In the midafternoon of July 1, 1863, with the Battle of Gettysburg well underway, Union Brigadier General Francis Channing Barlow surveyed the Confederate lines from his vantage point atop a rise called Blocher’s Knoll. Only two Federal corps were then on the field northwest of the town of Gettysburg — Maj. Gen. John Reynolds’ I Corps on the Federal left and Major General Carl Schurz’s XI Corps on the right, to which Barlow’s brigade belonged. Schurz had taken command of the corps after Major General Oliver O. Howard assumed control of all Union troops upon Reynolds’ death.
Schurz placed his 3rd Division under Brig. Gen. Alexander Schimmelfennig on the XI Corps’ right flank and ordered his 1st Division under Barlow to form up on Schimmelfennig’s left. Living up to his already well-established reputation for aggressiveness, ‘Frank’ Barlow, a cleanshaven 28-year-old former lawyer, abandoned his assigned place in the XI Corps’ line and moved his division forward to Blocher’s Knoll, the only high ground not in Confederate hands.
Barlow’s forward movement caused the 1st Division to lose contact with Schimmelfennig’s men, and Schurz was forced to realign the 3rd Division to keep his line intact. Barlow’s deployment would have made sense if he were preparing to attack or repel a brigade of Confederate Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes’ Division, which was slightly to his left. By midafternoon, however, the semi-salient on the knoll had become highly vulnerable after Confederate troops from Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s Division of Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps arrived on the scene and made ready to attack. About 3 o’clock, Early’s men, with Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon’s Brigade in the van, rolled forward, hitting Barlow on both front and flank.
Barlow’s first brigade, led by Brig. Gen. Leopold von Gilsa, a German-born officer whom Barlow loathed, broke under the onslaught and fell back among Brig. Gen. Adelbert Ames’ brigade, throwing it into confusion as well. Barlow would later contend that his men were well positioned and ready for an attack, and should have held their lines. Possibly more resistance could have been offered, but a stouter defense most likely would have slowed, not stopped, the Confederate onslaught. In any event, the Confederates were more generous in their descriptions of the fight. Ewell remembered an ‘obstinate contest’ before the 1st Division broke, and Early described the clash as short and hot.
Barlow, however, always persisted in arguing that ‘no fight at all was made’ by his troops. His condemnation of his men was probably affected by what happened to him personally as Blocher’s Knoll was overrun. He later described this in a letter home: ‘Finding that they [the division] were going I started to get ahead of them to try to rally them and form another line in the rear. Before I could turn my horse I was shot in the left side about half way between the arm pit and the head of the thigh bone. I dismounted and tried to walk off the field. Everybody was then running to the rear and the enemy were approaching rapidly. One man took hold of one shoulder and another the other side to help me. One of them was soon shot and 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 and 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 and another just grazed the forefinger of my right hand.’
What happened to Francis Barlow in the next hour as his division fled and the Confederates came upon him became the subject of one of the great romantic legends of the Civil War. The story of his presumed experiences was cited as evidence of mutual respect and comradeship across the battle lines and was pressed into the cause of national reconciliation after Reconstruction. The first published version of the story, which probably originated with General Gordon, was in print in a Georgia newspaper by 1879. Over time, the account was elaborated with extended dialogue and detail. The basic story, as printed in 1879, went that as Barlow’s division withdrew toward Culp’s Hill, Gordon rode forward with his men and spied Barlow lying on the ground badly wounded. Gordon stopped, dismounted and gave Barlow a drink from his canteen.
The Confederate then inquired Barlow’s name and, assuming he would not survive, asked if he had any final requests. ‘I shall probably live but a short time,’ the badly wounded Yankee replied. ‘Please take from my breast pocket the packet of my wife’s letters and read one of them to me.’ Gordon complied, after which Barlow asked that he destroy the letters, as he did not want them to fall into anyone else’s hands. Gordon tore up the missives and inquired if there was anything else he could do for his grievously stricken enemy. Barlow replied affirmatively. ‘My wife is behind our army,’ he explained. ‘Can you send a message through the lines?’ ‘Certainly I will,’ Gordon replied, and directed that Barlow be carried off to the shade of a tree in the rear.
Later in the day Gordon succeeded in getting word to the Army of the Potomac that Barlow was badly wounded and asked that his wife be informed. Despite all professional prognostications, Barlow recovered from his wound and went on to play a major role in the ferocious fighting of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland campaign and the siege of Petersburg in 1864. The story then proceeds to a heartwarming conclusion. According to the popular account, Gordon simply assumed Barlow had died. Barlow later heard that a General Gordon had died and was certain this was his Gettysburg Samaritan, though it was actually Gordon’s cousin, Brig. Gen. James B. Gordon, who was killed at Meadow Bridge, Va. The story of the Barlow-Gordon encounter ended with the unexpected meeting of the two former opponents at a dinner party hosted by Democratic Congressman Clarkson N. Potter in 1879. Upon being introduced to each other, Gordon said (here again, the exchange became more elaborate in later versions), ‘General Barlow, are you related to the officer of your name who was killed at Gettysburg?’ ‘I am the man,’ Barlow replied. ‘Are you related to the Gordon who is supposed to have killed me?’ ‘I am the man,’ Gordon said. The two officers expressed mutual surprise and fell into hearty conversation, beginning a friendship that would endure until Barlow’s death in 1896.
The Gordon-Barlow story appealed to late Victorian sentimentality and the prevailing desire to heal the wounds of the war. It was frequently reprinted and became even more elaborate in some later accounts. A rendition with extended chivalric dialogue appeared in McClure’s Magazine in the 1880s. That version was reprinted in Campfire and Battlefield, a popular history published in 1894. Yet another variant appeared in James A. Scrymser’s 1915 book In Times of Peace and War, in which both Early and Gordon discover Barlow lying on the battlefield. In that account, Gordon asked whether something should be done for him, to which Early responded, ‘No, he is too far gone.’ On hearing this, Barlow raised himself up, somehow recognized the Confederate division commander, and shaking his fist vowed, ‘General Early I will live to lick you yet, damn you.’ This alleged exchange was repeated in the volume New York State issued in 1923 to commemorate the unveiling of a statue of Barlow on what had been renamed from Blocher’s to Barlow’s Knoll.
But it was the tender encounter between Gordon and Barlow that continued to evoke the most interest. The exchange was accepted and repeated, apparently without contradiction or challenge into the 1970s. James Montgomery’s The Shaping of a Battle: Gettysburg (1959) recounted the battlefield meeting, including all the sentimental Victorian dialogue. Ezra Warner’s Generals in Blue (1964) contains a brief mention of the story.
In 1985 William F. Hanna challenged the accepted truth about Barlow’s fate at Gettysburg in his article ‘A Gettysburg Myth Exploded’ that appeared in Civil War Times Illustrated. Hanna charged that no such meeting had occurred, and made a strong case to support his thesis. Since that time, it has become common to consign the Barlow-Gordon encounter to the category of fable.
The debunking of the Gordon-Barlow story had resulted from scholars researching Barlow’s wartime letters to his family — especially a July 7 missive to his mother, Almira Penniman Barlow — which only became available in 1942. Barlow’s own account of what happened to him on the battlefield and in Confederate captivity proved crucial to later interpretations of the events on Blocher’s Knoll and after. It provides the key piece of evidence in Hanna’s contention that the meeting did not take place.
In the July 7 letter, Barlow reported that after his wounding he lay on the ground, where he was discovered by one of Early’s staff officers, ‘Major Pitzera,’ actually Lieutenant Andrew L. Pitzer, who directed some Confederates to carry the seriously wounded Yankee officer off the field and into a woods. They left some water for him and then returned to the business of driving his division through Gettysburg. Somewhat later, prisoners from his own division fashioned a stretcher out of a blanket and transported their commander to a house on Joseph Bemer’s farm.
Barlow’s clothing was saturated with blood, and he was in great pain. A bed was found for him, and as night fell and the battle died down, three Confederate surgeons came to examine him. They anesthetized him with chloroform and probed the wound. When he awoke, the Southern doctors told the Yankee general that a Mini ball had passed through his body, cut the peritoneum and lodged in his pelvic cavity. They gave him little chance to live, administered some morphine and left. Barlow, the only Federal general captured that day, had become something of a celebrity prisoner, and several Confederate officers visited him that night. As was true of the other Rebels with whom he came into contact, Barlow pronounced them ‘very kind.’ Perhaps they knew Barlow by reputation and gave him the respect one warrior owes to another.
During the morning of the next day, the three Southern doctors returned with a captured Federal surgeon and conducted a joint reexamination. They concluded that Barlow’s intestines had been cut, he would therefore quickly develop peritonitis, and there was nothing to be done. Barlow was then transferred to Jane Smith’s house in Gettysburg near the almshouse. He stayed there during the remainder of the battle, taking advantage of his situation to talk freely with Confederate officers who came to see him. Gordon is not mentioned in his letter, but he did mention speaking with members of Ewell’s and Early’s staffs. The absence of any reference to Gordon in Barlow’s account led to the logical assumption that their encounter on Blocher’s Knoll was a fabrication, a ‘feel-good’ myth designed for postwar consumption.
But consigning the Barlow-Gordon meeting to the status of apocrypha leaves many questions unanswered. To begin with, one part of the famous legend was never in doubt. Barlow’s wife, Arabella, was indeed informed that he was wounded and in Confederate hands. Arabella Wharton Griffith Barlow was a remarkable woman, 10 years Frank’s senior, who served as a volunteer nurse until typhoid contracted at an Army hospital killed her in July 1864. She made her way into Gettysburg and was seen searching for her husband on the evening of July 2, and finally found him on July 4.
It is possible, of course, that someone other than Gordon sent word across the lines, but the actual situation fits the story. Additionally, pages are missing from the July 7 letter, around which revolves most of the doubt regarding the events on Blocher’s Knoll. Although it seems Barlow had finished describing Confederates he met on the battlefield or in captivity before the letter breaks off, it is simply impossible to know what else he wrote.
Moreover, the Barlow-Gordon encounter gains credence from the fact that the story was well established by 1879, 17 years before Barlow’s death. The former general must have been aware of it and asked about it as well. Everyone who ever had any contact with Frank Barlow, both those who liked him and those who did not, agreed that he was bluntly honest and candid in all his opinions — even when they worked against his better interests. The notion that he would have remained quiet about fables being circulated concerning his wartime experiences is not credible. He could have killed the story with one simple denunciation. He did not. Additionally, Barlow met Gordon on several occasions after the war, at least once at a conspicuous public ceremony.
There is no reason to doubt Gordon and Barlow’s meeting at Potter’s dinner party. Potter, a Democratic congressman from New York, chaired a committee that investigated charges of voter fraud during the bitterly contested 1876 presidential election. The committee had no power to overturn the outcome of the election, which a special electoral committee had decided in 1877. Rather, Potter and his Democratic colleagues used the inquiry to rake up charges of Republican corruption.
Although the committee initially concentrated on a situation in Louisiana, it also revisited the recount in Florida. Barlow had played a controversial role in the Florida recanvass. A committed — if maverick — Republican, he was sent to join his party’s recount team in Florida as President Grant’s personal representative. He became convinced, however, that the Republicans were engaged in fraud. At that point he publicly broke with his party and declared that the Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden, had actually won Florida by a handful of votes. If Barlow’s assessment had been accepted, Tilden would have taken the Southern state’s electoral votes and with them the election. Although Democrats made the most of Barlow’s contentions, his report was ignored by the Grant administration, and in the end the election and the presidency was given to Rutherford B. Hayes.
Not surprisingly, Potter called Barlow to testify about what he had seen in Florida. Republicans, who had been infuriated by Barlow’s actions, took the opportunity of his appearance before the committee to excoriate him in the press. It would have been natural for Potter to invite the star witness for the Democrats to dinner, and Barlow would have found such an occasion a welcome respite from the political firestorm that destroyed his career in government. Gordon was a staunch Democrat. His presence at such a function is consistent with his views, and he would certainly have been supportive of Barlow’s position. Significantly, the story of their wartime encounter began to gain widespread currency at that point — and all evidence points to Gordon as the source. But the two generals were to have another, more conspicuous, meeting directly connected to their Gettysburg experiences.
On July 1, 1888, the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg was commemorated with a reunion of both Federal and Confederate veterans, as well as the unveiling of monuments and events featuring major participants in the battle. James Longstreet and Gordon were the most distinguished ex-Confederates to attend. While former Union corps commanders Daniel Sickles and Henry Slocum received most of the attention on the Northern side, Barlow was also present, arriving in town on July 2.
The following morning, Barlow and Gordon met on the site of the first day’s battle. According to The New York Times: ‘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 Times account of the generals’ personal reunion at Gettysburg provides more evidence supporting the veracity of their wartime encounter. Furthermore, the story’s appearance in a major New York daily gave Barlow a superb opportunity to dismiss it as bogus. He did not.
There should be no mistaking, however, that parts of the Gordon-Barlow story are fanciful. The romantic convention of the mortally wounded Barlow asking Gordon to read his wife’s words before tearing her letters to shreds is one example. Badly wounded though he was, Barlow was quite capable of destroying letters. He retained enough presence of mind that he ripped up two letters discussing his impending appointment to one of the early forms of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a Federal agency intended to help newly freed slaves. In the July 7 letter to his mother, written after he was once again in Union hands, General Barlow explained that he had destroyed the letters because, had he remained in Confederate hands, the Rebels ‘might not be inclined to parole so important a functionary as the Superintendent of the Freedmen throughout the US.’ Surely, he could have dealt similarly with Arabella’s letters. (As it turned out, his wounding and long convalescence ended the possibility of his taking command of the Freedmen’s Bureau.)
Additionally, the dramatic device of the two generals supposedly believing each other dead, and each being surprised by the other’s resurrection at Potter’s dinner, is hard to credit. Both generals were hotly engaged in the 1864-65 campaigns. It is difficult to believe that army reports, newspaper accounts and prisoner interrogations did not reveal the continued existence of each general to the other. The putative happy surprise at Potter’s party is even more difficult to accept when it is remembered that on at least two occasions — the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania and the fighting from High Bridge to Farmville during General Robert E. Lee’s retreat from Appomattox — the two generals’ troops were battling each other head on. Furthermore, both men had achieved considerable prominence in politics by the mid-1870s, and as a leading southern Democrat, Gordon would have been well aware of Barlow’s apostasy in Florida.
Unfortunately, Francis Barlow never made any public comment about his connection with Gordon at Gettysburg. In the absence of any surviving statement by Barlow, there will always be an element of uncertainty regarding the events on Barlow’s Knoll. From what is known, or can be deduced, the most likely scenario is that Gordon and Barlow had a shared experience during the fighting on July 1, 1863. Gordon paused and spoke to the badly wounded enemy general on the battlefield and probably directed that he be taken off the battlefield and out of danger. He also likely played a role in getting word of Barlow’s wounding to his wife.
On the other hand, the story took on a life of its own. This was largely due to Gordon, who made the meeting at Barlow’s Knoll a key part of his popular speech ‘The Last Days of the Confederacy,’ which he gave on numerous occasions. He also included a somewhat shortened account in his 1903 memoirs. In the swirl of battle, with one man apparently mortally wounded and the other trying to press an attack, it is unlikely that the two men engaged in the lengthy, genteel conversation that Gordon later related. Barlow may have accepted such exaggerations as insignificant annoyances to be borne in the cause of national reconciliation. Silence in the face of complete falsehoods involving his name and reputation, however, would have been alien to his character.
This article was written by Richard F. Welch and originally appeared in the March 2004 issue of America’s Civil War.
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