- Jul 30, 2018
An elderly Sanitary Commission officer tenderly asked, "My dear boy, are you badly wounded?"
Barlow's reply? "I am not a boy, I am a Major-General of the United States Army!"
Francis Channing Barlow was born on October 19, 1834 in Brooklyn, New York. His father was a Unitarian minister. When Barlow was two years old, his family moved to Massachusetts to his mother's hometown in the Boston area where he grew up. His parents separated when Barlow was six years old; he and his two brothers would be raised by only their mother while their father eventually moved to southern Pennsylvania and all contact was severed.
Barlow went to Harvard Law School at age 17 and in 1855 graduated with honors, first in his class. He moved to New York where he started working in law firms while moonlighting as a law reporter and editor for the New York Tribune. In addition, he worked as a tutor to prepare young men for college and business life. One of these was Robert Gould Shaw; the Barlows and Shaws already knew each other from Massachusetts, and Shaw called Barlow the "crammer." After Barlow was admitted to the bar in 1858, he entered a law partnership with George Bliss, Jr. He was well connected to the literary circles and the social elite of the city which not only opened him doors in pre-war New York, but which would serve him well during the war.
People noticed Barlow for his strongly opinionated personality and huge ego. He would freely say what was on his mind and did not care what others thought or said about him. James A. Scrymser – who was a good friend of Barlow – described him as "a good listener" and that he "had little to say but when he did speak he commanded attention." Scrymser also wrote:
After a rather heated discussion, Barlow interrupted by saying, "You may talk politics until you are deaf and dumb but slavery in this country can be ended only by war, and war is sure to come, and all of you must be prepared to enlist."
Personal reminiscences of James A. Scrymser, in times of peace and war, p. 9
When Lincoln called for volunteers, Barlow responded immediately and enlisted as private in the engineers company of the 12th New York State Militia, a three months outfit commanded by Colonel Daniel Butterfield. He turned down the first offer to be a lieutenant on grounds of never before having handled a gun, but after seeing that his regiment's other junior officers had no more knowledge of all things military than he, he changed his mind. When the regiment was mustered into service on May 5, he accepted the commission as 1st lieutenant.
Engineer Company, 12th New York State Militia, Camp Anderson, 1861
Library of Congress
Barlow is the second from right, seated.
But before the regiment moved south to Washington, Barlow married Arabella Griffith – who was ten years his senior; it didn't seem to have mattered to them though – on April 20, 1861. She would register with the Sanitary Commission and serve her country as a nurse, often following the army into the field to take care of the wounded after the battles.
The 12th New York Militia never saw combat. They spent weeks in camp around Washington before being ordered to Patterson's command at Martinsburg near Harpers Ferry with the intention to move against Johnston to keep him from reinforcing Beauregard at Manassas. During those first weeks at the capital, Barlow and his fellow officers were lucky enough to receive additional military instructions by a West Pointer – Emory Upton.
When the three months of enlistment were up in August 1861, Barlow was mustered out and didn't immediately reenlist with his former comrades; he was dissatisfied with army life, particularly the boredom of camp and the lack of intelligent companionship. And he was unhappy with Colonel Butterfield. Therefore, for a few months, he and Arabella enjoyed married life in New York before Barlow reenlisted on November 9, 1861 as Lieutenant Colonel of the 61st New York. The regiment was part of Howard's brigade of Israel Richardson's division which would become a part of Edwin Sumner's II Corps during the Peninsula Campaign.
A man of his new regiment described him as not being
an impressive looking officer. He was of medium height, of slight build, with a pallid countenance, and a weakish drawling voice. In his movements there was an appearance of loose jointedness and an absence of prim stiffness.
The Boy General: The Life and Careers of Francis Channing Barlow, p. 37
While training the troops throughout the winter of 1861/1862, Barlow quickly established a reputation as harsh and unbending disciplinarian. He took to carrying a cavalry saber as sidearm which looked much too big against his slim frame and he would use it freely, whacking shirkers and stragglers with its broadside to spur them on. His men hated him, but after experiencing how well prepared they were for combat and how he led them in battle from the front, animosity turned to admiration. When Colonel Cone was dismissed after the officers signed a petition to have him removed for incompetence (a revolt started by Barlow), Barlow became the 61st New York's new commanding officer.
Drawing by Winslow Homer
Battles and Leaders II, p. 195
The 61st New York accompanied McClellan to the Peninsula but saw no action during the Siege of Yorktown and Battle of Williamsburg. Their first fight was on the second day of the Battle of Seven Pines, with more combat following about a month later at Glendale (where Barlow led his men in a charge that surprised the opposing Confederates into retreat) and Malvern Hill where, because of low numbers, the 61st New York was consolidated under Barlow's leadership with the 81st Pennsylvania and where the men stopped a Confederate charge with murderous volleys. Barlow got positively noticed in all actions by the commanding generals, especially for his "cool head in battle." He was an aggressive leader, often described as ruthless and personally fearless. But he also had an eye for promising officers and he would get his friends in New York to lobby for the men's promotion in his stead.
After the removal of McClellan's army from Harrison's Landing in mid-August 1862, the 61st New York was consolidated with the 64th New York under Barlow's command. The men were sent to Centerville to cover Pope's retreat after the Second Battle of Bull Run and Battle of Chantilly.
Barlow and his two small regiments next saw battle at Antietam where they attacked the Bloody Lane and broke through D.H. Hill's line, capturing three battle flags and approx. 300 Confederates. After stopping a counter-attack, during the ensuing pursuit, Barlow was wounded in the groin by artillery case shot and taken off the field, unconscious. His wife Arabella having followed the army through Maryland found him and nursed him back to health, but the convalescence took several months, thus keeping him away from the Union charge up Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg in December 1862.
While recovering, Barlow got promoted to Brigadier General, rank to date from September 19, 1862 – two days after the Battle of Antietam. When he eventually returned to active duty on April 17, 1863, he was assigned to lead the second brigade of the second division of Howard's XI Corps.
However, there was no love lost between Barlow and the men now under his command. The young general didn't think much of the mostly immigrant units making up the XI Corps. In return, the units in his brigade hated him for the constant drilling and strict discipline he started exacting on the men soon after assuming his new position, calling him a martinet.
Barlow next saw action at Chancellorsville, but since his brigade was assigned to support Sickles' III Corps, he and his men escaped Stonewall Jackson's flank attack and subsequent rout of the XI Corps. Barlow always had a high interest in his and his men's reputation, so when the press printed negatively about the routed troops, he was indignant that his brigade was lumped together with the rest of the XI Corps.
Next followed Lee's movement north into Pennsylvania and the Battle at Gettysburg. The XI Corps was one of the first corps on the field and Barlow, by now in command of the first division of the corps, found himself on the extreme right of the line facing north. Early's Division struck this line in front and flank, and the division disintegrated.
Barlow's Knoll after first day's battle, Gettysburg, July 1, 1863
While trying to rally his men, Barlow was hit in the side. He got off his horse, intending to go to the rear with the support of two soldiers. One of them was shot down, and then Barlow himself was shot again, this time in the back. Unable to proceed any further, he lay down, expecting to die. He was eventually found by Confederates and taken prisoner. The surgeons examining him declared his chances for recovery slim, a prognosis captured Federal surgeons shared when they looked at him the next day. His wife managed to get to him through the warring lines and – against all odds – nursed him back to health.
Barlow reported back to duty in January 1864 while the Army of the Potomac underwent reorganization. His former troops had been sent west with the XI Corps, so Barlow asked to go with Hancock and was given command of the first division of the II Corps. His close friend and old comrade Nelson Miles (for whom Barlow had lobbied for promotion in the past) from the 61st New York now commanded one of his brigades, and the men that had fought with him at Antietam welcomed him back to the II Corps, rejoicing to see him in command of the army's largest division for the oncoming campaign.
He looked like a highly independent newsboy; he was attired in a flannel checked shirt; a threadbare pair of trousers; from his waist hung a big cavalry saber; his features wore a familiar sarcastic smile. … It would be hard to find a general officer equal to him.
Col. Theodore Lyman's description of Barlow, Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865
Barlow's division was leading the march south through the Wilderness at the opening of the Overland Campaign, so when the II Corps was called to the action on the Orange Plank Road, Barlow's division was the last and formed the extreme left along the Brock Road.
At Spotsylvania, Barlow's division together with Birney's spearheaded the attack on the Mule Shoe on May 12 which effectively destroyed Johnson's Division of Ewell's Second Corps, taking many prisoners and capturing several battle flags and field pieces.
Battle of Spottsylvania [sic] by Thure de Thulstrup
Library of Congress
At Cold Harbor, Barlow's division once again took the lead. The initial success of overrunning a sunken road and capturing approx. 200 prisoners was nullified when the support didn't come up as quickly as needed and the troops were driven back and had to hunker down or risk being shot by withering Confederate fire.
The II Corps was next involved in the fighting and siege of Petersburg. In July and August 1864, Barlow was in Washington, D.C. to bury his wife Arabella; she had contracted typhus in a military hospital and died. He returned to the front in time for the Deep Bottom operation where he was commanding both the first and second division of the II Corps. The loss of many veterans and experienced officers throughout the Overland Campaign was felt by now as the troops no longer performed at the expected level.
The loss of his wife and his old wounds gave him trouble, so he eventually left the army for an extended trip to Europe to recover. He returned on April 1, 1865 with the rank of brevet major general, in time for the breakthrough at Petersburg and subsequent Appomattox Campaign. He was assigned the second division of the II Corps. At Saylor's Creek, his troops were in reserve, but near Farmingville, he captured the wagon-bridge across the river that Lee had sought to destroy. For this Barlow was appointed full major general an May 25, 1865 and given command of the II Corps.
A month later, Grant wanted Barlow to take command of a division of the XV Corps, but Barlow declined; "very reluctantly, and for imperative personal reasons, I must decline a command which would take me as far as Texas at present." He also declined a permanent position in the regular army and resigned from the Volunteer Army in November 1865.
Back to civilian life, he was elected Secretary of State for New York, resumed his law partnership with George Bliss, Jr. and married Ellen Shaw, the sister of Robert Gould Shaw, who would bear him two sons. In 1869, President Grant appointed him U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of New York and he effectively prevented filibuster expeditions to Cuba. Barlow was also elected as New York State Attorney General in 1870, prosecuted the Boss Tweed ring, in 1876 investigated the presidential election for irregularities in Florida, and he was one of the founders of the American Bar Association.
Francis C. Barlow ca. 1866/1867
From In Memoriam: Francis Channing Barlow
Francis Channing Barlow died on January 11, 1896 because of kidney disease at the age of 61. He was buried in Brookline, Massachusetts at his boyhood home.
- The Boy General: The Life and Careers of Francis Channing Barlow by Richard F. Welch
- Fear Was Not in Him: The Civil War Letters of General Francis C. Barlow, edited by Christian G. Samito
- In Memoriam: Francis Channing Barlow, 1834-1896 – available for free on hathitrust.org
- Personal reminiscences of James A. Scrymser, in times of peace and war – available for free on archive.org
- New York State Military Museum
Drawing at the beginning of the post is from Harper's Weekly, July 9, 1864 (p. 437).