By John C. Fazio
The Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2006, All Rights Reserved
The Civil War is filled with touching, poignant, human interest stories, which is not surprising given the human drama that comprised this American Iliad. Examples abound of men who had cushy private lives and could therefore have easily avoided service, but chose, instead, to storm the roaring cannon because of their sense of duty (the most sublime word in the English language, said Robert E. Lee) and their dedication to their country; of men given up for dead by doctors, but who defied the odds and lived to fight another day; of angels of mercy wending their way through enemy lines to be with their beloveds, finding them, snatching them from the jaws of death, as only love and devotion can do, only to later succumb to disease, disease, disease that was all around them; of combatants who stepped away from the maelstrom for a few golden moments to give care, comfort and kindness to a gravely wounded enemy, only to face that very enemy in mortal combat at another time and on a different field; and of men who, when the national fratricide was over, continued the fight for right, as they saw it, in a different arena, and by different means, and succeeded in felling mighty predators. One Civil War story combines all of these scenes. Here it is.
ENTER FRANCIS: Francis is Francis Channing Barlow, a very colorful figure with a storied life both in and out of the war. He was born on October 19, 1834, in Brooklyn, New York, but after his father, a Unitarian Minister, abandoned his family in 1838, Francis, his two brothers and his mother, Almira, moved to the Utopian community of Brook Farm, Massachusetts, where he was raised.
After graduating at the top of his class from Harvard in 1855, he studied law. He was admitted to the New York State Bar in 1858 and practiced in New York City, with George Bliss, until the outbreak of war in 1861. He also wrote occasional editorials for the New York Tribune.
He responded immediately to Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers after Fort Sumter. On April 19, 1861, he, Francis C. Barlow, a Harvard Valedictorian and a privileged New York lawyer, enlisted as a private for three months in Mr. Lincoln’s army. He had absolutely no prior military experience or education, but he had things that neither experience nor education can give, as events would soon reveal.
ENTER ARABELLA: The day after his enlistment, Francis and his sweetheart, Arabella, were married. She was Arabella Wharton Griffith, a New York item and ten years his senior. Accustomed to New York intellectual circles, she was probably the last woman anyone would have expected to marry a lawyer ten years younger than she and then, with him, and for her country, throw herself into the cauldron of war, but she did. George Templeton Strong, the famous diarist, a Unionist to the core and a New York item himself, described her as “Certainly the most brilliant, cultivated, easy, graceful, effective talker of womankind, and (one who) has read, thought and observed much and well.” We should not be surprised, therefore, that she once said that “Women rule everything and can get anything.” (Somebody finally got it right!) Strong was one of the founders of the United States Sanitary Commission, which was organized in 1861 to promote cleanliness and sanitation in the Union army camps and to care for the sick and wounded in field hospitals. In the summer of 1862, Arabella joined the Commission and, thereafter, devoted the remainder of her life to caring for disabled, diseased and dying men. Mercifully, however, she did find time to be with her husband when his duties as a soldier did not keep him from meeting her.
RE-ENTER FRANCIS: The day after he and Arabella were married, Francis sailed for Fortress Monroe and the defense of Washington. He served with General Robert Patterson in the Shenandoah Valley, but did not participate in First Bull Run. On May 1, 1861, he received the first of his many promotions, to first lieutenant, and on June 19, he received the second, to captain. When his term was up, he re-entered (on November 9, 1861) as a lieutenant colonel in the 61st New York Infantry Regiment (the “Astor Regiment”), which became part of the II Corps of the Army of the Potomac under McClellan. He was in the thick of it on the Peninsula, heavily engaged at both Yorktown and Fair Oaks (Seven Pines). On April 14, 1862, he was promoted to a full colonel. Clearly his bravery and leadership qualities had not gone unnoticed. In the bloodiest single day of the war, September 17, 1862, at Antietam, he was again in the vortex (the Sunken Road/Bloody Lane), but this time did not escape unscathed, taking wounds in the face from an artillery fragment and in the groin from grapeshot. Because of his performance he was promoted to brigadier general on September 19.
RE-ENTER ARABELLA: September found Arabella in Baltimore. When she learned that Francis was with the army moving west to check Lee’s advance into Maryland, she left Baltimore to be with him, arriving at Antietam on the day of the battle. She found him and nursed his wounds, but it would take him seven months to fully recover from them. He returned to service on April 17, 1863, just in time for the big battles of that year. George Templeton Strong, who was also on the Antietam battlefield, recorded that “In the crowd of ambulances, army wagons, beef-cattle, staff officers, recruits, kicking mules, and so on, who should suddenly turn up but Mrs. Arabella Barlow, ne’e Griffith, unattended, but serene and self-possessed as if walking down Broadway. She is nursing the Colonel, her husband (badly wounded), and never appeared so well. Talked like a sensible, practical, earnest, warm-hearted woman, without a phrase of hyperflutination (sic).”
EXIT ARABELLA: At Chancellorsville, Francis commanded an XI Corps brigade that was attached to Sickle’s III Corps at the time. It was the only brigade that was not annihilated by Jackson’s famous surprise flank attack. He got through this battle without injury, but he would not be so fortunate in the next major clash of the armies. At Gettysburg, on the first day of the battle, he commanded a division of Howard’s XI Corps on the extreme right of the Federal line, north of the town. On an eminence known later as Blocher’s Knoll, but more recently renamed Barlow’s Knoll in his honor, both of his brigades disintegrated when his position was overrun by a brigade of Early’s division.
ENTER JOHN B. GORDON: The brigade was commanded by John B. (for Brown) Gordon, a dashing, chivalrous and high-minded Confederate officer who rode into battle on a coal-black charger. During the melee that ensued, Gordon saw Barlow, who was trying to rally his men, fall. A minie ball had lodged near his spine, paralyzing him. After the field had been cleared of the men in blue, who retreated in disorder, leaving many dead and wounded behind, Gordon rode up and saw Barlow lying on his back, the last thin reeds of life apparently slipping from his grasp. He dismounted to attend to his dying foe. But let’s hear him tell it:
“Riding forward with my rapidly advancing lines, I discovered that brave officer lying upon his back, with the July sun pouring its rays into his pale face. He was surrounded by the Union dead, and his own life seemed to be rapidly ebbing out. Quickly dismounting and lifting his head, I gave him water from my canteen, asked his name and the character of his wounds. He was Major-General Francis C. Barlow, of New York, and of Howard’s corps.
“The ball had entered his body in front and passed out near the spinal cord, paralyzing him in legs and arms. Neither of us had the remotest thought that he could possibly survive many hours. I summoned several soldiers who were looking after the wounded, and directed them to place him upon a litter and carry him to the shade in the rear.
“Before parting, he asked me to take from his pocket a package of letters and destroy them. They were from his wife. He had but one request to make of me. That request was that if I should live to the end of the war and should ever meet Mrs. Barlow, I would tell her of our meeting on the field of Gettysburg and of his thoughts of her in his last moments. He wished me to assure her that he died doing his duty at the front, that he was willing to give his life for his country, and that his deepest regret was that he must die without looking upon her face again.
“I learned that Mrs. Barlow was with the Union army, and near the battle-field. When it is remembered how closely Mrs. Gordon followed me, it will not be difficult to realize that my sympathies were especially stirred by the announcement that his wife was so near him. Passing through the day’s battle unhurt, I despatched at its close, under flag of truce, the promised message to Mrs. Barlow. I assured her that if she wished to come through the lines she should have safe escort to her husband’s side.
“In the desperate encounters of the two succeeding days, and the retreat of Lee’s army, I thought no more of Barlow, except to number him with the noble dead of the two armies who had so gloriously met their fate.”
EXIT JOHN B. GORDON;
RE-ENTER ARABELLA: Well, she came, making her way through both lines with the help of Confederate officers and of General Howard. And, despite the doomful prognostications of Confederate doctors and at least one captured Union surgeon, all of whom examined Francis and pronounced him all but dead, she saved him from oblivion. For reasons that are not clear from the record, Francis was returned to Union control. (Three good possibilities are: 1) The Confederates abandoned him when they retreated on July 4, because they felt that he was sure to die; 2) The Confederates left him in the care of his wife and, moved by her devotion, allowed both of them to return to Union lines; 3) He was exchanged.) In any case, Arabella took him to Somerville, New Jersey, her original home, to recuperate, after the army gave him a leave of absence. Under her care, he improved rapidly. He returned to the army in January, 1864, again in fighting condition. Arabella went back to her work with the Sanitary Commission.
EXIT ARABELLA: After a couple of months of recruiting duty, and when he was not yet 30 years old, Francis was given command of the First Division of the II Corps in March, just in time for Grant’s Overland Campaign. This division, 8,000 strong, spearheaded Grant’s drive on Richmond.
Francis was not popular with his men. He was a strict disciplinarian who was obsessed with stragglers. His men thought he was a petty tyrant, but he didn’t care what they thought of him, as long as they fought well. He presented a striking contrast to other Union officers. Colonel Theodore Lyman, one of Meade’s staff officers, wrote that Francis looked like “a highly independent minded newsboy; he was attired in a flannel checked shirt, a threadbare pair of trousers, and an old blue kepi (Note: a kepi is a cap with a flat circular top and a visor); from his waist hung a big cavalry saber; his features wore a familiar sarcastic smile . . . (yet) it would be hard to find a general officer to equal him.” He was often referred to as “the boy general” because he was slightly built and because of his clean-shaven, youthful appearance and his pale complexion. He was immediately recognizable by his slouching gait and his casual dress. Military decorum meant little to him, though he was known to don a proper uniform occasionally and to wear it in a manner that befitted his rank. More often he wore his lumberjack shirt, over which he wore his uniform jacket unbuttoned. He did not carry a regulation sword, but the biggest and heaviest saber he could find, the better to whack stragglers with. It looked dreadfully incongruous with his spare frame, but he didn’t care about that either.
He was in the thick of it again in the Wilderness (May 5 and 6, 1864), but escaped without injury despite the fact that the II Corps led the way with Francis’s First Division in the van.
At Spotsylvania he knew his finest hour. Grant, who had seen a massed assault by Colonel Emory Upton almost succeed in breaking the Confederate line on May 10, ordered Hancock to strike a single point on the Mule Shoe the next day. Hancock called on his Division Commanders, Barlow, Mott and Birney, to lead the charge, with Gibbon’s men in reserve. They did, at 4:35 a.m. on May 12, overrunning almost a mile of Confederate lines, taking some 3,000 to 4,000 prisoners, capturing 18 or 20 guns and 30 flags and almost tearing Lee’s defenses wide open. Almost, but not quite, because . . .
RE-ENTER JOHN B. GORDON: Into the breach rode none other than John B. Gordon on his black charger. Exhorting his men, with his trumpet-like voice, to turn and face the enemy, he first stemmed the advance of the blue tide and then drove it back to the original line of Confederate entrenchments before the men in gray were themselves stopped, thus forcing them to construct a new interior line of defense and precipitating 20 straight hours of the most ferocious combat of the war at what became known as “the bloody angle,” where, when it was finally over, the dead were piled four deep. Francis had once again shown his astonishing fighting abilities. Unfortunately for the Federals, all they had to show for 12,000 dead and wounded was a square mile of worthless real estate. Again, Francis survived a major engagement without injury.
Both Francis and Gordon moved, with their respective armies, to Cold Harbor (June 3), a Union disaster because of an ill-advised frontal assault that Grant later acknowledged was a serious error. (It is refreshing when a commander of such rank and skill tells us how human he is.) Despite frightful losses, both commanders lived to continue the struggle in and around Petersburg. The stress of the siege there, the heat and the residual effects of his earlier injuries caused Francis to write home that “nothing could be worse than life here,” but he was soon to realize how wrong he was.
EXIT JOHN B. GORDON;
RE-ENTER ARABELLA: Arabella had been at Fredericksburg during most of the Overland Campaign. With casualties pouring in from the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, the North Anna River, Cold Harbor and Petersburg, her work in the hospitals was no less beastly than Francis’s in the trenches, though throughout this period they managed to correspond by making use of ambulance drivers. She acquired a reputation for making do with whatever she could beg, borrow or steal, so much so that she was dubbed “the Raider” by her friends, co-workers and the stricken. In June, she made her way to White House Landing near Port Royal, where a new base hospital was set up. Francis visited her there on June 8, after Cold Harbor.
While working in the hot sun at a City Point hospital, she became ill. She went to Washington to seek the care of friends. On July 6, she returned to be with Francis. They spent what would be their final hours together at his Division Headquarters. At his urging, she returned to Washington where, it was felt, she could make a recovery from what was thought to be typhus. She didn’t.
EXIT ARABELLA: On July 27, in Washington, Arabella died. Francis received the news of her death the next day and, despite heavy fighting, was given 15 days leave to bury her. We can only imagine – we can never know – the effect this news had on Francis. And our imaginings must, perforce, be a pathetically feeble copy of the real thing. Arabella, after all, was more than Francis’s mate, more than his partner. She had cast her lot with his at the very moment he decided on service instead of comfort. And she had made it a point to be as near to him as possible throughout the campaigns so that she would be available to him if and when he needed her. And he did, at Antietam, and again at Gettysburg, where and when she appeared as if from another world and breathed life into his crumbling and tortured body, confounding the medical “experts” who had given him up for dead. My best guess is that what he felt was something like the feeling one gets when one is kicked in the gut by a horse. She was buried in Old Raritan Cemetery in Somerville, New Jersey, on July 31, with her husband, a broken and shattered man, at her side. This notice appeared in the New York Herald:
Died in Washington, Wednesday morning July 27, 1864, Mrs. Arabella Barlow, wife of Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow, of fever contracted while in attendance upon the hospitals of the Army of the Potomac at the front.
An army doctor wrote this about her:
“Her exhausting work at Fredericksburg, where the largest powers of administration were displayed, left but a small measure of vitality with which to encounter the severe exposure of the poisoned swamps of the Pamunkey, and the malarious districts of City Point. Here, in the open field, she toiled . . . under the scorching sun, with no shelter from the pouring rains, and with no thought but for those who were suffering and dying all around her.
“On the battlefield of Petersburg, hardly out of range of the enemy, and at night witnessing the blazing lines of fire from right to left, among the wounded, with her sympathies and powers of both mind and body strained to the last degree, neither conscious that she was working beyond her strength, nor realizing the extreme exhaustion of her system, she fainted at her work and found, only when it was too late, that the raging fever was wasting her life away. It was strength of will which sustained her in this intense activity, when her poor, tired body was trying to assert its own right to repose. Yet to the last, her sparkling wit, her brilliant intellect, her unfailing good humor, lighted up our moments of rest and recreation.
“So many memories of her beautiful constancy and self-sacrifice, of her bright and general companionship, of her rich and glowing sympathies, of her warm and loving nature, come back to me, that I feel how inadequate any tribute I could pay her worth.”
Helen Gilson, a fellow nurse, wrote:
“You say I am getting familiar with death. Yes; but death wears its most solemn aspect when it touches our individual lives. Sometimes it makes terrible voids in our hearts. I groaned aloud last night, so heavy was my heart, when I knew I should not again see Mrs. Barlow.”
After he buried his wife, Francis was brevetted to the rank of major general on August 1, 1864 (a promotion confirmed on May 25, 1865), but his heart was no longer in it. He returned to the front and fought in the Deep Bottom Campaign until August 18, when he simply handed his division over to Nelson Miles and sought refuge in a military hospital at City Point. Five days later he returned to the front, but had to be carried off on a stretcher. Hancock’s adjutant said that during this period “he had been more like a dead than a living man.” The stress of military life and the loss of Arabella were too much for him, so he took an extended leave and went to Europe to recover, or to try to. He returned home in March, 1865, a full eight months after his wife’s death, but he did not rejoin the army until April 6, 1865, just in time for Appomattox and the final encounters leading up to the surrender (Sayler’s Creek, Farmville).
After the war, Francis resumed his law practice with his old partner, George Bliss, in New York City and became active in Republican politics. He resigned his commission as major general on November 16, 1865. In 1867, he married Ellen Shaw, a sister of Robert Gould Shaw, who, be it remembered, commanded the 54th Massachusetts, the African American unit that distinguished itself by storming Battery Wagner in Charleston Harbor. Shaw was killed in the encounter.
Francis was one of the founders of The American Bar Association. He also investigated irregularities in the 1876 presidential election (Hayes – Tilden). He was twice elected Secretary of State of the State of New York and was appointed United States Marshal for the Southern District of New York by President Grant. As Attorney General of the State of New York, also an elected position, he prosecuted to conviction William March “Boss” Tweed, the political gangster who, as head of Tammany Hall, the political machine that controlled New York City politics, stole hundreds of millions from the city.
Francis died on January 11, 1896, from complications of the grippe. He was 62. He is buried in Brookline, Massachusetts, in the Walnut Street Cemetery, also the final resting place of his mother, brothers and other family members.
POSTSCRIPT: It needs to be said that some students of the war, fortunately only a few, question the authenticity of the Gordon-Barlow encounter at Gettysburg. I have not the slightest doubt that it occurred. The evidence for it is, in my judgment, overwhelming. I will make my case in another article.
The story of John B. Gordon and his wife, Fanny, can be found in John and Fanny – A Love Story.