The Barlow-Gordon Controversy: Rest In Peace

By John C. Fazio
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2009, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: An abbreviated version of this article along with biographical sketches of Francis and Arabella Barlow and John and Fanny Gordon first appeared in the Charger in 2005 and then in 2006 on this website. The much expanded article below was published in the July 2009 issue of The Gettysburg Magazine and appears here through the courtesy of the author.


The human interest story about the relationship between Francis C. (for Channing) Barlow, the Northern “Puritan” who rose to the rank of Brigadier General, from Private, in the Army of the Potomac, and John B. (for Brown) Gordon, the Southern “Cavalier” who rose in rank from Captain to Corps Commander in the Army of Northern Virginia, is one of the most famous of the Civil War. Both generals, incidentally, began their military careers without any prior military education or experience, but rose quickly in rank because they demonstrated astonishing fighting ability and leadership qualities. Interestingly, they faced each other in almost every major battle, and some minor ones, in the Eastern Theater, including the Peninsula battles (Fair Oaks (Seven Pines) and Malvern Hill), Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. Let it not be supposed, however, that this necessarily meant that they knew they were facing each other; in fact, quite the opposite, as we shall see. There were long periods during which both men were out of action, probably unbeknownst to the other, due to grievous wounds, and, in Barlow’s case, even out of the country due to a near-total breakdown occasioned by the loss of his wife, Arabella, on July 27, 1864.

General Gordon raising up General Barlow on the battlefield

The story concerns Gordon’s perhaps life-saving ministrations to a stricken Barlow on Blocher’s Knoll (now Barlow’s Knoll) on the first day of Gettysburg, his arrangement of safe passage for Arabella, who then made her way to her husband and nursed him back to health, the later suppositions of the commanders that neither had survived the war, and their subsequent meetings, particularly the first, at a Washington dinner party, in which they were, as it were, resurrected to each other.

The story was apparently first published in 1879 by various newspapers around the country after an unidentified Washington, D.C. correspondent for the Boston Transcript wrote it. One of the newspapers was the Dublin Post of Dublin, Georgia, Gordon’s home state. We know it came from the pen of the correspondent because the National Tribune, another newspaper that published the story, gave it that attribution. Another version is said to have appeared in McClure’s Magazine in the 1880’s and still another in the June, 1894, issue of McClure’s. Other publications in which it appeared are Volume XXI of the Southern Historical Society Papers (1893) and Campfire and Battlefield, a popular history published in 1894. Still another version appeared in James A. Scrymser’s In Time of Peace and War (1915) and in a volume titled New York State, issued in 1923 to commemorate the unveiling of a statue of Barlow on the knoll. Still other versions appeared in The Shaping of a Battle: Gettysburg (1959), by James Montgomery; Generals in Blue (1964), by Ezra Warner; John Brown Gordon: Soldier, Southerner, American (1989), by Ralph Lowell Eckert; Gettysburg: The First Day (2001), by Harry W. Pfanz; and The Boy General: The Life and Careers of Francis Channing Barlow (2003), by Richard F. Welch. Articles on the subject include: “A Gettysburg Myth Exploded,” by William F. Hanna, Civil War Times Illustrated (May, 1985); “General Francis Channing Barlow,” by Richard F. Welch, America’s Civil War (March, 1998); “The Barlow-Gordon Incident,” by Gary Kross, Blue and Gray Magazine (December, 2001); a response to the Kross article by Gregory C. White, Blue and Gray Magazine (February, 2002); and “Encounter on Blocher’s Knoll,” by Richard F. Welch, America’s Civil War (March, 2004). In addition, a dramatization of part of the story appeared on YouTube in September, 2008. The story, and commentary on it, have obviously become a Civil War item.

The Controversy

Three months before his death in 1904, Gordon published his memoirs, titled Reminiscences of the Civil War, which he wrote during the period 1891-1897. In it, he tells what happened at Gettysburg. This is what he said:

In the midst of the wild disorder in his ranks, and through a storm of bullets, a Union officer was seeking to rally his men for a final stand. He, too, went down, pierced by a mini ball. 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 of his 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. The ball, however, had struck no vital point, and Barlow slowly recovered, though this fact was wholly unknown to me. The following summer, in battle near Richmond, my kinsman with the same initials, General J. B. Gordon of North Carolina, was killed. Barlow, who had recovered, saw the announcement of his death, and entertained no doubt that he was the Gordon whom he had met on the field of Gettysburg. To me, therefore, Barlow was dead; to Barlow, I was dead. Nearly fifteen years passed before either of us was undeceived. During my second term in the United States Senate, the Hon. Clarkson Potter, of New York, was a member of the House of Representatives. He invited me to dinner in Washington to meet a General Barlow who had served in the Union army. Potter knew nothing of the Gettysburg incident. I had heard that there was another Barlow in the Union army, and supposed, of course, that it was this Barlow with whom I was to dine. Barlow had a similar reflection as to the Gordon he was to meet. Seated at Clarkson Potter’s table, I asked Barlow: “General, are you related to the Barlow who was killed at Gettysburg?” He replied: “Why, I am the man, sir. Are you related to the Gordon who killed me?” “I am the man, sir,” I responded. No words of mine can convey any conception of the emotions awakened by those startling announcements. Nothing short of an actual resurrection from the dead could have amazed either of us more. Thenceforward, until his untimely death in 1896, the friendship between us which was born amidst the thunders of Gettysburg was greatly cherished by both.1

Before proceeding, let us ask: Is there any internal flaw, irregularity or inconsistency in this account? I submit that there is none; that it is perfectly plausible. Now let us move on to Gordon’s account in a speech he gave dozens of times, perhaps more than 100 times, between 1893 and 1904, the year of his death, titled “The Last Days of the Confederacy”:

And as I rode over the field of green clover that had been made red with the blood of both armies, I found among the dead and dying a Major-General of the Union army. I had seen him fall in the white smoke of the battle, and as I rode by him, intently looking into his pale face which was turned to the broiling rays of that scorching July day, I discovered that he was not dead. Dismounting from my horse and raising his head with one hand, I gave him water from my canteen, inquired his name and if he was badly hurt. He was Major-General Francis C. Barlow of New York. He had been shot from his horse while leading a charge. The ball entering in front, passing through the body and out near the spinal cord, had completely paralyzed him in every limb. Neither he nor I supposed he could live but a few moments. Anxious to remove him from that broiling sun, I had him lifted on a litter and borne to the shade in the rear. As he bade me good-bye with thanks, he asked me to take from his side pocket, as he was paralyzed, some letters, and open them before his face. Those letters were from his wife, and as his eyes rested, as he supposed, for the last time, the last lingering look, upon her signature, the great tears ran down his pale face and he said to me, “Gen. Gordon, if you should live through this cruel war and ever chance to meet Mrs. Barlow, will you not do a dying solder the kindness to tell her for me that you saw me on this field? Tell my wife for me, General, that you saw me fall and that I fell, not in the rear, but at the front. Tell her for me that I freely give my life for my country, but that my unutterable grief is that I must go without the privilege of looking once more into her sweet face and giving her a long and loving farewell.” I at once asked, “Where is Mrs. Barlow, General,” for I determined she should receive that message. He replied, “She is very near me, just back of the Union line, at the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief of the army, General Meade.” This announcement struck in my heart another chord of deepest and tenderest sympathy, for my wife had followed me during the entire war, sharing with me the privations of the camp, the fatigues of the march, and always hovering on the very verge of the battle was that wife of mine, like an angel of protection and an inspiration to duty. I at once replied, “Of course, General Barlow, if I live through this battle of Gettysburg, now progressing, I will see to it that Mrs. Barlow is informed.” And I did. The moment the guns had ceased their roar I sent a flag of truce to Gen. Meade’s headquarters with a note to Mrs. Barlow. I did not tell her, I did not have the heart to tell her, that her husband was dead, as I believed him to be, but I did tell her that he was desperately wounded, a prisoner in my hands, but that she should have safe escort through my lines to her husband’s side. Late that night, as I lay in the open field upon my saddle, a picket from the front announced a lady on my lines. It was Mrs. Barlow. She was carried to her husband’s side during the night by my staff.

Early the next morning the battle was renewed, and the following morning, and then came the retreat of Lee’s magnificent army. I thought no more of that gallant fellow of the Union army, Gen. Barlow, except to number him with the thousands of dead who had gone down on both sides in that dreadful battle. Strangely enough, as the war progressed, Barlow decided not to die. He got well, and he afterwards saw that I was killed in another battle. The explanation of which is very simple. A cousin of mine, with precisely the same initials with my own, Gen. J.B. Gordon of North Carolina, was killed about a year afterwards. The next summer at Richmond Barlow saw in the newspapers, “Gen. J. B. Gordon fell to-day, killed in battle,” and was satisfied that it was the man who picked him up on the battlefield, for he knew it, he naturally did not forget it. Fifteen years passed. Fortune placed me in the United States Senate. My friend, Clarkson Potter, of New York, was a member of the House of Representatives. He asked me to dine with him in Washington to meet his friend Gen. Barlow, of the Union army. The fact that I was to meet Gen. Barlow struck my ears rather peculiarly, but it made no special impression, because I had learned that there were two Barlows in the Union army who were generals, as there were two Gordons in the Confederate army. I naturally supposed, therefore, of course, that it was the other fellow, the living Barlow, and not the dead one, I was to dine with. Barlow had a similar conviction about the Gordon he was to dine with. Finally, seated at Potter’s table, as I sat just opposite to him, I asked him in a lull of the conversation, “General, are you related to the Barlow who was killed at Gettysburg?” “Why,” he said, “I am the man, sir.” “Are you related,” he asked, “to the Gordon who killed me?” “I am the man, sir,” said I. The scene which followed beggars all description. No language could describe that scene at Potter’s table. Truth, my countrymen, is stranger than fiction. Think of it. There we met, Barlow and I, both dead, fifteen years after we had each been killed in battle. Each of us presented to the other the most absolute, overwhelming, convincing, proof of the resurrection of the dead and life eternal. Barlow was satisfied I was dead, because the newpapers said so. These newspaper fellows, every one of them, will tell you it was so. Don’t you believe it boys. And of course did I not know Barlow was dead? Had I not left him dying in his bed of gore at Gettysburg? … (And thus) was begun the friendship between Gen. Barlow of the Union army and myself, a friendship which I believe to this hour to be the more sacred because of the peculiar circumstances surrounding its birth.2

Again, let us ask: Is there any internal flaw, irregularity or inconsistency in this account? And again, I submit that there is none; that it is perfectly plausible.

Now let us move on to Barlow’s accounts. In an incomplete letter to his mother, Almira Penniman Barlow, dated July 7, 1863, i.e. four days after the battle and six days after his wounding, Barlow said:

Finally, the 1st Corps, 3rd Division of the 11th Corps, + my Division were attacked simultaneously by the enemies infantry. A force came up against our front in line of battle with supports in the rear. We ought to have held the place easily, for I had my entire force at the very point where the attack was made. But the enemies skirmishers had hardly attacked us before my men began to run. No fight at all was made. Finding that they were going I started to get ahead of them to try to rally them + [letter ripped but most likely “form”] another line in the rear. Before I could turn my horse I was shot in the left side about halfway between the arm pit + the head of the thigh bone. I dismounted + tried to walk off the field. Every body was then running to the rear + the enemy were approaching rapidly. One man took hold of one shoulder + another on the other side to help me. One of them was soon shot + fell. I then got a spent ball in my back which has made quite a bruise. Soon, I got too faint to go any further + lay down. I lay in the midst of the fire some five minutes as the enemy were firing at our running men. I did not expect to get out alive. A ball went through my hat as I lay on the ground + another just grazed the fore finger of my right hand. Finally the enemy came up + were very kind. Major [Andrew Lewis] Pitzer, a staff officer of Gen. Early had me carried by some men into the woods + placed on a bed of leaves. They put some water by me + then went on to the front again …

I lay in the woods sometime until the shells began to come in + then one of my own men who were prisoners carried me in a blanket to a house further off. I was in considerable pain + bleeding a good deal. My trousers + vest + both shirts were saturated with blood.

They put me on a bed + about dark 3 Confederate surgeons came. They gave me chloroform + probed my wound. When I woke up they told me that a Minie ball had passed downward from where it entered, + through the peritoneum + lodged in the cavity of the pelvis + that there was very little chance for my life. They gave me some morphine + left me. Several Confederate officers passed the night at the house + were very kind + attentive. A brother of Alex. R. Boteler of Va. bathed my wound several times.

We had been attacked (my Division) by Gordon’s Brigade of Early’s Division, of [Lieutenant Richard S.] Ewell’s (late Jackson’s) Corps.

In the morning one of our own captured Surgeons + the same Confederate Drs. came to see me + pronounced the same opinion as before. You will see that the danger to be expected was the same as from my former wound, this is peritonitis + that the bowels had been cut. But it is now evident that neither the peritoneum nor the bowels have been touched. The ball is probably imbedded in some of the muscles near my old wound. It cannot be got out unless it works out itself, for the region is too dangerous for cutting. On Thursday morning, I moved up into another house just inside of the town where an elderly lady + her daughter were very kind to me. I found some books there + passed Thursday + Friday very comfortably under morphine. I read + talked a good deal. I eat only some coffee + toast + cherries in these days. The ladies + some of our wounded in the house did what nursing I required. I saw some of our Surgeons + some of the enemies who said there was nothing to be done but to bathe the wound in cold water + wait. Some of the staff officers of Ewell + Early came to see me + I talked very freely with them…I saw a good many of their men also + was much pleased with them…I heard the battles of Thursday + Friday close to me…Ewell + Early sent word that at the first flag of truce, they would

[remainder of letter is missing]

In what is apparently a subsequent letter to Almira, undated, but written before August 5, 1863, the date of his next letter, and with the first part missing, he said:

…I sit up when I like + can hobble about easily but they think it dangerous. In a week I shall probably be dressed + about though it will be several weeks before I can exert myself at all. The wound is suppurating well. It was not nearly so severe a shock to the system as my former one + was dangerous only because it might have touched the peritoneum or bowels which it is now evident it has not. I have not had any pain or taken any morphine today.

I shall leave here on Friday…This (letter) I send through R. …

I did not send you Mr. Owens last letter saying that I should be nominated as the Negro Superintendent. As I lay in the field before the enemy reached me I remembered that I had two of these letters in my pocket + that the enemy might not be inclined to parole so important a functionary as the “Superintendent of the Freed Men throughout the U.S.” So I destroyed the letters together with all others in my pocket…
Goodbye – will write to R. just when I am coming.

E. Will be in N.Y. in a day or two.

Francis C. B.

I came via Baltimore

In a letter to his friend and classmate, Robert Treat Paine, dated August 12, 1863, he said this:

…Where did you hear the nonsense about my going ahead of my skirmishers? How could you suppose I was such a damned fool? It was not so. We had been under fire an hour before I was hit + it was not until the Division had fallen back. I staid to rally them as long as it was of any use + just as I turned my horse to go back, I was hit, the fighting being about over.

I wish you would correct the impression that I went ahead of my skirmishers.3

Again, let us ask: Is there any internal flaw, irregularity or inconsistency in these accounts? I submit that there is one, namely Barlow’s statement in the later letter that as he lay in the field before the enemy came up, he destroyed all the letters he had on his person, something he says nothing about in his first letter (July 7). I will address this matter below in connection with the discussion of inconsistencies between Gordon’s and Barlow’s accounts.

Apart from Barlow’s saying he destroyed letters, the accounts seem to tell a reasonably clear and coherent story. Unfortunately, they aren’t clear and coherent enough for some students of the war, who contend that the whole story is a fable. The story is said, by these students, to be “apocryphal,” “highly unlikely,” “a contrivance,” “a myth,” “fiction.” This view received its most definitive expression by William Hanna in his article that appeared in the May, 1985, issue of Civil War Times Illustrated, referred to above, and by Richard F. Welch in his articles that appeared in the March, 1998, and March, 2004, issues of America’s Civil War, as well as in his book, The Boy General: The Life and Careers of Francis Channing Barlow (2003), also referred to above. Numerous reasons are given, by Hanna, Welch and others, for the contention that the meeting never took place, including:

  1. There are inconsistencies between Gordon’s two accounts.

  2. There are inconsistencies between Gordon’s accounts and Barlow’s accounts.

  3. Barlow mentions neither Gordon nor Arabella in his letter of July 7, though he does mention Major (Lieutenant) A. L. Pitzer (whose name he misspelled) of Jubal Early’s staff as a Confederate officer who helped him off the field.

  4. Arabella was working at a Christian commission in Maryland during the Gettysburg fighting and it is therefore unlikely that she could have made it to the battlefield in time to care for her husband, which is borne out by the fact that he doesn’t mention her in the July 7 letter. The implication is that since he doesn’t mention her in the letter, she didn’t reach him by the seventh, which means that Gordon’s saying that he notified her of Barlow’s condition and whereabouts and granted her safe passage/safe escort is bogus, and, by extension, so is his entire account.

  5. It is inconceivable that Gordon did not know that Barlow subsequently fought against him in Grant’s Overland Campaign of 1864 — the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, the North Anna River, Cold Harbor and Petersburg.

  6. Gordon was a very powerful voice in the movement to heal and move on after the war (to his everlasting credit). The Barlow story was only an attempt on his part to effect a reconciliation of the regions based on mutual admiration for the heroism of the foe.

Let us consider each of these objections in the light of the sources, our knowledge of human nature, and reason. Let us concentrate on primary sources (i.e. eye-witnesses) and speculate only when we don’t have a primary source or when the same is ambiguous or silent.

I: Inconsistencies between Gordon’s two accounts

Are there inconsistencies in Gordon’s two accounts. Of course. Here they are:

  1. In “Last Days,” he says that Barlow asked him to open Arabella’s letters, but does not say that he asked him to destroy them. In Reminiscences, he does not mention opening, but does mention destruction.

  2. In “Last Days,” he expressly asks Barlow of Arabella’s whereabouts.

  3. In “Last Days,” Barlow tells him that Arabella is very near to him, “just back of the Union line at the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief of the army, General Meade.” In Reminiscences, he does not mention Union Headquarters.

  4. In “Last Days,” he expressly tells Barlow that he will do what Barlow asked with respect to Arabella.

  5. In “Last Days,” he relates that during the night a picket announced that Arabella was on his lines and that she was carried to Barlow during the night (i.e. July 1-2) by his staff. In Reminiscences he makes no mention of this.

  6. In Reminiscences he states that Potter knew nothing about the incident at Gettysburg. “Last Days” omits this.

That’s it! Query: Are any of the inconsistencies between the two accounts fatal to the story? Hardly; they are all minor variations of a kind that one would expect in the telling and retelling of an event. Approximately thirty years passed between the writing of the accounts and the events they describe. In their essentials, the accounts tell the same story and are therefore more likely to be true than false. Indeed, minor variations are the mark of truth rather than falsity, because they are a reflection of human redaction and exegesis. If the stories were identical, or even substantially identical, we should be suspicious, because that would likely reflect copying. But let us move on.

II: Inconsistencies between Gordon’s accounts and Barlow’s accounts

Are there inconsistencies between Gordon’s accounts and Barlow’s accounts? Of course; they are immediately apparent upon reading. Here they are:

  1. Gordon said that he saw Barlow fall and then, riding forward with his rapidly advancing lines, rode up to him, found him lying in the sun, still alive, etc. Barlow said that after he was shot, he dismounted, tried to walk off the field and was helped in so doing by two of his men, one of whom was shot and fell. Gordon said nothing about these men.

  2. Barlow said that he lay in the field “some five minutes” before the enemy came up. Lt. Pitzer, he said, had some men carry him into the woods. Gordon said that he was the first Confederate upon him, cared for him and then left him to be provided for by Gordon’s subordinates when he moved on with his brigade.

  3. Barlow said that he destroyed two letters that would have tied him to a leadership role with freed slaves, letters that he believed might prevent his being paroled by the Confederates. He adds that while he was at it, he destroyed all other letters in his pocket. Gordon said that Barlow asked him to open Arabella’s letters (“Last Days”) and then to destroy them (Reminiscences). He does not say that he destroyed them, but we shall assume that he did since he was naturally in a complying mood.

Let’s take a closer look at these inconsistencies.

  1. To Gordon, Barlow “went down.” To Barlow it was “I dismounted.” “Went down” and “dismounted” mean essentially the same thing: he was no longer riding; he was on foot. The scene of the two men helping Barlow was probably missed completely by Gordon because his attention was directed elsewhere in the fight for the position. Or it may have been something that lasted but a few seconds and for that reason made little or no impression on Gordon (especially in light of the scene that was to follow), a detail no longer in his memory or not deemed by him to be worth mentioning.

  2. Observe that Gordon does not indicate how long it took him to reach Barlow after the latter was unhorsed. He says “Riding forward with my rapidly advancing lines,” but he does not say how long after he witnessed Barlow going down he rode forward, nor should we expect him to. He was in the middle of a wild fight; the enemy hadn’t been driven from the field yet. We all know that minutes fly by when one is preoccupied. Probably some minutes passed between the time that Barlow left his horse and the time that Gordon came upon him. Barlow, after all, was on horseback, and so stood out from the rest of his men, all or almost all of whom were on foot. His falling could thus be seen from a great distance by Gordon and doubtless was. To Barlow, this was described as lying in the field “in the midst of the fire some five minutes” before “the enemy came up.” To Gordon it was “riding forward with my rapidly advancing lines…” and “…and as I rode by him.” The fact that Barlow’s men began to run immediately and that “no fight at all was made,” as Barlow says, suggests that Gordon’s conception of the time factor is closer to the truth than Barlow’s.

    Consider, too, that Barlow was almost certainly in a state of shock, freshly shot, his guts torn up and bleeding profusely. In such a condition, each minute would seem like an eternity. His conception of time was almost certainly warped. In any case, in such a state, he cannot be relied upon to accurately measure time.

    Consider, further, that in his letter to Robert Treat Paine he said that when he was hit, the fighting was “almost over.” This would suggest that at the time he was hit and unhorsed, most of his men, perhaps almost all of his men, had been driven from the field (or skedaddled) and that it wouldn’t be very long before Gordon and other Confederates reached him.

    There is another passage in another source that is enlightening. In Gettysburg – The First Day, by Harry W. Pfanz4, Confederate Major John W. Daniel is quoted as saying to Gen. Early, after the fight on the knoll, “General, this day’s work will win the Southern Confederacy.” Early is said then to have remained silent on the issue “and instead sent Daniel to find Gordon.” Where, we may ask, was Gordon, and why wasn’t he visible to Early and Daniel if the fight was over? I submit that a very good possibility is that he was bent over Barlow, just as he said he was. Does this conjecture receive corroboration from Pfanz? It does, when he adds that “During his search for the brigadier, Daniel saw Barlow lying wounded among his fallen men.” I submit that if, in looking for Gordon, Daniel saw Barlow, then Gordon must have been very close to Barlow, just as he says he was. Daniel could not have seen Barlow, prostrate on the ground among the fallen, if he were off at some remote part of the field when he searched for and presumably found Gordon.

    I submit that what probably happened was that Barlow was hit; he partially fell, and partially removed himself, from his horse; two men tried to help him off the field, but after a few seconds one was shot and the other gave up or was told by Barlow to save himself. In any case, he left. Barlow slumped to the ground and lay there in the sun for an undeterminable period. From a good distance, Gordon saw him get hit and leave his horse, but didn’t see the men who very briefly tried to help him. Gordon rode up after that indeterminable period, dismounted and then did what he said he did. After spending a few minutes with Barlow, per Gordon’s description, he left. (Did he not, as a commander of a brigade, have other, more pressing things to do than to worry about the fate of one soldier, who was almost certain to die anyway, with a battle and perhaps a war hanging in the balance?) But before he left he summoned several soldiers to help Barlow. Gordon said he had the men take him “to the shade in the rear.” Barlow said that Lt. Pitzer had him carried “into the woods and placed on a bed of leaves.” It is possible that both occurred: the first move out of the sun and under a tree; the second out from under the tree and into the woods and placement on a bed of leaves. But it is more likely that the same activity is being described, but because it is being described by two persons, the perspectives are slightly different and so the descriptions are slightly different. The strong likelihood, because it is consistent with all accounts, is that one of the “several soldiers…” that Gordon says he summoned for the purpose of moving Barlow into the shade was Lt. Pitzer, who then oversaw the moving of Barlow and his later care. Barlow’s sentence: “Finally the enemy came up and were very kind.” may well be describing Gordon! Or it may be a description of all of the “enemy” who came up, i.e. Gordon, Pitzer and the other soldiers.

    I think the foregoing is a reasonable explanation of the inconsistencies set forth in 1. and 2. above, one that squares with all accounts if we attribute the inconsistencies to differences of perception, interpretation, etc., taking into consideration all of the surrounding circumstances, the condition of the principals, etc. The inconsistency set forth in 3. above, however, is more problematical.

  3. Observe that Barlow does not mention his destruction of the letters in his July 7 letter to Almira, but only in his later, undated letter. This may be perfectly innocent — a later recollection — or it may be tied to his failure to mention Gordon, i.e. to conceal the fact that he had asked Gordon to destroy Arabella’s letters, or it may be tied to another purpose. I will not speculate, because it really isn’t important. What is important is not the inconsistency, if it is that, between his two letters, but rather the apparent inconsistency between Barlow’s second letter and Gordon’s two accounts. In the second letter, Barlow says that as he lay in the field before the enemy reached him, he remembered that he had two incriminating letters in his pocket, so he destroyed them, together with all other letters in his pocket. This seems like a very strange thing to think about and to do when one has just been gravely wounded, bleeding profusely and in excruciating pain. How did Barlow destroy letters when he was lying on his back nearly dead and possibly completely paralyzed? By his own testimony, he was too faint to walk, he did not expect to get out alive, he was in considerable pain and his clothing was saturated with blood. Did he crumple them and then toss them aside, or perhaps just toss them aside uncrumpled? Hardly; they would more likely be found, in either state, on nearby ground than in his pocket. Did he tear them up? What did he do with the torn portions? Throw them to the wind? Possibly. But where, in such circumstances, did he get the strength to do this? And it is doubtful if there was any wind on the knoll anyway. It was a beastly hot day and the place was crawling with soldiers. Besides, some of the scraps would likely be found and identified, casting doubt on, or possibly revealing, his motives. Did he bury them? Again, possibly, but where did he get a tool and the strength to dig a hole in the ground? Recognizing that anything is possible, of course (maybe he crumpled the letters and put them on the person of a dead Union solder (ridiculous); maybe he tore them into little pieces and ate them (even more ridiculous); maybe he told the second comrade who was helping him, or even another comrade, about the letters, asked him to remove them from his pocket and take them away and destroy them (possible, but highly unlikely at a time when his division was disintegrating and running for their lives); maybe he managed to put them in a pile, strike a match and burn them (where did he get the strength, the matches and the nerve to start a little fire next to him in the middle of a battle with enemy soldiers to the left and right of him, as if the broiling sun wasn’t providing enough heat and as if a fire next to his prostrate body wouldn’t attract immediate attention from graybacks).)

I submit that it is somewhere between highly unlikely and nearly impossible for Barlow to have “destroyed” letters. Why then say that he did? No one will ever know for sure, but here are three remote possibilities:

  1. In his delirious and hallucinatory state, he may have dreamed, imagined or fanaticized that he destroyed the letters.

  2. He may not have wanted his mother and, by extension, Arabella, to know that the latter’s billets-doux had been destroyed by Gordon pursuant to his request, so he said that he destroyed them, together with the incriminating letters. Indeed, he may already have told Arabella in person, perhaps in response to her asking, that he destroyed the incriminating letters that were in his pocket and that this necessitated the destruction of her letters too, in which case he would have had to tell his mother the same story. There may have been other considerations on his mind that bore on his relationship with his mother, her family, Arabella and her family, and that induced him to say that he had destroyed the letters. No one will ever know if there were such or, if so, what they were.

  3. Somehow, in some way unimaginable to me, he did destroy or cause to be lost the incriminating letters and some other letters in his “pocket,” which is to say in one pocket, but not Arabella’s letters, which may have been in another pocket, which is why he still had Arabella’s letters to ask Gordon to read to him.

Highly speculative? Certainly, but we have what appears to be a clear-cut conflict in primary sources that can have only three possible explanations and one probable explanation, namely:

  1. Barlow destroyed or caused to be lost some letters, but preserved Arabella’s, which squares with Gordon’s account.

  2. Barlow destroyed or caused to be lost no letters, in which case he hallucinated or lied.

  3. Barlow destroyed or caused to be lost all the letters, in which case Gordon lied.

So much for the possible explanations, all of which have problems. The problem with number 1 is that I cannot conceive of any way that Barlow, in his condition, could have destroyed or caused to be lost some letters while preserving other letters. The problem with number 2 is that I don’t believe that Barlow hallucinated or lied, though he may not have told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The problem with number 3 is that I don’t believe Gordon lied.

So now, with an appropriate roll of the drums and blaring of trumpets, I present what I consider to be the probable explanation. Barlow did not himself destroy the letters on his person; he was in no condition to do that. But he knew about the incriminating letters and it was thus a matter of great importance to him that they not fall into the hands of the enemy. So he got rid of them (i.e. he “destroyed” them) the only way he possibly could — by getting someone else to do it for him. That someone else was none other than John B. Gordon! Far-fetched? Not really. It’s the only explanation that squares with all three accounts, with reason and with probabilities rather than possibilities. The fact that Gordon mentions letters in both Reminiscences and “Last Days” makes it very probable that letters were a part of the happening that occurred between him and Barlow on the knoll. The fact that Barlow also mentions letters in his account makes the case even more compelling. The fact that both men expressly speak of the destruction of letters makes it somewhere between very probable and nearly certain that they are talking about the same transaction. The stew is simply too thick to suppose that they are talking about separate letter incidents. Postulating that they are talking about the same incident is the key that opens all doors.

Let’s take a look at the accounts again. In Reminiscences Gordon says that Barlow asked him to take from his pocket a package of letters and destroy them. He adds that the letters were from Barlow’s wife. How would he know that? Because Barlow told him, of course. Barlow could safely identify them as being from Arabella because some of them were from Arabella. Barlow did not say that some were of the incriminating kind, obviously, but by asking Gordon to destroy his wife’s letters, for reasons of privacy and sentiment, he also assured the destruction of the incriminating letters. This explanation is supported by the fact that a request to destroy his wife’s letters does not by itself, i.e. without further motive, make much sense. What could possibly be in the letters that would hurt him or her? People who are about to expire do not ordinarily order or request the destruction of letters from their spouse.

To assure Gordon that he was in fact being asked to destroy letters from Arabella, and nothing more than that, he asked Gordon to open one or more of them, which Gordon did. The opened letter(s) revealed Arabella’s signature. This is what Gordon says in “Last Days,” and it makes perfect sense. Viewing the signature, Gordon could feel sure that the letters were in fact what Barlow had said they were and could therefore be safely destroyed, which he doubtless did, not realizing that he was also destroying two letters that, if he had known their contents, might have disposed him to treat Barlow differently than he did. Thus it was that Barlow “destroyed” the two incriminating letters, “together with all others (i.e. Arabella’s) in (his) pocket.” This explanation, in addition to effecting a reasonable reconciliation of all the accounts, is also consistent with the occurrence of the meeting itself.

Let us bear in mind, too, that Gordon was writing for public consumption and would therefore guard his credibility zealously, whereas Barlow was writing a private letter for private consumption and would therefore not be quite as careful with his facts. Am I saying that Barlow lied to Almira and, perhaps, to Arabella? No, I am not. But I am saying that he didn’t tell his mother quite as much as he might have. I submit that the difference between these two sentences:

so I destroyed the letters, together with all others in my pocket.


so I had the letters destroyed, together with all others in my pocket.

is not great. Query? Why didn’t he just tell her that he asked Gordon to destroy the letters? Perhaps because it troubled his conscience somewhat to think (and therefore to tell others) that as he lay there, he supposed, dying, and perhaps minutes away from meeting his maker, he somewhat immorally and ungraciously hoodwinked the gallant and merciful Gordon, presuming upon his kindness and humanity to accomplish a little sleight of hand. Or perhaps it was for the reasons set forth in b. above. Or perhaps some of both. But let us move on.

III: Barlow’s letter of July 7, 1863

With respect to the July 7 letter:

  1. The first thing that needs to be said is that it is incomplete: pages are missing, and while it is true that the subject of the writer’s wound and care seems to be covered in the portion of the letter that exists, there is simply no way of knowing whether or not he mentioned Gordon or Arabella or both in the missing pages. It often happens that letter writers pick up in a later part of a letter, or in a later letter, material that was previously discussed, but not as thoroughly as it might have been. As an example of this, observe that in his July 7 letter, Barlow says nothing about destroying letters, but in his later letter he does mention doing so.

  2. The fact that the letter doesn’t mention Arabella has not been taken as evidence that she never came. If we know for a fact that she came before July 7, but was not mentioned in an incomplete letter of that date, is it not equally logical that the fact that Gordon is not mentioned in the incomplete letter does not preclude his having helped Barlow in the way he says he did? Do we know for a fact that she came before July 7? We certainly do. The evidence for it is absolutely conclusive, as we shall see in the discussion concerning her that follows.

  3. A lot of possibilities can be offered as to why Barlow did not mention Gordon in his letter (assuming there is no mention in the portion of the letter that didn’t survive), namely:

    • It is possible, though very unlikely (for reasons that will be set forth later), that Barlow did not even know the identity of the man who helped him. Nowhere in Gordon’s Reminiscences does he indicate that he identified himself to Barlow; only that Barlow identified himself to him. In “Last Days,” he does indicate that Barlow addressed him by name, but it is possible that this is an embellishment. Further, subsequent accounts of the incident that appeared in newspapers, journals, etc., have Gordon identifying himself to Barlow, but these too may be embellishments, because by the time of their appearance the story had reached the embellishment stage, i.e. variations in the re-telling, which is to be expected. Let us be wary of secondary sources and stick to the primary sources as much as possible, i.e. the eye-witness accounts of Barlow, Gordon, Howard, Skelly, Weld and von Fritsch. In this case, the only primary source that addresses the issue is Gordon’s. In one source, he indicates that he asked for Barlow’s name. In another source, he indicates that Barlow addressed him by name. In neither source does he indicate that he identified himself to Barlow.

    • Barlow was almost certainly in a state of shock at the time, probably delirious, and for that reason may have had only a very dim recollection, assuming he had any at all, of the first person to attend to him. His faculties doubtless improved as his condition stabilized, i.e. after Gordon had departed and ordered his subordinates to do what they could for the poor fellow.

    • In a state of shock, and perhaps delirious, Barlow may have conflated the men who helped him, setting up a confusion in his mind, at least in the short term, from which only the name of Lt. Pitzer emerged.

    • Gordon says quite clearly that he didn’t linger with Barlow, that he did what was asked of him by Barlow, promised him that he would get word to Arabella and then turned him over to his subordinates for further care. It would appear from Gordon’s accounts, therefore, that Gordon was with Barlow for not more than a few minutes, whereas Lt. Pitzer and the others mentioned by Barlow in his July 7 letter were with him for hours and days, indeed for the duration, until they retreated with their army and Arabella took him to Somerville, New Jersey (her home), to convalesce. In such circumstances, whom do we suppose would more likely remain in Barlow’s memory? Should we be surprised, therefore, that Gordon is unmentioned, Pitzer is mentioned by name, and all the others, though unnamed, are at least referred to? As one writer (Gregory C. White) put it: “Six days after his wounding, perhaps he had more on his mind than a fleeting encounter with a brigadier from Georgia.”

    • Many others helped Barlow, but none is mentioned by name. As with the absence of any mention of Arabella, this has not been construed by anyone to mean that they didn’t help. Gordon says that he “summoned several soldiers” to help Barlow. Barlow mentions three Confederate surgeons and one captured Union surgeon who examined him. He also mentions a Union prisoner who carried him “in a blanket to a house further off.” He also mentions the brother of Alex R. Boteler (of Virginia), who bathed his wound, the “elderly lady and her daughter” who were very kind to him, other Union wounded and Union and Confederate surgeons who cared for him, staff officers of Generals Ewell and Early and other Confederate soldiers with whom he talked. Of all of these people with whom he had contact, only Lt. Pitzer is mentioned by name. Does that really surprise anyone? He was writing a letter, not a book. In these circumstances it is perfectly understandable that he would not identify people by name. There were too many. Their names didn’t stick in his memory, assuming he even heard them. Almost all were therefore left out of his letter. Gordon was among the almost all. Pitzer was an exception, probably because he spent the most time with him. Call it human inexactitude.

    • Barlow may have deliberately omitted Gordon from his narrative because of what he had requested of him, i.e. to destroy letters from Arabella that he had on his person, per Gordon’s account. It may be that he did not want his mother, nor Arabella (especially Arabella), to know that he had asked anyone to do this and that it had been done, i.e. that Arabella’s billets-doux no longer existed.

Before moving on to the second reason given for doubting the authenticity of the meeting, it is worth saying that Barlow actually does mention Gordon in his July 7 letter, though not in the context that we would have expected. He says: “We had been attacked (my Division) by Gordon’s Brigade of Early’s Division of [Lieutenant Richard S.] Ewell’s (late Jackson’s) Corps.” What meaning can we reasonably take from this reference? I submit the following:

  1. That Barlow was in some degree familiar with the Confederate command structure and order of battle, not surprisingly.

  2. That when Barlow’s Division was being overrun on the knoll, he couldn’t have known the identity of the unit that was overrunning him or its commander. In this connection, note that in Gordon’s accounts, he needed to ask for Barlow’s name. He had no more idea of whom he was fighting than Barlow did.

  3. That the fact that Barlow identified both the unit and the commander shortly thereafter must mean that someone identified them to him.

  4. That the someone who identified Gordon and his brigade is likely to have been Gordon himself. This is not inconsistent with my earlier postulation that Gordon may not have identified himself to Barlow. It is simply a recognition that either scenario is a possibility: Gordon did not identify himself, which is one reason, among several others, that Barlow does not mention him in his July 7 letter; or Gordon did identify himself, which is why Barlow identifies Gordon and his brigade by name in the letter. As between the two, I think the latter much more likely because it is probative of the fact of the meeting (which squares with Gordon’s accounts), because I think it unlikely that Gordon would ask for Barlow’s identity without also giving his own, because I also think it unlikely that Barlow would ask Gordon to tell Arabella “of our meeting on the field of Gettysburg” if he didn’t know the identity of the person he was meeting with, and because Gordon says, in “Last Days,” that Barlow addressed him by name.

But let us move on.

IV: Arabella’s distance from the battlefield

With respect to the fourth reason for doubting the authenticity of the meeting, i.e. Arabella’s coming to the battlefield, the contention is that because of her distance from the battlefield on the day he was wounded (July 1, Wednesday), and because he does not mention her in his letter of July 7, she must have arrived too late to care for him. The implication is that Gordon’s story about sending word to her, after the close of fighting on July 1, of her husband’s condition and whereabouts, and granting her safe passage/safe escort, is bogus, because if he had sent such a message she would have come immediately.

This preliminary sketch by Eastman Johnson for his painting, “The Field Hospital,” is possibly of Francis and Arabella at the Sedgwick Division Field Hospital, September 22, 1862. The finished painting is part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.

First things first. Is there any doubt that she came? None whatsoever. Is there any doubt as to when she came? Very little. It was almost certainly July 1, though July 2 is a remote possibility. Then why doesn’t Barlow mention her in his letter of July 7? Probably no one will ever know for sure, but there are at least two good possibilities, namely:

  1. He did mention her in the part of the letter that is missing. This is actually a strong possibility, perhaps even probable, because in his other letters he often refers to her very briefly, as either “A,” “AWG,” “AWGB” or “Arabella,” in a one or two sentence context often near the end of the letter. It is striking, in fact, how little he talks about her in his letters, at least in those that have survived.

  2. He may not have wanted to alarm his mother by telling her that Arabella was with him, i.e. in the cauldron of Gettysburg. In this connection it is noteworthy that in his letter to Almira of September 18, 1862, following his wounding the previous day at Antietam, he said that he was at a hospital (Sedgwick Division) and that he was expecting “A” that day. That’s as much as he says about his wife. Not much. And even that much may have caused him to be upbraided by Almira for exposing Arabella to danger or for adding to her burdens. Indeed, it is quite possible that the whole business of Arabella following him around and thereby exposing herself to great danger never sat well with Almira, or with her own family, and that Barlow’s omission was thus a case of the less said the better. In any case, the reason for the omission is not critical. What is critical is that we know with certainty that she came to him well before July 7, that he nevertheless does not mention her in the surviving part of his letter of that date, and that such failure to mention her does not negate the fact of her coming, in the same way that failure to mention Gordon’s acts of kindness does not negate the fact of their meeting. Very speculative? Yes, but the primary source, what there is of it, is silent.

In an article entitled “After the Battle” that appeared in the December 31, 1885, edition of the National Tribune, General O.O. Howard, Commander of the XI Corps at Gettysburg, wrote at great length about Francis and Arabella, spoke glowingly of both and included the following material that is relevant here:

In his (Francis’s) vigorous efforts to force back the overwhelming numbers of Ewell and to hold his own, he was again severely wounded, and left … in the hands of the Confederates. I can never forget how speedily, as if led by instinct, his good wife found her way from Frederick or Baltimore to our lines after they had been established on the Cemetery Ridge. She said, as she found me not far from the Cemetery gates: “Gen. Howard, my husband is wounded and left within the enemy’s lines, I MUST GO TO HIM.”

Whether she tried Gen. Meade or not, to see if he would send her through by a flag of truce, I am not able to say. I could not do so, and it was not attempted. We were every instant expecting an attack from the direction of the town and easterly. She said, “They will not fire at me,” and so started rapidly down the Baltimore Pike toward the court-house. But as the firing continued from church tower, housetops, house windows, and other places of shelter, the rifle-balls striking the earth and graveled street near her, she became alarmed for her safety and returned. “I cannot get through there,” she said. She undertook this bold enterprise once again. “I will go there,” pointing to the left, “where both sides can see me.” She did so, and this time succeeded in passing through both skirmish-lines and reaching her husband.

Note that Howard does not give a date for Arabella’s appearance though his statement that she came “speedily” from Frederick or Baltimore suggests that she arrived on the second day of the battle (July 2) because:

  1. The establishment of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge occurred late in the day on July 1.

  2. “Speedily” from Frederick (about 30 miles) or Baltimore (about 60 miles), by horse or ambulance (horse and wagon), could fairly describe arrival on July 2, especially allowing for time for the news of Barlow’s condition and whereabouts to reach her, but would less likely describe arrival on the same day that Barlow was wounded.

In further support of July 2 as the arrival date are Howard’s statement that she came from Frederick or Baltimore and Gordon’s statement that “Passing through the day’s battle unhurt (i.e. July 1), I dispatched at its close (my italics), under flag of truce, the promised message to Mrs. Barlow.” If news of her husband’s condition and whereabouts was not sent to her until the “close” of day, it seems that it would be a near impossibility for her to abandon whatever she was doing and make her way to the Gettysburg battlefield from Frederick or Baltimore that same night.

In support of July 1 as the arrival date are Gordon’s statements that he learned that Arabella was with the Union Army and near the battlefield (Reminiscences) and just back of the Union line, at the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief of the army, General Meade (“Last Days”), that his “sympathies were especially stirred that his wife was so near him” and that he dispatched, at the close of battle that day, under flag of truce, the promised message to Mrs. Barlow and assured her that if she wished to come through the lines she should have safe escort to her husband’s side. Consistent with these statements, Gordon said, in “Last Days,” that “Late that night (i.e. the night of July 1 – July 2), as I lay in the open field upon my saddle, a picket from the front announced a lady on my lines. It was Mrs. Barlow. She was carried to her husband’s side during the night by my staff.” Well, being “with the Union Army, and near the battlefield”; “so near to him” (i.e. Barlow); and “back of the Union’s lines, at the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief of the army, General Meade,” certainly does not sound like Frederick or Baltimore. It sounds like she was immediately behind the lines or, more likely, right at Meade’s Headquarters. This apparent inconsistency between Howard’s account (she came speedily from Frederick or Baltimore) and Gordon’s account (he learned that she was behind the lines at Union headquarters) has several possible explanations.

  1. Gordon said he sent word to her at the close of day on July 1. It is extremely unlikely, in the circumstances, that he would send a message under a flag of truce all the way to Frederick or Baltimore.

  2. The far greater likelihood is that, as he says, he heard that she was already at the battle site, behind the lines at the Union Headquarters, and therefore sent word to her there — around the corner, as it were. Her presence in the immediate vicinity of the battlefield is perfectly consistent with her past practice, i.e. to always be close to Barlow in the event that he needed her, as she was at Antietam. This receives further corroboration from Gordon’s follow-up statement that “Mrs. Barlow’s presence with the Union army struck in this heart of mine another chord of deepest and tenderest sympathy; for my wife had followed me, sharing…the privations of the camp, the fatigues of the march.” “Presence with the Union army…” could hardly mean Frederick (30 miles away) or Baltimore (60 miles away).

  3. The fact that Howard expressed uncertainly as to whether she had come from Frederick or Baltimore indicates that his information was secondhand, that he didn’t really know where she had come from and that, in any case, her coming from one of those cities was more remote in time, i.e. it preceded Gordon’s message to her, though it is quite possible, too, that the message arrived at Meade’s Headquarters before she did.

If Gordon learned that Arabella was at Union Headquarters, or thereabouts, how did he learn it? It could only have come from Barlow. Is it likely that Barlow would know of Arabella’s whereabouts with that degree of precision? Why not? We know that Francis and Arabella maintained good communication during the campaigns and that they used ambulance drivers as couriers. It is therefore probable that she notified him, before the action of July 1, that she was leaving Frederick or Baltimore to be in the vicinity of the battle, in the same way that she left her work to be near the Battle of Antietam when she heard that the Army of the Potomac had moved to check Lee’s advance into Maryland. If so, she would need to pinpoint a place of rendezvous or a place where she could be reached if he needed her; otherwise how would they find each other in the crush of two armies comprising approximately 168,000 men?

In further support of July 1 as the arrival date is a passage in A Gallant Captain of the Civil War, edited by Joseph Tyler Butts. Describing the events of the evening of July 1, after the fight on the knoll, Frederick Otto Baron von Fritsch, a war correspondent, says that:

By seven o’clock we had several hundred men of the Division together. General Barlow lies wounded outside of Gettysburg,” the General (Ames) said, “and I take command of the Division. You’d better stay with me, Captain.” “Thanks, General,” I returned. “Here comes Mrs. Barlow with an ambulance,” I added, and we both approached her, and tried to describe where her husband could probably be found. The courageous lady, sitting next to the driver, with a white flag in her hand, then drove quickly towards the town, although we could still hear firing.5

In further support of July 1 as the arrival date is a passage in the War Diary of Stephen Minot Weld, a staff officer for General John F. Reynolds. In an entry dated, unambiguously, July 1, Weld describes a discourse he had with General Howard late in the day (though he does not say how late) concerning the identity of troops coming out of the woods toward the cemetery. He rode into town, on Howard’s order, and identified the troops as “rebs.” Then he writes:

On my way back I saw a lady riding in (i.e. into Gettysburg), through all those bullets, on a horse with a side-saddle, who turned out to be Mrs. General Barlow. She had heard of her husband’s dreadful wounds and came in to nurse him. She came in safely, as I afterwards heard, and undoubtedly saved her husband’s life.6

But there is more.

Daniel Skelly, a teenager resident of Gettysburg who was a clerk at a dry goods company at the time of the battle, wrote his account of the battle in 1932 under the title “A Boy’s Experiences During the Battle of Gettysburg.” (He died later that year at the age of 87 and is buried in Gettysburg.) In pertinent part, this is what he said:

Day dawned on the second of July bright and clear…About dusk, Will McCreary and I were sent on some errand down on Chambersburg Street and as we were crossing from Arnold’s corner to the present Eckert corner, we were halted by two Confederate soldiers who had a lady in their charge. She was on horseback and proved to be the wife of General (Francis) Barlow who had come into the Confederate lines under a flag of truce looking for her husband, who had been severely wounded on July 1, and as she was informed, had been brought into the town. She informed us he was with a family ‘named McCreary’ on Chambersburg Street. We directed her to Smith McCreary’s residence (though) she did not find the general there…for he had been taken from the field to the farmhouse of Josiah Benner on the Harrisburg Road just where the covered bridge crossed the creek. The night of the second (i.e. of July) I slept in a room above the Fahnstock store with a number of other boys.

It is reasonable to conclude from Howard’s, von Fritsch’s, Weld’s and Skelly’s accounts that whether Arabella arrived at the battlefield on July 1 or 2, and it is almost certain that the correct date is July 1, she was without question in Gettysburg looking for her husband on July 2.

The known facts, then, strongly suggest the following scenario. Sometime before July 1, Francis contacted Arabella, advising her that he, with the rest of the army, was moving in the direction of Gettysburg and that a clash of the armies was likely and perhaps imminent.

Sometime before July 1, Arabella responded to Francis by saying that she was leaving her work with the Sanitary Commission in Frederick (or Baltimore; it doesn’t matter) to be near him and that she would be at Union Headquarters soon.

If it is argued that no one knew that Gettysburg would be the battle site, the answer is that it doesn’t matter; no one had to know. All Arabella would have had to know was the general location of the Army of the Potomac and all she would have had to tell Barlow, therefore, was that she was coming to be with the army, which is to say, to be close to him (as she had done at Antietam), and that she would be at Union Headquarters, wherever that happened to be, since that is a nice, easily identifiable and easily accessible place to meet or to send messages.

On or about June 30 or July 1, she made her way to the Union lines and Union Headquarters from Frederick or Baltimore.

On July 1, the day Francis was wounded and attended to by Gordon, Francis advised Gordon that Arabella was at Union Headquarters.

At the close of action that day, Gordon sent a message (note) to Arabella at Union Headquarters, under a flag of truce, advising her that her husband had been seriously wounded and of his likely or approximate whereabouts and granting her a safe passage/safe escort to come through Confederate lines to be with him if she cared to do so. The message could have been waiting for her when she arrived, or it may have been delivered after her arrival, depending, obviously, on the time of her arrival, which is not known precisely and really doesn’t matter.

In response to the message, she left Union Headquarters and made her way to the Union skirmish line. At this time she was almost certainly in an ambulance, with a driver, and with a white flag in her hand (per von Fritsch). She had a brief meeting with General Howard not far from the Cemetery gates, told him of her purpose and then made her way across no-mans-land toward the Confederate lines. Whether or not she told Howard she had a safe passage/safe escort from Gordon is unclear from Howard’s article. Recall that he said, in this connection, “Whether she tried Gen. Meade or not, to see if he would send her through by a flag of truce, I am not able to say. I could not do so, and it was not attempted.” This passage suggests that she was not, or at least not yet, displaying or carrying a flag of truce, and was relying on the fact that she was a woman, and therefore obviously a noncombatant, and the fact that she was in an ambulance, to assure her safety. But Howard’s statement that “…it was not attempted” is ambiguous. Does he mean that he didn’t attempt to secure for her from Gen. Meade a flag of truce, or that she didn’t make such attempt, or does he mean that she didn’t attempt to get through with a flag of truce, but relied on her sex and her vehicle, as aforesaid? Von Fritsch said she was carrying such a flag, but it may be that when she reached Howard she didn’t have it yet, but that she acquired it later to facilitate her passage between the lines. The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that neither Howard’s ignorance of whether or not she had “tried” Gen. Meade, nor his ambiguous statement about whatever was not attempted, precludes Arabella’s telling him that she had a safe passage/safe escort from Gordon. She may have told him, in their brief conversation, inasmuch as it had relevance to her getting safely into Confederate territory, but then again, because she was in such a hurry, and so pre-occupied with a safe route between the skirmish lines, she may not have bothered. The latter conclusion is supported by Howard’s failure to mention it. In any case, because it is unlikely that Gordon’s message reached her before sunset, inasmuch as he says he sent it at the close of the day’s fighting, and because it is unlikely that such shooting as Howard describes would occur at night, it follows that Arabella must have crossed into no-man’s-land some time in the long, summer twilight between sunset and nightfall.

Upon entering Confederate territory, with her safe passage/safe escort from Gordon, she left her ambulance and driver, mounted a side-saddle horse (per Weld) and was assigned an escort of at least two Confederate soldiers (per Skelly), pursuant to Gordon’s instruction. She was probably detained for quite a while by Confederate officers, who would, of course, want to be absolutely certain of her bona fides. She probably took additional time to discuss with them, and perhaps others, her purpose and possible or likely locations of Barlow. At some time during that night, either later in the p.m. or early in the a.m. (it is impossible to say), she made her way to Gordon’s lines, as he says, before being carried to her husband’s side by his staff.

In the coming hours she must have taken some time, somewhere, to sleep, to eat, to cleanse herself, to perhaps put on fresh clothing (this was a proper New York lady, after all) and, of course, to look for her beloved Francis, who, because he was the only Union general captured that day, was probably a celebrity prisoner. By dusk of July 2, she still hadn’t found him, but she did encounter Skelly and Will McCreary, who directed her to Smith McCreary’s house, because her information was that he was there. Skelly adds that she didn’t find him there because he had been taken from the battlefield to the home of Josiah Benner. This is curious. Why would Skelly direct her to the McCreary house if he knew that Barlow was at the Benner house? There are two possibilities. Her information was that Barlow was at the McCreary house, so she insisted on going there, or at least going there first. Or, Skelly didn’t know at the time that Barlow was at the Benner house, but found out later. In any case, it seems likely that if Skelly knew, at some point, that Barlow had been taken to the Benner house, others must have known it too, and that it was only a question of time, and probably not very much time, until she was directed to the right house. Skelly’s reference to the Josiah Benner House as the place of Barlow’s repose is consistent with the account given in Medical Histories of Union Generals, by Jack D. Welsh.7 Later, however, according to that source, Barlow was moved to the John S. Crawford house, the house just inside the town, where, Barlow says, an elderly lady and her daughter were very kind to him. Arabella’s information that her husband was in the Smith McCreary house was apparently erroneous. It was probably given to her by Confederate soldiers upon her crossing into their territory and it is not surprising that with all the exigencies of battle and the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of wounded on both sides who were being cared for in private houses in and around the town, there was confusion as to where Barlow was. In any case, it seems quite certain that she must have reached him some time during the evening of July 2.

The fact that we cannot trace her every step with perfect precision as to time and place is not material to the issue. We can still say with certainty, but broadly, that she came through Confederate lines from Union lines successfully and that once inside Confederate lines she was given an escort. That could only have been accomplished if she had a safe passage/safe escort and she could have that only if it had been given to her by a Confederate officer of very high rank. Lt. Pitzer does not fit that description. But Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon does. It was he, be it remembered, who was described by Lee’s biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, as “Lee’s principal confidant, as far as any man ever enjoyed that status.”

Two other Confederate generals also fit the description. I refer, of course, to Lieutenant General Jubal Anderson Early, Gordon’s division commander, and Lieutenant General Richard Stoddart Ewell, their corps commander. Interestingly, Early wrote memoirs. And interestingly, he mentions therein the fight on the knoll. Here is what he said:

…While the brigades of Hays and Hoke were being formed, as Dole’s brigade was getting in a critical condition, Gordon charged rapidly to the front, passing over the fences and Rock Creek and up the side of the hill, and engaged the enemy’s line on the crest, which, after a short but obstinate and bloody conflict, was broken and routed. The right flank of the force advancing against Dole’s became thus exposed to Gordon’s fire, and that force endeavored to change front, but Gordon immediately attacked it and drove it from the field with heavy slaughter, pursuing towards the town and capturing a number of prisoners, among them being General Barlow, commanding a division of the 11th corps, severely wounded.8

Very interesting. Observe that though he mentions Barlow, he says not a word about having any conversation with him, learning from him Arabella’s proximity to the battlefield, sending her, under a flag of truce, a message concerning her husband, or providing her with a safe passage/safe escort to come through Confederate lines to be with him. I submit that if Gen. Early had done any or all of those things, he would not have let the opportunity pass to tell the world of his humanity. I submit that his silence as to all of those things can have but one reasonable conclusion: that he didn’t do them. As for Gen. Ewell, he wrote no memoirs. I have searched the literature and can find no record of his ever having said or written anything relating to the Barlow incident. That doesn’t surprise me. It wasn’t his style. He was an irascible old codger who, as a corps commander, had far more important things to think about that afternoon than the comfort of one Union officer, even if he were inclined to help him, which he probably wasn’t. I think it is a safe conclusion that Ewell had nothing to do with caring for Barlow or granting safe passage/safe escort to Arabella. Well, if Early isn’t our man, and Ewell isn’t our man, and they were the only officers other than Gordon who at that time and place had the authority to do what we know was done, then what conclusion shall we draw? The question can have but one answer.

Further, nowhere in the portion of the July 7 letter that survives does Barlow say that he told Lt. Pitzer, any of the surgeons, any of the Confederate officers and soldiers, or the elderly lady or her daughter, or anyone else, about the proximity of Arabella. There was a very good reason for this. Because he didn’t tell them. And yet she came. I submit that the strong likelihood, therefore, is that he didn’t tell them because he had already told Gordon, which is precisely what Gordon says when he says he learned that she was behind the lines at Union Headquarters.

When Lee ordered the retreat of his army on July 4, the Confederates, convinced that Barlow would die, and probably moved by Arabella’s dedication, not only to Barlow, but also to other wounded men whom she cared for while in the village, left him in her care. When Union troops came down from Cemetery Hill to reoccupy the village, they observed Arabella leaving it, driving an ambulance, with Barlow inside. She drove him first to a home just outside the village, then to Baltimore, then to her home in Somerville, New Jersey. Later they spent time in Boston (at the home of Julia Ward Howe) and New York before returning to Somerville.

Clearly, we have here a major event in Barlow’s life — the summoning of his wife and her flight to his side to care for him when he was near death. And clearly it is an event that occurred well before July 7 and whose historicity cannot be questioned by any reasonable mind. Nevertheless, it is an event that received absolutely no mention by Barlow in the surviving portion of his letter of July 7 to his mother. Shall we conclude, therefore, that it didn’t happen? Of course not, but that is precisely the reasoning used by the naysayers and doubters for holding that the Barlow-Gordon meeting is a myth, with respect to both Arabella and Gordon. But let us move on.

V: Knowing their enemy’s identity

The fifth reason given for supposing that Gordon’s account is a fable is that both commanders must have known that they were facing each other in subsequent encounters in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania, the North Anna River, Cold Harbor, Petersburg and Appomattox. Nonsense. Why should we suppose that every combatant, or even every officer, knew the identity of every subordinate commander, as well as whether or not they were in action against them, in every engagement? Gordon says that “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.” To Gordon, therefore, Barlow was dead. Does the remainder of his narrative (Reminiscences) corroborate this? It does. He never mentions Barlow again in connection with combat.

In his Official Report of August 10, 1863, however, he says, inter alia, speaking of the first days action at Gettysburg, that “Among the (prisoners) was a division commander (General [F.C.] Barlow), who was severely wounded.” Later in his narrative, he says, recalling Gettysburg, “I hear again the words of Barlow ‘Tell my wife that I freely gave my life for my country.'” These two later references to Barlow are strong corroboration of the veracity of his account of their initial encounter, because if the encounter is a fable, then these later references are not only misleading and false; they are absurd. Moreover, we must suppose that they are plants. Does that sound reasonable — that Gordon would deliberately plant falsehoods in his writings to give credence to another falsehood? I submit that it doesn’t. For our purposes, we need to ask: If Gordon knew that Barlow was alive, and that they were opposing each other in the Overland Campaign of 1864, why does he never mention him again, following the irrelevant references just given?

Let us take it a step further. Does he mention other commanders? He certainly does. In his description of Spotsylvania, he mentions the charges by Upton and Warren, Hancock and Mott, concentrating on his center. He doesn’t mention Barlow, though Barlow was there. Even when he describes the assault of May 12, in which Barlow’s Division was in the van, he says it was made by Hancock. Again, he doesn’t mention Barlow. Repeatedly, he mentions Hancock – Hancock – Hancock (24 times!), but never Barlow. Likewise, in “Last Days,” he refers to the charge of May 12 against the Mule Shoe as Hancock’s: “There it was that Hancock, superb, in the darkness and mist of that historic 12th of May, led his famous charge…” and again “…Hancock’s brilliant charge…” and again “…a counter-charge against Hancock…” and again “…to lead my men in the charge and drive Hancock back…” and again “…his face rigid and fixed on Hancock’s advancing column…” Not once in his description of the May 12 attack, in “Last Days,” does he mention any of Hancock’s division commanders — Barlow, Mott and Birney — only the corps commander is named.

If he had mentioned Mott and Birney, but omitted Barlow, we would wonder why, but he mentions none of them, which strongly suggests that, with the possible exception of Mott, whom he mentioned earlier in his narrative, he didn’t know the identities of the division commanders who opposed him or simply didn’t relate to them. Nor does he mention Barlow in his description of the battle in the Wilderness, though he was there. Nor does he mention him at Appomattox, though, again, he was there. He does, however, mention Elihu Washburn and Generals Chamberlain, Grant, Gibbon, Griffin and Merritt. All of this strongly suggests that he no longer counted Barlow among his enemies, which strongly suggests that he no longer counted him among the living.

If Gordon knew he was facing Barlow, but made no mention of him anywhere in his narrative of the Overland Campaign, or in “Last Days,” we must conclude that he sanitized his writing to omit or delete all references to Barlow so as not to set up any inconsistency between his account of their meeting on the knoll at Gettysburg and their resurrection at Potter’s dinner party. Is that likely? I submit that it isn’t. I submit that it is more likely that he didn’t sanitize anything; that he didn’t mention Barlow among his opponents because he didn’t know he was an opponent, because he thought he was dead, just as he said in his narrative and in “Last Days.” I submit that the latter is the more reasonable interpretation. Let us not forget, too, that Barlow was out of action for 15 days (July 29 to August 13) when he went to Somerville, New Jersey, to bury his wife. Further, on August 24 he took a 20-day leave of absence to try to recover from the devastating loss of Arabella and from illness (diarrhea and dysentery) and combat exhaustion. On September 12, October 3 and October 22 he obtained 20-day extensions of the leave because he wasn’t improving. Finally, on October 29 he applied for a 5-month leave (until April 1, 1865), including permission to go abroad. It was granted on November 5 by the War Department.

Barlow left for Europe later in November (but not before receiving news of the murder of his father in Pennsylvania, as if he hadn’t suffered enough loss) and did not return to the army until April 6, 1865. All told then, Barlow was away from the front from July 29, 1864, to April 6, 1865, a period of 8 months and 9 days. Let us throw another chunk of meat into the stew: Gordon himself absented himself from the Overland battles when he left Lee and fought with Early in the Valley from June 13, 1864, to December 8, 1864. So what do we have?: A period of almost 10 months (June 13, 1864, to April 6, 1865) when the commanders didn’t even face each other. I submit that that was a powerful inducement for Gordon to suppose that Barlow was quite dead, which supposition is supported by his narrative, as previously said. So what is left?: The Wilderness (May 5 and 6); Spotsylvania (May 12 to 19); North Anna River (May 23 to 25); Cold Harbor (June 1 to 3). Barlow did not return to service, following his Gettysburg wound, until April 1, 1864, and was not actually in combat again until the fight in the Wilderness (May 5). From Gettysburg to Appomattox, therefore – a period of more than 21 months – Gordon and Barlow faced each other for only 39 days, i.e. May 5, 1864 (the Wilderness) to June 13, 1864, the date that Gordon joined Early. Is it really such a stretch, therefore, to conclude that they were ignorant of each other’s presence among the enemy? If they had faced each other for the entire 21-month period, or even most of it, we should be justified in our skepticism of such ignorance. But 39 days? A lot can get past a person in 39 days that would not in 21 months.

If — and I repeat for emphasis — if, because of Confederate intelligence, or because of what he may have learned from Union prisoners, Gordon heard that a Barlow was leading the charge on the Mule Shoe, he may well have supposed that it was the other General Barlow (Brig. Gen. John Whitney Barlow), the existence of whom he says, in both Reminiscences and “Last Days,” he became aware of. But in my judgment, the greater likelihood is that he did not learn that a Barlow was a division commander who was opposing him, because if he had, he would have mentioned him along with his mention of Upton, Warren, Hancock and Mott. The fact that he does not mention any Barlow in this context, nor mention Francis Barlow, Birney or Gibbon at all, suggests most strongly that he simply did not relate to the division commanders opposing him. But let us move on.

VI: Gordon as a voice for reconciliation

The sixth reason for supposing that Gordon’s account is bogus is that, after the war, Gordon was an active voice for reconciliation of the regions and the former belligerents and for that reason was strongly motivated to doctor or to wholly fabricate events, in his speeches and in his writings, so as to cast both sides in a favorable light by emphasizing their common humanity, their common nationality and their mutual respect and admiration, etc.

In some ways this argument is the most egregious of all, because it supposes that Gordon was not only a knave – a lying, scheming, machinating knave, but also a fool, in fact a nincompoop. It supposes that he didn’t have sense enough to know that if, in his addresses and in his Reminiscences, or in any of his other writings, he told one flagrant lie, and if that lie were exposed, it would destroy all of his credibility, credibility that he desperately needed and sought if he were to accomplish the very purposes for which he is now charged with distorting the truth and marketing wholesale fabrications. All of his speeches and writings, in that case, would be deemed to be untrustworthy and unreliable and therefore worthless, or nearly so, which would not only disgrace him, but might also affect his bank account. We are being asked to believe, by the naysayers and doubters, that he would risk this — his good name, his honor, his reputation and his bank account. Moreover, we are asked to believe that he would do so at a time when hundreds of thousands of men and women who had fought in the war, or otherwise been directly involved with it, were still alive, and when the lie, therefore, was quite susceptible of being challenged and exposed by eye-witnesses or others who were conversant with the facts. Naysayers and doubters need to leaven their skepticism with this yeast: Errors made in the accounts of events by persons who commit those events to paper, or to the spoken word, are usually errors that can be attributed to human frailty, i.e. honest errors of perception, interpretation, emphasis, communication and bias; they are not ordinarily conscious, knowing and purposeful errors actuated by malevolence or personal gain or other unworthy motives. Further, if a communicator is inclined to intentionally falsify, he or she is far more likely to do so by omission rather than by commission; the former is easily and plausibly explained away as a memory fault; the latter is there for anyone and everyone to contradict. The operative words in all this are “usually,” “ordinarily” and “likely.” I do not deny, of course, that much of the historical record is false and inaccurate. But I do deny that most of these deficiencies result from purposeful wrongdoing. Most chroniclers and historians try to get it right. When they fail, as they inevitably will, it is because of human weakness, inexactitude, the limitations of memory and language, and bias, not because of human perfidy or the desire to lead anyone astray. Examples of writings that are not in the least self-serving, but are, instead, damning and self-deprecating in the extreme, sometimes painfully so (to the reader), are legion and superfluous. It is the rare bird who writes for public consumption that which he or she knows to be a flat-out lie. Accordingly, we should not reject eye-witness testimony, or, for that matter, tradition, too quickly or easily. The Romans put the matter directly: Ex nihilo nihil fit – nothing comes from nothing.

Applying all of this to the matter at hand, I submit that it is somewhere between highly unlikely and damn near impossible that Gordon would make something up out of whole cloth and stick it in his Reminiscences at a time when dozens, perhaps hundreds, including Barlow himself, were still around to tell the world that he was either a liar or a senile old man who was hallucinating. And let there be no mistake about it: If he didn’t meet Barlow on the battlefield, attend to him and converse with him for a few minutes, send word to Arabella as to her husband’s condition and whereabouts, and grant her safe passage/safe escort to reach her husband, then the story is made out of whole cloth. I submit, further, that if Gordon were inclined to tell less than the whole truth, he would more likely do so by leaving something out of his narrative rather than by inserting something into it, putting it out on a limb, as it were, for anyone to knock off.

Further, if it was Gordon’s motivation, in telling of the event, to facilitate reconciliation of North and South, why was it necessary to put himself in the story? He could as easily and effectively have accomplished that purpose by giving all the credit to Lt. Pitzer and the others. Something like this:

I saw that brave fellow fall, and after a period of time I rode up to him and saw that he was still alive, but because of the necessity of leading my men on toward Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge I could not stop for him. However, Lt. Pitzer and a few of the men under his command did stop. He told me later that the officer’s name was Francis C. Barlow, a division commander in Howard’s Corps. They did the best they could for him, as was their wont with the enemy, and when they brought the matter to General Early’s attention, he sent word under a flag of truce to Barlow’s wife, who happened to be at Union Headquarters, as to where her husband was, and even granted her a safe passage/safe escort to come through our lines to be with him. I was not surprised to hear any of this for I had seen this kind of respect for the enemy shown many times before by General Early and the gallant fighting men in our army, blah, blah, blah.

But let us move on.

VII: The Potter dinner party

Let’s talk about the Potter dinner party a little bit. This is the second half of Gordon’s accounts. If the second half is true, then the first half must also be true, because the second half is entirely dependent upon the first half. Do we have any reason to doubt the second half? None. It’s a perfectly plausible story. Furthermore, there were witnesses, i.e. other dinner guests. If the conversation and its effects, as described by Gordon, are fanciful, these witnesses could have and might have exposed it as fraudulent. Again, is it reasonable to suppose that Gordon would risk his priceless credibility for such a piece of fluff? For that matter, is it reasonable to suppose that he would invent the whole story? For what purpose? The second half of the story is dependent upon the first half, as said, but the opposite is not true. If the first half is a fraud, there is no necessity to add the second half; it is gratuitous.

Why would Potter invite Barlow and Gordon to dinner? Because Potter, a Democrat, was Chairman of a committee that investigated charges of fraud in the bitterly contested 1876 election and because Barlow was one of the investigators of the charges in Florida. When he found that his party had indeed perpetrated a fraud and that the Democrat Tilden had therefore won the State and the election, he put principle ahead of party loyalty by reporting what he had found. His report, which was ignored by the Grant Administration, cost him his political career. Not surprisingly, therefore, Barlow was called by Potter to testify before his committee. For that reason he would be an honored guest in Potter’s home. Gordon, of course, was a Democrat and a prominent one. His position relative to the election was naturally the same as Barlow’s. It is no surprise, therefore, that he too would be invited to dine with Potter. It is possible, though by no means certain, that the erstwhile enemies had heard of each other in the years after the war, but before their meeting at Potter’s home, inasmuch as both had careers in politics. But communications and publicity then were not what they are today, and we should therefore be wary of making assumptions today that depend for their likelihood on technologies that did not exist or existed in much more primitive form yesterday. Even if they had heard of each other, they may have assumed that their names referred to other individuals. Barlow and Gordon, after all, are not uncommon names. It is even possible that there was a suspicion as to the true identity of either or both of them before sitting down to dinner, and that the conversation was carried out in a jocular or facetious manner, though Gordon’s account does not suggest this.


Let us try to summarize what we know, to put matters in a proper perspective and to make a reasonable conclusion.

We know that:

  1. Gordon said that he ministered to a stricken Barlow on the knoll. He said it in his memoirs and in a speech he gave many times all over the country. He indicates that he was with him for only a brief period and then turned him over to his subordinates for further care.

  2. Gordon said that he sent to Arabella, under a flag of truce, a message, namely that if she wished to visit her husband she would have “safe escort” to him. “Safe escort” is even better and more descriptive that “safe passage.” The latter simply means that she will be allowed through Confederate lines. The former means not only that she will be allowed through, but also that Confederate soldiers would be at her side to see that no harm came to her. There is no evidence that either Gen. Early or Gen. Ewell sent a message to Arabella. They were the only commanders in that theater of the battle, other than Gordon, who had authority to grant a safe passage/safe escort.

  3. General Howard said that Arabella came and said to him “General Howard, my husband is wounded and left within the enemy’s lines, I MUST GO TO HIM.” He added that “…she succeeded in passing through both skirmish-lines and reaching her husband.”

  4. Frederick Otto Baron von Fritsch said that he saw Arabella about 7:00 p.m. on July 1 as a passenger in an ambulance, carrying a white flag, and headed into town.

  5. Stephen Minot Weld said he saw Arabella late in the day on July 1 riding into Gettysburg side-saddle on a horse.

  6. Gordon said that he sent his message to Arabella at the close of July 1.

  7. Gordon said that on the night of July 1 and 2, a picket from the front announced that Arabella was on his lines. He added that she was carried to Barlow during the night by his staff.

  8. Skelly said that at dusk on July 2 he witnessed “two Confederate soldiers who had a lady (Arabella) in their charge…”

  9. The inconsistencies in Gordon’s two accounts are of minutia. In their essentials, they tell the same story.

  10. The inconsistencies between Gordon’s accounts and Barlow’s letters are also of minutia, except for the business about the letters.

  11. Barlow’s letter of July 7, which fails to mention Gordon, is incomplete, and also fails to mention Arabella, though it is almost certain that she was with him by then.

  12. It is very probable that Gordon’s reference to letters, in both of his accounts, and especially to their destruction, and Barlow’s reference to the destruction of letters, are references to the same incident.

  13. From June 13, 1864, to April 6, 1865 — a period of almost ten months — Barlow and Gordon did not face each other. Between Gettysburg and Appomattox — a period of more than twenty-one months, they faced each other for only 39 days.

  14. There were other Barlows and Gordons in the armies. Gordon said that he knew of the other Barlow and that Francis Barlow erred in supposing that the death of the other Gordon, having the same initials, referred to his death.

In view of all these firmly established facts, can there be any reasonable doubt that Gordon attended to a wounded Barlow; that pursuant to Barlow’s request, Gordon sent word to Arabella about her husband’s condition and general whereabouts, promising a safe passage/safe escort, if she wished to be with him; and that in response thereto, she came. If Gordon didn’t meet Barlow, how would he have known where Arabella was, in order to send word to her? If he didn’t send word to her and grant her safe passage/safe escort, how is it that she appeared before General Howard near the cemetery gates and told him that her husband was wounded and behind enemy lines and that she had to go to him, how is it that von Fritsch saw her in an ambulance carrying a white flag and headed for town, how is it that Gordon saw her on his lines on the night of July 1 and 2, how is it that Weld saw her riding side-saddle into town, how is it that Skelly and McCreary saw her in the charge of two Confederate soldiers, how is it that she succeeded in passing through Confederate skirmish-lines and reaching her husband and how is it that on July 4 she was seen by Union troops driving an ambulance out of town with her husband in it? Whether or not she told Howard that she had a safe passage/safe escort from Gordon is really not important. A safe passage/safe escort from Gordon has relevance only to passage through Confederate lines anyway; it has nothing to do with General Howard or Union lines. Likewise, the difficulty she subsequently encountered when she made her way between the Union lines (which she reached unimpeded) and the Confederate lines, was not from fire directed at her, but from random fire that just happened to be striking near her, near enough to induce her to change direction. The fact that she made it to and through Confederate lines, and was then assigned an escort of at least two Confederate soldiers, speaks louder than her apparent failure to tell Howard about her safe passage/safe escort, if in fact she did so fail, and is more telling than the fact that she had to make her way gingerly between the lines.

Further, we have seen that Gordon, Early and Ewell were the only Confederates who, in that theater of the battle, had the authority to grant Arabella a safe passage/safe escort. Gordon says he did so. Early is completely silent on the subject in his memoirs and Ewell is completely silent period. Gordon’s account is therefore consistent with the known facts. To hold that it was Early’s or Ewell’s doing, despite their silence, is an enormous stretch. It is an argument writ on water.

However, in fairness, one must at least consider the possibility that Robert E. Lee or even Jefferson Davis had a hand in it. I called the National Archives and asked them if they had anything on this. After searching their records, they said “no,” but that there were some old files, etc., in the basement that hadn’t been classified yet and that I was welcome to come and have a look around. I did so. After poring over and through some dusty and musty tomes, boxes, crates, files, etc., and after shooing the vermin away (mostly centipedes and spiders, but also a few potato bugs), I got lucky. I found a transcript of telegraph messages, all dated July 1, 1863, between Davis and Lee. Here it is:

LEE to DAVIS: Mr. President, Gen. Ewell and Gen. Early had a good day today. They drove the Yankees through Gettysburg from the north.

By the way, one of the enemy’s division commanders was seriously wounded (Francis C. Barlow). He says his wife is nearby and would like to see her. Her name is Arabella. We’re sympathetic, naturally, but who knows: She may be a spy. I discussed the matter with Dick and Jubal and they said they don’t want to have to make the decision as to whether or not to allow it. I don’t feel comfortable making it either. What do you think?

DAVIS to LEE: Good work, General, and my best to Dick and Jubal. Jeb filled me in on the terrain there. He told me to tell you that he would see you in a couple of days. Said he’s busy capturing Yankee supply wagons right now. Try rolling up the Yankee right at Culp’s Hill or the left at the little rocky mount. You’ll have a peach orchard and a wheat field to get through, but you can do it. If Old Pete gives you a hard time, tell him to take a walk.

About that woman. This is an amazing coincidence, but by God I think I know her. She was a friend of Varina’s from New York. They say she was a real item there; knows a lot of Yankee intellectuals, lawyers, etc. I heard that she is ten years older than her husband. Can you imagine? Why on earth didn’t she stay in New York? Now I have to decide whether to let her through our lines or not. Frankly, I don’t want to have to make this decision. If it backfires, I’ll have the Congress all over my back. What do you think?

LEE to DAVIS: Right. That’s what I had in mind. And if those attacks fail tomorrow, I’ll send Pettigrew’s and Pickett’s Divisions against their center the next day. That ought to sink that goggle-eyed old snapping-turtle. Don’t worry about Old Pete. He knows who’s in charge.

Yes, quite a coincidence about Varina and Arabella. I heard she was with him at Sharpsburg too. Frankly, I think these women get in the way on battlefields. Gordon’s wife, Fanny, does the same thing. It really upsets Jubal a lot. I know what you mean about having the Congress on your back, but better your back than mine. I’m going to bounce this one off of Gordon and see what he has to say. What do you think?

DAVIS to LEE: Wonderful, wonderful, Bobby, that’s what I think. I like the cut of your jib old man. Now tell me what you need. Anything. Just name it.

LEE to DAVIS: What do I need?! I’ll tell you what I need. I need you to have a look at that map in your office that we were poring over not long ago and figure out a way to bring Bragg’s army and my army together so we can put an end to this mess.

DAVIS to LEE: Bobby, I’ve looked at that map eight ways from Sunday and there’s just no way. I know I said I’d give you anything you want, but I just can’t do that. Isn’t there something else I can do for you?

LEE to DAVIS: Well, yes, as a matter of fact there is. Mrs. Lee has been giving me a hard time lately. Says I’m not spending enough time at home, that sort of thing. I thought maybe you could talk to her and …well…you know.

(There is a period of non-transmission, indicating silence, then:)

DAVIS to LEE: I’ll have another look at that map.

Reductio ad absurdum? Precisely. Precisely. Because the truth is staring at us, right in our faces!

Further, if Barlow’s failure to mention Arabella in his July 7 letter is interpreted to mean that she hadn’t reached him by that date, we must conclude that she spent five to six days and nights (the night of July 1 and 2 to July 7) looking for him in a town of 2400 people without finding him, and this despite the fact that she was escorted by two Confederate soldiers and despite the fact that his presence in the Josiah Benner house was known to Skelly and presumably, therefore, to others. I submit that such a conclusion is completely untenable.

Let’s look at it the other way around, just to nail it down. If we accept the thesis that Gordon’s accounts are fictitious, we must also accept the following:

  1. That he told bald-faced lies in his memoirs at a time when dozens, perhaps hundreds, were still alive to expose the lies.

  2. That he told the same lies in a speech he gave all over the country from 1893 to 1904, also at a time when the lies were susceptible to exposure.

  3. That he told these lies to further the reconciliation of the regions and the former belligerents even though he could have accomplished this purpose without putting himself in the story, which is to say, without lying.

  4. That he risked loss of credibility, disgrace and possible adverse effects on his finances in order to tell these lies.

  5. That to give credence to the lies, he planted two false references later in his memoirs because they tended to corroborate the earlier falsehoods.

  6. That to give further credence to the lies, he sanitized his memoirs and his speech to remove all references to Barlow in his description of the 1864 Overland Campaign.

  7. That to give still further credence to the lies, he invented the second half of his story (the Potter dinner party) because it fit nicely with the first half, even though it was completely gratuitous, i.e. it needn’t have been told to shore up the first part of the story because the first part stood quite well on its own.

About this time I say to the doubters and naysayers: Give me a break! You have left the realm of reason and have entered the realm of hobgoblins and fairies.

The veracity of Gordon’s account receives further support from the fact that the story was in circulation from at least 1879, seventeen years before Barlow’s death, and was never contradicted by Barlow. It is simply incredible that the story, as told by Gordon, and as it appeared in the publications antedating 1896, would not have come to Barlow’s attention in that seventeen-year period. That includes Gordon’s speech (“Last Days”), which was given all over the country and which surely appeared in print while Barlow still lived. Barlow had a reputation for no-nonsense bluntness and honesty. His principled report of his own party’s shenanigans in Florida, in connection with the 1876 election, which, as previously said, cost him his political career, is proof of this. It is nearly certain, therefore, that if there were anything substantial in Gordon’s accounts that was untrue, Barlow would not have remained silent.

Further support for the story’s veracity is the fact that Barlow and Gordon met on at least two occasions after the war: once at Potter’s dinner party (1879), and a second time at the twenty-fifth anniversary of the battle (1888). By the time of the second meeting, the story had been in circulation for at least nine years. On the occasion of that meeting, the New York Times wrote that:

The two men met for the second time in 25 years and the meeting was rather affecting. Gen. Barlow was left on the field on the first day’s fight. He was found by Gen. Gordon, who not only saw that he was taken care of, but allowed Mrs. Barlow to come through the lines to nurse her husband.

The fact that the story appeared in such a prominent newspaper as the New York Times, which, living in New York, Barlow must surely have read, gave him an excellent opportunity to denounce it as false, but of course he didn’t.

Still further support for the veracity of the story is Gordon’s statements, in both Reminiscences and “Last Days,” that Barlow had heard of the death of Gordon’s cousin, General J.B. Gordon of North Carolina, who was killed near Richmond in the summer of 1864, and, because of the identical initials, had assumed that this was the J. B. Gordon who had assisted him at Gettysburg. How would Gordon know that? The only reasonable answer, of course, is that Barlow told him. But when and why would Barlow tell him that? The only reasonable answer is that he told him at or some time after the meeting at Potter’s dinner party in the context of how and why he, Barlow, assumed that Gordon was dead. Outside the context of a confession of ignorance as to Gordon’s survival, Barlow’s telling of his mistake re the other Gordon makes no sense at all. Their supposed deaths must therefore have been a subject of conversation between them. And such conversation would only have taken place if, as Gordon says repeatedly, they both thought each other dead. And if they both thought each other dead, which is the logical conclusion from all of this, then Gordon’s telling of Barlow’s mistake is strongly probative of the essential truth of Gordon’s accounts.

Still further support for the truth of the story is the fact that in the account of it that appeared in the March, 1879, issue of the National Tribune, the unidentified author concludes his description of the dinner party by saying that “The hearty greeting which followed the touching story, as related to the interested guests by General Barlow (my italics), and the thrilling effect upon the company, can be better imagined than described.” Observe that according to this unidentified author (who was approximately 127 years closer to the event than we are), the story was told by Barlow, not Gordon, thus further corroborating Gordon’s accounts, unless we prefer to go off into Disneyland again and hold that Barlow fabricated the story first, but that Gordon liked it so much that he later incorporated it into his speech and memoirs, sanitized his other writings and threw in a couple of other fabrications here and there to beef it up.


What, I ask, is history? I submit that history is not “what happened”; history is a record of what happened. And records, perforce, are always imperfect, because their creators are imperfect, laboring as they do, though not always consciously, with the limitations of perception, interpretation, language, bias and prejudice. Ultimately, therefore, our conclusions are almost always in some degree less than absolutely certain, and this despite the fact that they are based on what we deem to be good sources, especially primary sources, as well as on reason and what we know of human nature. Therefore, we must strive for and be content with probabilities, because certainties are almost always unattainable (one could fill a room with the literature written about six seconds in Dallas on November 22, 1963) and possibilities are infinite.

With the foregoing in mind, I conclude that though there is and probably always will be a scintilla of doubt as to the veracity of Gordon’s accounts, the doubt, as the lawyers say, is not reasonable; that the weight of the evidence, indeed the great weight of the evidence, is in favor of the truth of the story, later embellishments in the retelling of it by others notwithstanding; that the only reasonable conclusion, therefore, is that it happened in substantially the way that Gordon said it happened; and that the integrity of both Americans, therefore, remains untarnished.

Related links:
Francis and Arebella – A Love Story
John and Fanny – A Love Story


  1. Reminiscences of the Civil War, by John B. Gordon; 1903 edition, Scribners, New York.

  2. As contained in Publications of the Historical Society of Schuylkill County, Vol.IX, 1989, No.1, pp.6-23.

  3. As contained in Fear Was Not In Him: The Civil War Letters of Major General Francis Barlow, U.S.A., edited by Christian G. Samito, Fordham University Press, New York, 2004

  4. Gettysburg — The First Day, by Harry W. Pfanz; 2001, The University of North Carolina Press.

  5. A Gallant Captain of the Civil War, Being the record of the Extraordinary Adventures of Frederick Otto Baron von Fritsch, edited and compiled by Joseph Tyler Butts. New York: F. Tennyson Neely, 1902.

  6. War Diary and Letters of Stephen Minot Weld, 1861-1865, Second Edition, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, 1979.

  7. Medical Histories of Union Generals, by Jack G. Welsh; 1996, Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio.

  8. Lieutenant General Jubal Anderson Early, C.S.A., Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative of the War Between the States, Philadelphia & London, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1912, pp. 267, 268.

Click on any of the book links to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.