania Court House. Longstreet's command, now under South Carolinian Richard Herron Anderson, raced south to block the blue-coats. On the morning of the 8th, Kershaw's Brigade saved Lee's army for the second time in 48 hours, their most valuable two-day service of the war. Union commanders slaughtered their troops on the open fields of the Spindle Farm in uncoordinated attacks upon the Carolinians who were partially protected by rail fences. The 3rd Battalion out in front of the brigade's left suffered heavy losses while the remaining regiments lost only a few in stark contrast to the high number of Union losses. The brigade was not again heavily engaged during the remainder of the two week long campaign around Spotsylvania.

The armies again moved south to tangle near the banks of the North Anna River. On May 23rd, the 2nd, 3rd, 3rd Battalion, and 7th South Carolina were routed from their position just north of the Chesterfield Bridge. It was the first time Kershaw's Brigade has failed to hold a defensive position. On May 31st, the 20th South Carolina joined the brigade. These men had spent the war around Charleston Harbor where they had undergone only minor skirmishing and picket duty. The 20th South Carolina was so big, over 1000 men, that they called it the 20th Corps.

Colonel Lawrence Massillon Keitt, although he had no battlefield experience, was now the senior officer and took command of the brigade. The next day, Colonel Keitt led the brigade forward, with the 20th South Carolina in the lead, in an effort to recapture the vital crossroads at Cold Harbor. Keitt went down almost immediately with a mortal wound and the rookie regiment broke toward the rear overrunning Kershaw's veterans. It was the second time in eight days that the brigade failed in their mission. The sharp contrast of the success at Wilderness and Spotsylvania with the failures at North Anna and Cold Harbor reflect the loss of regimental commanders in the preceding battles.

For two weeks the brigade remained in the hot, front-line trenches near Cold Harbor. On June 12, Grant's men slipped away and in a masterpiece of efficiency crossed the James River and assaulted a small Confederate force at Petersburg. Unsure of his opponents position, Lee only gradually shifted troops to the Petersburg front. Kershaw's Brigade arrived on the 18th to help repulse a major attack. The exhausting and bloody Overland Campaign had come to an end. 100,000 soldiers had become casualties, by far the bloodiest in American history. The brigade had been either on the march or front line for six solid weeks. The Yankees lost 60,000 of those men, but Lee's command structure had largely been shattered. Still, there was no end of the war in sight as Grant's campaign had ended in a stalemate rather than victory. Grant quickly adopted a new strategy to gradually string out the smaller Confederate army at Petersburg and at the same time cut the roads and railroads into Richmond. This strategy would also reduce the number of casualties and by rotating units on and off the front line everyone got a chance for some badly needed rest and relaxation. One of Grant's major offensives occurred in late July. A hole would literally be blown in the Confederate lines (The Crater) while a diversionary Union force crossed the James River and tested Richmond's defenses southeast of the capital city. Kershaw's Brigade was among the forces sent across the James to stop the diversionary action. On July 27th, Kershaw unwisely choose to confront an entire Union corps with his old brigade. The brigade broke before losses had a chance to mount. For the third time in two-months the brigade had performed poorly although the fault lay more with Kershaw in attempting the impossible. The following day, the South Carolinians were part of a three brigade attack. They did better, but when their fellow Southerners fell back the whole line retreated. The poor generalship on both sides during the two-day fighting at 1st Deep Bottom reflects the destruction in command system caused by the Overland Campaign.

In mid-June, Lee had detached General Jubal Early to the Shenandoah Valley in an attempt to re-create "Stonewall" masterpiece in the Valley two years before and draw Union troops away from Petersburg. The latter objective had been partially met with the detachment of the Union Sixth Corps. By early August, a potent Union force had been assembled under General Phil Sheridan. On August 7, Kershaw's Division along with some cavalry and artillery were sent to reinforce Early. On August 26th near Halltown, West Virginia Union cavalry swept in on a lax picket line capturing about 100 members of the 15th South Carolina and Major Robert C. Maffett of the 3rd South Carolina.

On September 3rd, Kershaw's Division struck the Federals about four miles west of Berryville, Virginia, but ended up retreating with relatively light casualties. A few days later, Brigadier General James Connor transferred to take command of the brigade which had few experienced officers left. On September 13th, the Union cavalry again surprised the picket line this time capturing virtually the entire 8th South Carolina (except those left in the rear or on leave) including Colonel Henagan. Lieutenant Colonel William Wallace commanding the 2nd South Carolina was wounded. While the number of men shot in the Valley was not high, the capture of large numbers of the 8th and 15th regiments and the loss of Maffett, Henagan, and Wallace took its toll upon the dwindling abilities of the brigade. Since Early had not achieved little success in the Valley, Lee ordered Kershaw's Division to return to Petersburg. Departing on September 15th, they got as far as Gordonsville when they received news of Early's defeats at 3rd Winchester and Fisher's Hill. Lee ordered them back to the Valley. Sheridan's men had pushed Early's men up the Valley and thinking they had disposed on their foe, the Federals withdrew burning the Valley behind them. But Early followed and on October 13th the brigade led the attack at Hupp's Hill just north of Strasburg, Virginia. The Confederates successfully repulsed a counterattack, but the 20th South Carolina lost heavily and the brigade continued to lose its highest ranking officers. Brigade commander General Connor lost a leg and the senior colonel in the brigade, William Drayton Rutherford, of the 3rd South Carolina was killed. Major James A. Goggin, a staff officer with no battlefield command experience took command of the brigade. The scene was now set for the climatic showdown in the Valley. On October 19th, while Sheridan was away, Early launched a major surprise attack across Cedar Creek near Middletown, Virginia. The pre-dawn attack, although initially a great Confederate success, began to stall out as the hungry Southerners stopped to loot the overrun Federal camps and as they ran into Sixth Corps veterans. Early in the day, the 2nd and 3rd South Carolina lost their regimental commanders; Major Benjamin R. Clyburn and Lieutenant Colonel Rutherford P. Todd. D. Augustus Dickert in his history of the brigade claimed that Goggin was a "lamentable failure, seldom seen during the day." In the late afternoon Sheridan returned and launched a spirited counterattack. General John Gordon's Division quickly departed. General Stephen Ramseur's Division and Kershaw's initially held their ground, but the immense pressure forced them slowly back. Suddenly the whole line collapsed with the Federal cavalry in pursuit. Two wagons jammed crossing a bridge over Tumbling Run south of Strasburg blocking the way. The result was an ironic reversal of 1st Manassas. Large numbers of Confederates were captured including the top two commanders in the 20th South Carolina, Colonel Stephen M. Boykin and Lieutenant Colonel Paul A. McMichael. The loss of the highest ranking officers in the brigade continued. The survivors of Early's army retreated to New Market, nearly 50 miles south it was the hardest and most discouraging march of the war. It would be days and in some cases weeks before all the stragglers arrived. Dickert wrote that "The officers were lost from their companies - The Colonels from their regiments while the Generals wandered around without staff and without commands. Kershaw's Brigade had no colonels or a general left. A month after the disaster at Cedar Creek, the brigade journeyed to Richmond and Colonel John D. Kennedy of the 2nd South Carolina soon returned from his wound at The Wilderness to take command of the brigade. On January 4, 1865, Kershaw's Brigade boarded trains to return to their home state to meet the threat posed by General William T. Sherman. For about a month the brigade shuttled back and forth between the front line on the Salkehatchie River and Charleston. Sherman moved surprisingly quickly through the low country swamps and his route caught the badly outnumbered defenders off guard. As Sherman advanced toward Columbia, Charleston was outflanked and on February 18th the brigade (part of General William J. Hardee's Corps) formed the rear guard of the city's evacuation. After a brief stand on Thompson's Creek near Cheraw in late February, the brigade withdrew across the state line to Fayetteville, North Carolina. A patchwork collection of Southern units under command of General Joe Johnston sought to strike Sherman before it combined with another Union army under General John Schofield at Goldsboro.

On March 15, Hardee deployed his troops near Averasboro in an attempt to slow down one of Sherman's advancing columns and buy time for Johnston to concentrate his forces. The main fighting occurred the next day with the Federals gaining a tactical success, but Hardee accomplishing his objectives. Johnston decided to strike Sherman near the rural village of Bentonville on March 19th. The brigade arrived in the middle of the afternoon, but did not go into action until that evening. They became involved in a severe fire-fight before darkness put an end to the shooting. The next day both sides maneuvered for position with little fighting. Surprised that Johnston's men remained with their backs to a flooded creek on March 21, Sherman hesitated to deliver the crushing blow that could have ended the war in North Carolina. Sherman reasoned that the by linking up with Schofield the war in the Tar Heel State would be all but over without useless bloodshed on both sides. Nevertheless, an aggressive subordinate broke through the Confederate left wing and nearly cut of Johnston's escape route. The following day the Confederates retreated toward Raleigh. Sherman after a brief pursuit let them go.

On April 9, while Lee surrendered his army to Grant in the parlor of Wilbur McClean in the village of Appomattox Court House, the regiments were consolidated. Several days later as news arrived of Lee's surrender, Confederates left for home in large numbers. On April 26, Johnston met Sherman at the Bennett House near Durham and surrendered his army. On May 2, the men received their paroles and departed for their homes and loved ones. Remarkably, the South Carolinians of Kershaw's Brigade were the last to turn over their arms to Sherman's men. As one of the few brigades of Johnston's Army that remained functionally in tact, Kershaw's old Brigade, ably led by Brigadier General John Doby Kennedy, was responsible for guarding the remaining food and ordinance supplies at the railroad depot in Greensboro.

On May 3, 1865, the war weary men of Kershaw's Brigade participated in a changing of the guard ceremony with the men of the 104th Ohio Infantry before beginning their long walk home to the Palmetto State.

For the rest of their lives, these South Carolinians proudly proclaimed that they had served in General Joseph Kershaw's Brigade. At the 1913 reunion of veterans at Gettysburg, Charles W. Sielaff of the 2nd South Carolina overheard a Northern veteran say that they had whipped the South. Sielaff replied, "No you didn't, we wore ourselves out whipping you."

E-mail: mwyckoff@erols.com