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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

When Colonel William DeSaussure Fell in Roses’s Woods July 2, 1863

by Gordon Thorsby

The Rose Farmhouse, Gettysburg (personal photo)

Shortly after the 15th South Carolina Infantry pressed its advance into Rose Woods was when Col. William de Saussure went down. More men from the 15th would fall that day. Many fell in three days at Gettysburg and for some there was a story. Here is William's.

William Davie DeSaussure (1819-1863), (pronounced de sose-sur) was born in Columbia, South Carolina family and grew up to become a 1838 graduate of the South Carolina College (today University of South Carolina.) Following in his father’s footsteps, he took up the law where his career was interrupted by the Mexican War and he joined the Palmetto Volunteers. DeSaussure, in 1846 was appointed Captain and served in Mexico with the South Carolina Palmetto Regiment. and He was wounded twice at Churubusco in August 1847 and commended for bravery. He returned home to be greeted by the town council of Columbia who presented a splendid silver mounted sword as a "mark of admiration for distinguished gallantry" during the Mexican War.

In 1848-51, he served as a State Representative at the Capitol. Politics was not his life's path though, and he returned to service gaining a Captain’s commission in 1855-61. He fought in the First U.S. Cavalry fighting Commanche and Kiowa Indians on the western fronter. The First Regiment included notable names such as Col. Edwin Sumner, Lt. Col. Joseph E. Johnston, Major John Sedgewick, and Captains George McClellan, Samuel Sturgis, George Tige Anderson, and Richard Garnett.

In January 1860, at the age of forty, he got married even though he was still in the cavalry. When South Carolina seceded, DeSaussure (right pre-war) resigned his commission and became Captain commanding Castle Pinckney and Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor. He positioned his artillery on Fort Sumter until the bombardment one month later. He was commissioned Colonel of the 15th South Carolina Infantry in December of 1861.

The 15th fought along the Charleston coast until it was called up to join the Army of Northern Virginia in the Maryland Campaign at Sharpsburg. After Sharpsburg, the 15th was made part of Kershaw’s Brigade.

At Gettysburg on July 2 around 5 p.m. Kershaw’s 2200-man five regiments and a large battalion Brigade lined up to attack. De Saussure (44) was called “the superior of the Colonels, having from nature, those rare qualities that go to make up the successful war commander." De Saussure’s promotion to Brigadier General was pending.

Theories abound that when the brigade stepped onto Warfield Ridge to advance, the 15th became detached. The Brigade crossed the Rose house property around 5:30 and became embroiled in see-saw fighting in the Wheatfield. They were pushed off of the Stony Hill and back through the Rose Woods when Semmes’ Georgia brigade advanced across at the double quick and came to the support of Kershaw. With them was DeSaussure and the 15th South Carolina.

The Georgia brigade and the 15th SC’s 448 men pushed the Union brigade back through the woods. It was here as the Fifteenth SC began a quick-step advance into Rose’s Woods. Kershaw recounted, “…the 15th South Carolina Regiment was thrown to the [Semmes’] right to support them on that flank….I 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. 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.” A Private Daniel Kirkey, 18, in Co. D reported that he was near Col. DeSaussure, and Capt. Warren (then Major) when he fell. Several versions stated DeSaussure was killed instantly, a bullet in the chest.

South Carolina Major Augustus Dickert reported, “Just as we entered the woods the infantry opened upon us with a withering fire, especially from up the gorge that ran in the direction of Round Top…The Fifteenth regiment met a heavy obstruction, a mock-orange hedge, and it was just after passing this obstacle that Colonel de Saussure fell.” When DeSaussure actually died is in question due to the versions. The location of exactly where DeSaussure died is uncertain. There are even conflicting reports of precisely where the 15th SC was located at the time.

Casualties from the 15th South Carolina that day were 137 and from Timothy O’Sullivan’s several photos, he documented many of the dead laid out for burial. William De Saussure was not among these dead. At some point, Dickert reported, "[DeSaussure] was taken to McLaws’ Division Hospital [Blackhorse Tavern where he died.]" DeSaussure was buried in the center of the old McClelland Family burial ground at the Francis Bream Farm on Black Horse Tavern Road.

Many men who fell were quickly buried in trenches. DeSaussure was more fortunate. He was picked up by soldiers in the regiment and taken back to the Bream Farm. Bream’s Tavern was a division hospital and contained 70 Confederate graves. That is whether he was alive or actually dead.

Two versions exist of what happened after the war and both by Coco. The first version is that the remains were sent to Richmond, Va. in 1871, buried in Hollywood Cemetery and then to Columbia, South Carolina later. Coco's second version is that his remains were boxed and shipped to the family before 1871.

His grave is in First Presbyterian Churchyard in Columbia and where his wife later joined him and where many in the family are buried.

Note: Ambrose Emory, a regular visitor to the field after the battle stated he saw 34 buried South Carolina soldiers and, “I should judge from the dead bodies in the yard that South Carolina chivalry had been at work.”

courtesy of Find-A Grave


Gettysburg, The Second Day, by Pfanz, Harry W., University of North Carolina Press, 1987 p279, 291.

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Vol. 27, part II, D. Augustus Dickert, p.250.

Gettysburg National Military Park, Matt Atkinson, Kershaw’s Brigade.

A Strange and Blighted Land, by Coco, Gregory A. Savas Beatie, 2017, ppg 95, 45, 133.

Wasted Valor, by Coco, Gregory A., Savas Beatie pp111-112.

The First U.S. Cavalry Regiment in 1855,

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