Francis Bartow was born on September 6, 1816, in Savannah, Georgia. After graduating from Franklin College (University of Georgia, Athens), he attended Yale. He then joined the law firm of Berrien & Law. John Berrien was a former U. S. Senator and had served as Attorney General during Andrew Jackson's administration until forced to resign after the Peggy Eaton affair.
Bartow married Louisa Berrien (John Berrian's daughter) on April 18, 1844. They lived in the Bartow family home on Pulaski Square in Savannah.
Along with Berrien, Bartow was one of the leading Harrison Whigs during the 1840 presidential campaign. Berrien was elected U. S. Senator and the firm Berrien & Law became Law & Bartow. Bartow became one of the state's leading lawyers and also served as a state representative and in the Georgia Senate. As the Whig party fractured, Bartow migrated to the Democratic party. He ran for a seat in the U. S. Congress in 1856 but lost. In 1857, he was elected captain of the Olgethorpe Light Infantry.
Bartow was a noted orator and one of Georgia's leading secessionists. According the Savannah Daily Morning News: "His style of oratory was bold, earnest and impassioned. As a determined advocate, his eloquence was of a high and thrilling order." As an example of one of his orations:
"If the storm is to come, and it seems to me as though it must, be its fury ever so great, I court it now in the day of my vigor and strength. Let it come now, I am ready for it. I do not wish to destroy this government. I am a Union man in every fibre of my heart but i will perish all -- ALL before i will abandon our rights in the Union or submit to be governed by an unprincipled majority."
On January 3, 1861, Bartow led the Olglethorpe Guards in the capture of Fort Pulaski. He was chosen to be a delegate to Georgia's Secession Convention. In February, he was chosen to represent Georgia at the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States in Montgomery. Bartow was placed at the head of the military affairs committee where it is said he suggested gray as the color for Confederate uniforms (because he admired the gray uniforms of the Olgethorpe Guards). This story, however, may be apocryphal.
On May 10, the Confederate Congress passed a law allowing Jefferson Davis to personally accept the services of units for the duration of the war. Bartow went immediately to the President (thus bypassing Governor Joseph Brown, leading to some problems with him) to offer the services of the Olgethorpe Guards. According to one newspaper account: "This company was the first one to offer its services to President Davis under the Confederate act authorizing him to receive independent companies, and had the honor of being the first received…. They have enlisted for the whole war, and not one will turn back who can go forward, until it is ended, or they are completely annihilated."
Bartow and the guards headed to Virginia, where they were assigned to Joseph Johnston's command in the Shenandoah Valley. On June 1 Bartow became colonel of the 8th Georgia. On Jine 17, Bartow was promoted to command of Johnston's Second Brigade. Bartow wrote to his mother: "I am not only in command of a regiment but of a brigade consisting of about 3,000 men. So you see I have a general's command if not the name."
Bartow's brigade followed Jackson's from Winchester to Manassas, where they were placed in reserve. On the night before the battle, Bartow stopped by the 8th Georgia's camp and told his old regiment: "Remember boys, battle and fighting mean death, and probably before sunrise some of us will be dead."