Columbus historian led visit to Gettysburg site

The Commercial Dispatch
Jan Swoope
November 6, 2010

“It’s really about letting the land talk to you,” Brandon Beck of Columbus told participants in the McCormick Civil War Institute fall tour, as they stood on the echoing battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa., in October. The director emeritus of the institute at Shenendoah University in Winchester, Va., had returned to conduct the annual event, which focused this year on another Columbian — Brigadier General William Barksdale of the Confederate army.

“Gettysburg was a three-day battle and the biggest and the bloodiest battle of the war,” said Beck, author of a series of books on Civil War conflicts, including the Battle of Okolona. Barksdale was a “fire eater,” a lawyer, U.S. congressman and editor of the Columbus Democrat newspaper. He boldly led Mississippi’s forces in what even a Union colonel is credited as calling, “the grandest charge that was ever made by mortal man.”

The thundering onslaught July 2, 1863, also proved to be Barksdale’s last.

William Barksdale (1821-1863), a lawyer, U.S. congressman and former editor of The Columbus Democrat newspaper, led what one Confederate soldier described as “the most magnificent charge I witnessed during the war.”

“He was 50 yards in front of his men, on horseback,” said Beck. “There wasn’t any way he could live through that. But that was the conception of military honor, and he wasn’t going to order a frontal attack without him being in the front.”

Preserving history

The McCormick Institute was founded in 1985 by Beck, during his 26-year tenure at Shenendoah. It bears the name of his friend, the late Hugh D. McCormick, who endowed it. McCormick’s father, only 14 years old at the time, fought at Gettysburg and survived.

“Hugh was a banker, lawyer and educator, and he believed the study of history was important and that the Civil War was a defining moment in American history,” shared Beck. “He believed it ought to be taught well and taught right.” McCormick himself was a marine and served in World War II.

Beck’s annual tour to sites significant to the War Between the States is open to the “general reading public who are interested in the war and want to see and actually walk the places they’ve read about.”

“Before we set foot on the ground, we will have had at least three lectures that our faculty will give,” explained the historian, who currently teaches courses at Mississippi University for Women and East Mississippi Community College.

He noted that one of the reasons people are so fascinated by Gettysburg is “that the battlefield looks exactly like the maps make it look; the terrain features are so clear and pronounced — roads, farms and ridgelines that were there in 1863 are there now.”

Beck, who gave part of his on-site talk near the place Barksdale was mortally wounded, encourages visitors to Gettysburg to spend time at the Mississippi monument. It stands near the point the charge began. Dedicated in 1973, the bronze statue depicts the ferocity of the battalions’ battle. “It’s very powerful,” Beck stated.

“I really try to get across to my classes … listen to what the terrain and the monuments have to say to you,” he said. “And, as you listen, recall what you’ve read and what you’ve heard in class, and it becomes a total immersing experience.”

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for “The Commercial Dispatch”.

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Published in: on November 11, 2010 at 5:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

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