A Civil War Biography

Joseph Brevard Kershaw

Kershaw was born 5 January 1822 in Camden, South Carolina. His father, who died when Joseph was just 7 years old, was mayor of Camden, a judge, a state legislature and a US Congressman representing South Carolina's 9th district. Joseph attended school in Camden and then the Cokesbury Conference School in the Abbeville District of South Carolina. He did not attend college but studied the law and was admitted to the bar in 1843. He served with the Palmetto regiment during the war with Mexico as 1st lieutenant in the DeKaulb Rifle Guards. Stricken with fever he was forced to return from Mexico and was nursed back to health. He was elected to the state legislature in 1852 and to a second term in 1854. Following John Brown's rain in October 1859, Kershaw joined the local militia and became colonel of the regiment. He was a member of the South Carolina Secession Convention and voted in favor of the state leaving the Union. When the governor of South Carolina, Andrew Pickens, called for troops, Kershaw took his militia unit to Charleston. When Kershaw and his regiment arrived in Charleston they were assigned to duty on Morris Island. With war only days away Kershaw organized the 2nd South Carolina regiment and was named its colonel on 9 April 1861.

When the war erupted Kershaw and his regiment headed for Virginia and were assigned to Milledge L. Bonham's brigade. Kershaw commanded his 2nd, the 8th South Carolina regiment and James Kemper's battery at First Manassas seeing action on Henry House Hill. After Bonham resigned, Kershaw was promoted to brigadier general on 13 February 1862 and took command of the brigade. He was temporarily removed from command in April 1862 when he was too slow in getting his brigade moving. It is strongly believed he was drunk at the time. He commanded the brigade attached to Lafayette McLaws division at Winchester, Savage Station, and Malvern Hill. Kershaw's brigade played a key role in the capture of Maryland Heights during the siege of Harper's Ferry during the Maryland campaign, although it was reported he was drunk. He commanded the brigade at Sharpsburg. At Fredericksburg, following the mortal wounding of Thomas Cobb, Kershaw took command of the troops at the stone wall in front of Marye's Heights. He commanded his brigade at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Having gone to join the Army of Tennessee as part of James Longstreet's Corps. Kershaw saw action at Chickamauga where he commanded both his and Benjamin Humphrey's brigade. Following a fiasco at Knoxville on 29 November 1863, Longstreet brought court-martial charges against McLaws. The charges were eventually dropped but McLaws was transferred. Kershaw was elevated to division command, even though he supported McLaws. At the Wilderness on 6 May 1864, after Longstreet's Corps had returned to the Army of Northern Virginia, Kershaw's division rushed to the battlefield to support of A.P. Hill's Corps which was in danger of being routed. Two days later Kershaw's division again saved the Confederate army from disaster by preventing Union forces from taking the intersection at Spotsylvania Court House. Kershaw was promoted to major general on 18 May 1864. His division fought at North Anna, Cold Harbor, and the Petersburg campaign. After the fall of Richmond he retreated with the rest of the army. He, along with five other Confederate generals, was captured at Saylor's Creek on 6 April 1865. He was sent to Fort Warren in Boston harbor where he remained until the middle of August.

Following the war Kershaw returned to Camden and re-established his law practice. He was elected to the state senate in 1865 and served as that body's president. In 1870, a member of the Union Reform Party, he wrote resolutions recognizing the Reconstruction Acts. He ran unsuccessfully for the US Congress in 1874. He was elected judge of the 5th circuit court on 1877. He remained on the bench until 1893 when his failing health forced him to resign. He was chosen to write the history of South Carolina during the war but never finished the effort. He was serving as postmaster of Camden when, on 13 April 1894 he died.

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