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John Decatur Barry, He Killed Stonewall

By Paul F. Bradley
7/7/2017 • America's Civil War Magazine

John Decatur Barry was sure Federals were on the prowl, and ordered a response.

On virtually every battlefield in the annals of warfare, uncertainty and clouded judgment have yielded tragic results. In one instant during the late hours of May 2, 1863, the fog of war enveloped the wilderness at Chancellorsville—and when the shooting stopped, 10 out of 19 Confederate horsemen on a reconnaissance mission lay killed or wounded by their own men. Included was the war’s most notable friendly fire casualty: Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

Jackson’s death haunted the officer who ordered the fatal volley, Major John Decatur Barry, for what remained of his brief life. But this one order besmirches what was an otherwise admirable war record.

Born June 21, 1839, in Wilmington, N.C., Barry had recently graduated from the University of North Carolina when he enlisted as a private in the Wilmington Rifle Guards of the 18th North Carolina in July 1861. Barry was elected captain when the regiment was reorganized in April 1862. The 18th was under the command of Brig. Gen. Lawrence O’Bryan Branch and was one of six brigades in Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Light Division. Branch’s brigade arrived in Virginia in June 1862 as General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia prepared to repulse Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac threat against Richmond.

The 18th saw action throughout the Seven Days’ Battles, suffering 224 casualties of 400 men engaged. Captain Barry was slightly wounded at Frayser’s Farm (Glendale). Colonel Robert H. Cowan cited Barry in his report for his conspicuous discharge of duty. When McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign faltered, Branch’s brigade moved north with Jackson’s Second Corps and fought at Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas with light casualties. The brigade participated in the siege and capture of Harpers Ferry during the Maryland Campaign and was charged with paroling the Federal garrison. The 18th was held in reserve during the Battle of Antietam while the remainder of the brigade withstood Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s late afternoon attack, when Branch was killed. Colonel James H. Lane assumed command and was later promoted to brigadier general. Barry was promoted to major after the Maryland Campaign. “Lieutenant-Colonel Purdie, who bravely commanded the Eighteenth in most of these engagements, desires that special mention should be made of Capt. John D. Barry, of Company I, for his coolness and gallantry and devotion to duty,” Lane noted in his report on the campaign.

At Chancellorsville, the 18th was part of Stonewall Jackson’s flanking march. Jackson’s attack on Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s Union XI Corps had begun at 5:15 p.m. on May 2. But despite the late sunset, the attack had stalled by 7:15. Jackson reluctantly ordered a halt. Nearby, a Confederate battery began an exchange with several Federal batteries in the distance, sending men dodging to the sides of the Plank Road as they moved into position. Across the battlefield, smoke and flames clouded sight lines, while the pleas from the wounded filled their ears.

Lane’s brigade was in an advanced position, alone in a wilderness of abandoned works and trees, and taking casualties from the artillery barrage. Hill ordered the Confederate battery to cease firing; the Federals soon followed. Lane then positioned four of his five regiments perpendicular to the Plank Road, with the 28th and 18th North Carolina arranged in a line to the north. Lane cautioned all regimental commanders to watch for enemy movement. Looking for Hill to get additional direction, Lane found Jackson. “Push right ahead, Lane,” Jackson said before proceeding on his scouting mission.

Nineteen men—nine in Jackson’s party and 10 in a group that included Hill—rode past the 18th North Carolina. None of them, Jackson and Hill included, apprised the 18th’s officers that they were passing beyond the Confederate lines.

Meanwhile to the south, the 128th Pennsylvania had interspersed itself between the 7th and 33rd North Carolina’s skirmish line. The Confederates, using guile and a few well-intentioned volleys, captured approximately 250 prisoners in the confusion. More shooting soon rang out and rolled up the line toward the north, where Jackson and Hill were moving back toward their own lines. At this point, Jackson was about 100 yards from the 18th, with Hill’s group about 60 yards distant.

At 9:30 p.m., Brig. Gen. Joseph F. Knipe, formerly of the 46th Pennsylvania, was stumbling about on horseback, searching for his lines and calling out for Union Maj. Gen. Alpheus Williams in the woods. The skirmish line fired in response. Then a single shot was fired from the side of the Plank Road. Six more shots rang out. A rolling barrage followed and continued down the length of the brigade. Jolted, the 18th fired a volley, which struck trees and horses among Jackson and Hill and killed the horse of Lieutenant Joseph G. Morrison, Jackson’s aide and brother-in-law. Jackson’s horse, Little Sorrel, was frightened and wheeled wildly. Morrison ran toward the 18th and yelled, “Cease firing! You are firing into your own men!”

Barry wasn’t sure. Not only had other North Carolina regiments just fired in response to the Pennsylvanians, but Federal cavalry was rumored to be moving against their front—and the men could hear horsemen clomping toward their position. The darkness prohibited identification. “Who gave that order?” Barry replied. “It’s a lie! Pour it into them, boys!” The 18th unleashed a torrent of lead into the woods.

At this point, Jackson was 25 yards in front of the 18th. Three .69-caliber bullets struck him. One passed through his right palm—breaking two fingers—and lodged against the back of his hand. Another entered his left forearm an inch below the elbow and exited the other side just above the wrist. The third bullet splintered bone and tendons three inches below the left shoulder before passing through his arm. “All my wounds are by my own men?” Jackson asked in disbelief.

Nine other men were shot, with four killed. While his own wounds were not necessarily fatal, falls from stretchers during Jackson’s transport to the rear exacerbated their severity. Hill was also wounded, struck by artillery shrapnel shortly after Jackson was shot.

Barry said he “knew nothing of Jackson and Hill’s having gone to the front: that he could not tell friend from foe in the dark and woods,” Lane later recalled. Lane, among others, rose to defend the major, describing him as “one of those fearless, dashing officers who was especially cool under fire.” Lane also wrote that Hill, in all of his reaction to and recollection of the event, never censured the 18th. Barry told Lane he presumed the horsemen were Federal cavalry who had penetrated the 33rd North Carolina’s skirmish line and were charging his position. Nevertheless, in the years after the incident, comrades from other Confederate units charged that Barry was aggressive in giving the order.

The 18th skirmished with Federal units throughout the night, and the Battle of Chancellorsville resumed its full ferocity the next day. With Jackson and Hill out of commission, Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart assumed command of the Second Corps. The 18th suffered heavy casualties, losing 34 killed, 99 wounded and 21 missing. Purdie was killed and the regimental second-in-command, Lt. Col. Forney George, was wounded. Perhaps symbolically, the 18th also lost its regimental colors. But Lane praised Barry for rendering great service during the battle.

Jackson rallied at first, before succumbing to pneumonia and passing into legend on May 10. His death led to a reorganization of the army. Hill was promoted to lieutenant general and command of the new Third Corps. Lane’s brigade was one of four brigades in Maj. Gen. Dorsey Pender’s division. Lee set upon plans for another invasion of the North.

Despite his involvement in the incident, Barry suffered no holds on his advancement. He was promoted to colonel on May 27, to rank from May 3. He led the 18th through Gettysburg, where it advanced with Maj. Gen. Isaac Trimble’s column during Pickett’s Charge, the Bristoe Campaign in 1863 and the Overland Campaign in 1864. Lane continued to champion Barry’s service, especially his conduct at the Wilderness. “Col. Barry is deserving of great praise for the manner in which he handled his regiment in protecting our right flank….He has shown himself fully competent to fill a more responsible place than that which he now holds,” he said.

When Lane was wounded June 2, 1864, at Cold Harbor, Barry assumed temporary command of the brigade. He was wounded in the left hand on July 27 while riding along the brigade’s skirmish line near New Market Heights, resulting in the amputation of his second and third fingers and much lingering pain. He recuperated at home and was given the temporary rank of brigadier general as of August 3, 1864, but the rank was never confirmed because Lane had returned to duty. Barry returned to active duty in February 1865 and was in North Carolina on recruiting duty for the balance of the war. When the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox, Barry was not listed on the brigade’s surrender roll.

Despite his superb war record, Barry was consumed by depression from his actions in Chancellorsville, and in frail condition from his own wound. After the war, he worked as an editor for the Wilmington Gazette. Barry died at 27 on March 24, 1867. His gravestone in Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington is inscribed, “I found him a Pygmy and left him a Giant,” a quote from Napoleon Bonaparte about his friend, Marshal Jean Lannes.

Historians still ponder the “what ifs” surrounding Jackson’s death and its effect on the Army of Northern Virginia’s subsequent campaigns. Was Barry overly aggressive when he ordered his men to fire? Perhaps, but he was acting upon developments in his front in a manner Jackson would approve. The greater question is why didn’t Jackson tell his men where he was going? For a man who would arrest subordinates for the slightest dereliction of duty, Jackson’s omission that night is glaring. He must therefore be assessed the blame. At that point, the brilliant fog of war that existed in Jackson’s mind clouded procedure and sensibility. Sadly, it cost his life.

 

Paul F. Bradley’s upcoming Civil War novel is titled War Within, War Without. He writes from Yardley, Pa.

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.

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