MAJOR-GENERAL JOSEPH B. KERSHAW

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Posted : January 30, 2024

SOUTH CAROLINA’S MAJOR-GENERAL JOSEPH B. KERSHAW
By Michael Thomas

General Kershaw emerged from the war with the reputation of being one of the premier generals in the Army of Northern Virginia. Exhaustive studies by numerous postwar scholars and historians through the years have reached the same conclusion. Ed Bearss, one of the most prominent historians of the war, wrote, “Few if any units were more capable or terrible in battle as Kershaw’s Brigade.” He added, “[Kershaw] repeatedly demonstrated he was without peer as a combat leader.”
A native of Camden, he made the best of his secondary education and passed the BAR examination without the benefit of a college education at the age of 21. He was described as, “…a man of high character, moral worthy, zealous and true.” Politically active before and after the war, he carried a highly respected reputation as an attorney and judge.

As a Brigadier-General, Kershaw pro-vided and impressed his senior officers with distinguished service in many battles of the Army of Northern Virginia. He fought at Chickamauga and in Longstreet’s Knoxville Campaign. Wherever his brigade fought, it was well-handled. In short, he displayed adeptness and battlefield skill beyond reproach even in the most intense actions.

His quick thinking, extraordinary personal courage, and true leadership were truly on display on 6 May 1864 at The Wilderness. Kershaw was with General James Longstreet and a small party riding in front of Confederate lines after driving the enemy in disarray from the field. A North Carolina regiment, unfortunately, mistook the party for Union cavalry and fired upon them. South Carolina’s fine young general Micah Jenkins was killed as were two of Kershaw’s staff and Longstreet was badly wounded. Kershaw quickly realized it was friendly fire and reacted with a split-second decision placing his safety in further jeopardy in a determined effort to defuse the situation and bring order to the scene.

Longstreet wrote, “Jenkins’s brigade with leveled guns were in the act of returning fire…but as Kershaw’s clear voice called ‘f-r-i-e-n-d-s!’, the arms were recovered without a return shot.” Kershaw wrote, “…the leading files of Jenkins’ brigade …instantly faced the firing and were about to return it.” He added, “ …I dashed my horse into their ranks crying, ‘They are friends’.” The North Carolinians, upon seeing and hearing Kershaw and realizing what they had done, fired no more. His prompt and crucial actions in those tense moments prevented an even deeper calamity. Riding in the open in such a confused and volatile situation, Kershaw somehow suppressed whatever fear he had and performed heroically. Sadly, his bold, unpanicked actions and personal courage in this incident are seldom acknowledged.

Kershaw was promoted to Major-General in June 1864. His high-quality service continued until he was captured at Saylor’s Creek on 6 April 1865. Though treated kindly, he was sent to Boston and imprisoned at Fort Warren until late July 1865. Upon release, he returned home and resumed his career in the legal profession. After Reconstruction Kershaw was elected a district judge, a position he held until 1893 when his health began failing. He was one of just 3 men promoted to Major-General in the Confederate army without having ever attended college and without substantial pre-war military experience. Yet, he left behind a legacy of military excellence and devoted service to the Palmetto State.

JOSEPH B. KERSHAW
JOSEPH B. KERSHAW
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