Joseph Brevard Kershaw was born on January 5, 1822 in Camden, South Carolina. His father had served in the U.S. Congress, as judge, and as Mayor of Camden. Blond haired with deep blue eyes and a clear voice, Joseph was described as intelligent, literate and pious.
He became an attorney in 1843, and the next year maried Lucretia Douglass. In the Mexican War Kershaw joined South Carolina’s Palmetto Regiment as a First Lieutenant in the DeKalb Rifle Guards, but was invalided home due to severe illness.
He was elected to the South Carolina Senate in 1852 and again in 1854, serving until 1856. After John Brown’s raid he became colonel of the local militia, and was a delegate to the South Carolina secession convention.
Kershaw organized the Second South Carolina Infantry Regiment and became its colonel on April 9, 1861. They regiment was in Charleston during the bombardment of Fort Sumter, and was then sent to Virginia, the first one year regiment to arrive from another state.
The regiment fought in the the First Battle of Manassas assigned to Bonham’s Brigade. Kershaw led his own regiment and the 8th South Carolina forward on Henry Hill, breaking the Union line.
After General Bonham resigned in January of 1862 to take his seat in the Conederate Congress Kershaw took command of the brigade as senior colonel. On February 13, 1862 he was promoted to brigadier general and given permanent command of the brigade of four South Carolina regiments (his own 2nd and the 3rd, 7th and 8th). In May the brigade was assigned to the division of Lafayette McLaws, a division Kershaw would be part of, and eventually command, to the end of the war.
Kershaw led his brigade during the Peninsula Campaign. McLaws’ Division was detached from the Army of Northern Virginia covering Richmond during the Second Battle of Manassas, but rejoined the army for the Maryland Campaign. Kershaw’s Brigade had the critical role in the siege of Harpers Ferry of capturing the Maryland Heights, which dominated the Union defensive positions in the town. The seizure of the Heights was key in the capture of the 13,000 man Union garrison. Kershaw’s brigade then marched to the Antietam battlefield, arriving in time to be heavily engaged in the West Woods.
At Fredericksburg Kershaw led his brigade in reinforcing Thomas Cobb’s hard-pressed brigade behind the Stone Wall on Marye’s Heights. When Cobb was mortally wounded Kershaw took command of the position, a conspicuous target on horseback on the crest of the ridge. One story tells that Union soldiers refused to fire at him out of respect for his bravey, and Kershaw took off his cap in salute to them before returning to cover.
The brigade saw little action at Chancellorsville, but at Gettysburg it lost about 630 men – more than a third of its strength – fighting in the Peach Orchard, Rose Hill and the Wheatfield (see monument at Gettysburg).
That fall Kershaw and his South Carolinians went to the Western Theater with Longstreet, fighting at Chaickamauga. and Knoxville. When Longstreet relieved General McLaws after the disasterous Battle of Knoxville Kershaw took command of the division, at first as senior brigadier. McLaws was vindicated in his court martial but Lee refused to take him back into Army of Northern Virginia, and Kershaw was promoted to major general on May 18, 1864 and given permanent command of the division. He was one of only three division commanders in the Army of Northern Virginia (the others were Wade Hampton and John Gordon) to have no formal military training.
Kershaw commanded the division during the brutal fighting of 1864 at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, and was sent to reinforce Early’s Army of the Valley in the fall of that year. The division suffered heavily at Cedar Creek, losing most of its field officers.
Kershaw and his division returned to the Richmond-Petersburg area in December and spent the last months of the war in the trenches. The collapse of the Confederate defences forced Lee’s army to retreat, but at the Battle of Sayler’s Creek on April 6, 1865 Kershaw and most of the division were cut off and captured. Unlike the rest of Lee’s army who surrendered three days later and paroled, Kershaw was imprisoned at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.
After Kershaw was released from prison in August of 1865 he returned to South Carolina. He served in the State Senate and was chosen President of the Senate in 1865. He unsuccessfully ran for congress in 1874, and was elected circuit court judge in 1877. He retired from the bench due to poor health in 1893, briefly becoming postmaster of Camden in 1894.
Joseph Kershaw died on April 13, 1894. He is buried in the Quaker Cemetery in Camden. He was survived by his wife, who would die in 1907, and his children, the Reverend John Kershaw and Josephine Serre deLoach.