The Civil War provided many men with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to demonstrate a talent for organization, leadership and combat that otherwise might have lain dormant forever. Throughout four years of war, both sides encouraged and rewarded such individuals with promotions and acclaim. A few of these men, primarily army and corps commanders, achieved a place in the national consciousness that survives to the present day. Others, whose exploits temporarily made them household names, slowly faded from public awareness. Such a man was Francis Channing Barlow, known to his then as ‘the Boy General.’ Barlow served in all the major wartime operations in Virginia and experienced the war on all levels, from private to general. When he mustered out of the United States Army in 1865, he left behind a record of achievement and bravery on the regimental, brigade and divisional level that few other officers could match and none could exceed.
The future general was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on October 19, 1834. His father, the Rev. David Hatch Barlow, was rector of the town’s First Unitarian Church. His mother, Almira Penniman, was a transplanted New Englander from Brookline, Mass. When he was 2 years old, Barlow’s parents returned to his mother’s hometown, where Francis was raised. He entered Harvard at age 17, graduated with honors and then moved back to New York, where he was admitted to the bar in 1858. The following year, he entered into a legal partnership with George Bliss, Jr., which lasted until the outbreak of the war in 1861.
Barlow’s nationalism, abolitionist sympathies and loathing of secession led him to resign his position with Bliss at the beginning of the war. His decision to enter the army was made just before his marriage to Arabella Wharton Griffith of Somerville, N.J. Barlow left his bride of one day to join his regiment on April 21 as it departed for duty in the defense of Washington. Although Arabella served as a nurse throughout the war and was often in the rear echelon of her husband’s units, the exigencies of war generally kept them apart.
Barlow’s first regiment, the 12th New York, was a three-month unit. Although he was offered a lieutenancy when he joined in April, Barlow declined the commission and began his career as a private. He later thought better of his decision — or of his own capabilities — and accepted the appointment. After the regiment disbanded, Barlow waited three months, then reenlisted as a lieutenant colonel in the 61st New York. He spent the winter with his regiment preparing for the spring campaigning season. The 61st New York was part of the Army of the Potomac, the massive military force that Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan brought to the York Peninsula of Virginia in an abortive attempt to take Richmond. Shortly before McClellan initiated his cautious advance on the Confederate capital, Barlow was promoted to full colonel.
The confidence that Barlow’s superiors had in him was amply justified during the Peninsula campaign, especially at the Battle of Fair Oaks (May 31-June 1, 1862). During the battle, the 61st New York lost 110 killed and wounded out of 432 men. It was there that Barlow’s drive, eye for terrain and zest for combat first marked him as a man to watch. As a leader he was aggressive — some would say almost ruthless — and he had already become known for wearing a cavalry saber as a sidearm. The sword seemed incongruous alongside Barlow’s slight frame and youthful face, but it reflected his military personality — bold, relentless and lethal. Barlow frequently used his saber to whack stragglers into action. Personally fearless, he had no hesitation about throwing himself into the maelstrom of battle, and he expected nothing less from his men.
Barlow was quick to assess leadership qualities in others, including his superiors. He experienced McClellan’s command style firsthand and found it wanting. Shortly after the Peninsula campaign ended, Barlow wrote to his mother: ‘It is considered generally that McClellan has been completely outwitted….I think the whole army feels that it was left to take care of itself and was saved only by its own brave fighting.’ Although many Federal soldiers never lost their affection for ‘Little Mac,’ Barlow was not one of them. He was particularly incensed by newspaper reporters’ attempts to maintain McClellan’s aura of an omnipotent field commander. ‘I think the officers and men are disgusted with attempts of the press to make him out a victorious hero,’ Barlow wrote his mother. ‘The stories of his being everywhere among the men in the fights are all untrue.’
Barlow had enlisted to fight, and McClellan gave him another chance at Antietam, where the Federal commander brought General Robert E. Lee to bay on September 17, 1862. Rather than concentrating his superior force against Lee, McClellan fed his men into battle piecemeal, offsetting his own numerical advantages. One of the deadliest sections of the blood-soaked battlefield was the Sunken Road, where Confederate regiments poured withering fire into advancing Union troops, cutting regiments to pieces.
Around noon, it was Barlow’s turn to try to force the Confederates from their position. Commanding both the 61st and 64th New York, Barlow hit the Southerners at a bend in the road where two Confederate regiments met. Breaking the line at this point, Barlow’s men poured fire into the startled Rebels from both directions, and the entire enemy line gave way. Barlow sent 300 prisoners to the rear and then faced his men west to help fend off a Confederate counterattack. The attack was broken, but in the ensuing pursuit Barlow went down with a severe groin wound. For his conduct at Antietam, Barlow was promoted to brigadier general.
Barlow’s wound was so serious that he was forced to take leave while he recuperated. Not for the last time, his wife nursed hits back to health. Barlow missed the December 1862 debacle at Fredericksburg, and when he returned to duty he was given command of a brigade in Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps. Barlow was unhappy with his new assignment and saw little action at the May 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville. Two months later, at Gettysburg, he had his closest brush with death, an encounter that provided the raw material for one of the masterpieces of Civil War apocrypha.
In the late 1890s, a story began to circulate that, after Barlow was grievously wounded on the first day of battle and left for dead, he was found and succored by Confederate Brig. Gen. John Gordon. According to this account, Gordon paused in the middle of directing an attack, conversed with Barlow, read Barlow” last letter from Arabella and sent word through the lines to inform her of Barlow’s condition. In the 1880s, Gordon and Barlow, who each thought the other had been killed in the war, supposedly met at a dinner party and became fast friends. This version of Barlow’s, experience at Gettysburg probably originated with Gordon, although the most elaborate accounts appeared in McClure’s Magazine and Campfire and Battlefield. The fable was part of a conscious process to heal the wounds and divisions of the war by emphasizing the common brotherhood of the contending soldiers. Although this was a laudable undertaking, the Barlow-Gordon meeting never actually happened, as Barlow himself revealed in a letter written to his mother on July 7, 1863, four days after the Battle of Gettysburg.
Although the reality of Barlow’s Gettysburg experience lacked the poignancy of the famous story, it was dramatic enough in itself. Barlow arrived on the field from Emmitsburg, Md., on July 1 and moved into position just west of town to support the I Corps, which was already engaged against Confederates converging from the west and north. Barlow found himself on the extreme right of the makeshift Federal line, alongside Brig. Gen. Alexander Schimmelfennig’s division. After the Southerners were reinforced by Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s division, the Rebels struck the XI Corps from both front and flank, and the Federal line began to disintegrate.
Barlow sped his horse to the front in an attempt to rally his men, but before he could turn the animal he was hit by a bullet in the side. Barlow dismounted and tried to walk off the field in the midst of bolting Federal and pursuing Confederates. Two of his men took him by the shoulders and tried to help, but one was cut down, and Barlow was hit again in the back by a spent bullet. Unable to go farther, Barlow lay down not expecting to survive. A third bullet went through his hat, and his right forefinger was grazed by yet another round.
When the Confederates found Barlow, they were, in his words, ‘very kind.’ Major A.L. Pitzer of Early’s staff had him carried into some woods and placed on a bed of leaves. He was then given some water and carried in a blanket to a nearby house Barlow was placed in a bed and, after dark, when the day’s fighting had ended, three Confederate surgeons appeared, gave him chloroform and probed the wound. When Barlow awoke, the Southern doctors told him that the bullet had passed downward through his body, cut the peritoneum and was lodged in his pelvic cavity. They said his chances for survival were slim, dosed him with some morphine and left.
Barlow spent the remainder of the battle in enemy hands. On the second day, he was moved to another house, which was occupied by an elderly woman and her daughter, who were solicitous in their care. Captured Federal surgeons also examined him and delivered the same prognosis as their Confederate counterparts. The only treatment seems to have been washing the wound with cold water. Barlow passed the time reading books, his pain diminished by morphine. Several Confederate officers, including some members of Ewell’s and Early’s staffs, visited him, and he saw a good many of their men as well. Gordon’s name is conspicuously absent from Barlow’s account.
While Barlow was behind Confederate lines as a prisoner, Federal authorities received word of his whereabouts and condition. Arabella Barlow, who was nearby, came to the battlefield and, with the help of General Howard, crossed into the Confederate-controlled town. Arabella found General Barlow and, as she had after Sharpsburg, began to nurse him back to health, confounding the best medical opinions of both armies. Although Barlow’s convalescence took some time, he was able to rejoin the Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1864. Arabella returned to her duties with the Sanitary Commission.
On January 26, 1864, Barlow reported to Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock for duty at Harrisburg, Pa. He joined the 11 Corps at a time of major reorganization in the Army of the Potomac. The XI and XII corps had been sent to Tennessee to help raise the siege of Chattanooga, and they remained with the western army for the duration of the war. Two other corps, the I and III, had been so decimated at Gettysburg that their divisions were merged with the 11 and V corps. The old 11 Corps regiments were reorganized into two divisions — the 1st, which was given to Barlow, and the 2nd, commanded by Brig. Gen. John Gibbon. Barlow’s brigade commanders included Colonel Nelson Miles, a close friend from their days together in the 61st New York.
Colonel Theodore Lyman gave this description of Barlow during the Overland campaign: ‘He looked like a highly independent minded newsboy; he was attired in a flannel checked shirt; a threadbare pair of trousers, and an old blue kepi; from his waist hung a big cavalry saber; his features wore a familiar sarcastic smile…[yet] it would be hard to find a general officer to equal him.’ On May 3, 1864, the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River. As a portent of things to come, the 11 Corps led the way, with the 1st Division in the van. Barlow crossed the small river at Ely’s Ford, and the Overland campaign was underway. Seeking to delay the Union advance, General Lee hurled his troops against the Army of the Potomac as it moved through the tangled second-growth woods called the Wilderness. Barlow’s division was already moving southeast, away from the woods, when the battle began. Barlow immediately retraced his steps and led his troops into position on the left flank of the 11 Corps, along the Orange Plank Road. He attacked the Confederate troops in his front, but darkness soon brought the day’s action to a close.
Union commander General Ulysses S. Grant determined to push the contest with Lee and sidled toward his left, hoping to outflank the Rebel forces. Lee anticipated the move and won the race to the next point of contact at Spotsylvania.
Lee’s position at Spotsylvania featured an unusual projection nicknamed the ‘Mule Shoe.’ The salient was formed when Lee extended his main line to include the high ground in front of his position. Grant, who had seen Colonel Emory Upton’s attempt at a massed-penetration attack come close to succeeding at Spotsylvania on May 10, decided to try a similar assault on a grander scale. The idea was to mass columns of men against a single point, break through the exposed Mule Shoe, smash Lee’s lines and inflict a crushing defeat on the Confederates. Grant chose Hancock’s corps to storm the Confederate works, and Hancock, in turn, called upon Barlow to spearhead the operation.
At 7 p.m. on May 11, 1864, Barlow, Gibbon and Brig. Gen. David Birney were summoned to Hancock’s headquarters and received word that they were to make an assault on the enemy’s right flank at daybreak. ‘We were told that it was movement of more than usual importance, and were reminded of the gratitude which the country would feel for those officers who should contribute to the success of the enterprise,’ Barlow recalled. He and the other divisional commanders soon found out that little information was available regarding their own jumping-off positions, let alone the Confederate lines. ‘No information whatever,’ Barlow later wrote, ‘was given us as to the strength or position of the enemy, or as to the troops to be engaged in the movement (except that the 2nd Corps was to take part in it), or as to the plan of attack, or why any attack was to be made at that time or place.’
Despite the lack of solid reconnaissance and the uncertainties of a night march in the fog, Barlow had his division in line by 1 a.m. When Barlow finished getting his men into position, he went over to Brig. Gen. Gershom Mott’s headquarters, hoping to obtain more precise information. There he found Lt. Col. Waldo Merrian of the 16th Massachusetts. Merrian, Barlow later explained, used the headquarters’ wall as a canvas on which he drew ‘a sketch of the [Union and Confederate] position, and this was the sole basis on which the disposition of my division was made.’ Barlow was thoroughly disgusted by the lack of accurate information regarding the Rebel positions and the ground over which he would have to lead his men. He handed over his personal effects to a friend, having concluded that he had been assigned to lead a ‘forlorn hope.’
The general plan of attack was for the II Corps to storm the Mule Shoe from the left-center and the IX Corps to hit it from the right. Barlow’s division was placed on the left of the assault force and Birney on the right. Mott’s division fell in behind Birney, while Gibbon’s men were held in reserve.
Poor visibility caused Hancock to postpone the strike for 35 minutes in hopes of better light. At 4:35, Barlow’s men launched their assault. Following their commander’s orders, the Northerners moved forward silently at quick time, with the division and brigade commanders marching in the center of the column between the first and second lines. Halfway to the Confederate lines they broke into double-quick time, and when they saw the Confederate works, they sent up a yell. Barlow’s men ‘instinctively swerved’ to their left to hit the Mule Shoe ‘directly on the angle.’ The Southern defenders were stunned by the enormity of the blue tidal wave descending upon them, and Barlow later recalled ‘their bewildered look.’ One Confederate with a premonition of the immediate future yelled: ‘Look out, boys! We will have blood for supper.’
Barlow’s men smashed through the Confederate line, tearing away the abatis by hand and overrunning the salient. The desperate Confederates resisted as best they could, but most of those in the front lines of the Mule Shoe had few choices but flight or surrender. The Federals overran almost a mile of Confederate lines, crushed the defensive formations, mauled the famous Stonewall Brigade and captured a large part of Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson’s division, one of the finest in Lees army. Thirty flags and 18 fieldpieces were taken by the Union troops in their headlong assault.
The Federal attack tore a huge gap in Lee’s line that threatened to break the Confederate position at Spotsylvania. Barlow’s alleged Gettysburg acquaintance, John Gordon, rushed to organize a counterattack, and Lee himself was so shaken by the Federal success that he personally directed reinforcements into the breach. On the Federal side, the very success of the massed columns became a weakness. After the initial breakthrough, the concentrated troops became increasingly confused, undirected and impossible to re-form. The situation was made worse by the continual arrival of Federal reinforcements, who soon lost their own cohesion and became part of a swirling, unfocused mass. Unable to reorganize his men in the confusion, Barlow rode back to Hancock’s headquarters and, in a departure from military etiquette, shouted, ‘For Gods sake, Hancock, do not throw any more troops in here!’
The warning came too late. By 6 a.m., the momentum of the Federal attack was spent. Disaster staring them in the face, the Confederates counterattacked frantically, slowly forcing the Federals back to the first line of the Mule Shoe’s entrenchments. The II Corps refused to be dislodged, and Lee ordered a second line of defense quickly prepared in the rear. In the meantime, the fighting along the old interior line of the Mule Shoe degenerated into perhaps the most ferocious and sustained hand-to-hand combat of the war.
The next few days brought a partial respite after the unrelenting combat of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. By June 1, the two armies were facing each other at Cold Harbor, near the old Seven Days’ battlefields. There, Grant made his greatest and most avoidable tactical blunder. With even less reconnoitering than before the Mule Shoe attack, Grant ordered an attack — a move he later admitted he regretted.
Once again, Barlow was given the dubious honor of forming the first wave. If Grant was ignorant of the nature of the Confederate position, his soldiers were not. The assault troops began to write their names on slips of paper that they pinned to their uniforms or stuffed in pockets so they could be identified after they were killed.
When the attack on Cold Harbor commenced on the morning of June 3, Barlow’s lead brigades scored a quick and deceptive success. His men overran a sunken road in front of the main Southern line and took 200 prisoners and three guns. The second wave moved up too slowly, however, and Barlow’s men were driven from the position. Confederate fire became absolutely withering; blue-clad troops dropped everywhere. Barlow’s men clung to a slight crest 75 yards from the Confederate works and hunkered down.
Cold Harbor cost the II Corps 3,510 men, most of whore died in the assault on June 3. In comparison, the corps lost a total of 4,194 men during the three days at Gettysburg. Six colonels and 46 lower-ranking officers died at Cold Harbor. The losses of veteran soldiers and officers would be keenly felt in the coming months. Nevertheless, the corps moved south of the James River with the rest of the Army of the Potomac in Grant’s attempt to seize the strategic rail center of Petersburg. Barlow’s division was the last of the corps to cross the James.
The Army of the Potomac soon settled into a quasi-siege of Petersburg. The investment was only partial, since Lee could supply his army from the west and south. As a result, Grant planned to extend his lines against the Confederate railroads, cut Lee’s supplies and force him from the city. This, in turn, would uncover Richmond.
The heat, tedium and periodic terror that characterized the fighting at Petersburg in the summer of 1864 led Barlow to write home that ‘nothing can be worse than life here.’ He soon learned otherwise. On July 28, he made a sad journey to Washington because his wife, the redoubtable Arabella, who had resumed nursing in a military hospital in the capital, had contracted typhus and died. Under increasing mental strain, Barlow resumed command of his division on August 13, just in time for the Deep Bottom operation.
Grant had Lee pinned in on the north side of the James as well as the south. By reinforcing his troops on the north bank around an area called Deep Bottom, Grant hoped to make a breakthrough that would drive the defending Confederates farther back to their capital. The II Corps was once again chosen for the attack. Unfortunately, the element of surprise was lost through problems in ferrying troops across the river, and the attack could not be launched until 4 p.m. on August 14, with Barlow commanding both the 1st and 2nd divisions. Barlow stretched his forces to link up with Mott’s troops on his right, a move that kept the lines unbroken but also cost the attacking Federals the weight necessary to achieve a success, the attack quickly failed. More disconcerting was the performance of the troops. The loss of so many veteran soldiers and experienced officers was beginning to show in the decline of lan – and even competence — of the Army of the Potomac’s most renowned corps. What bad previously been some of the best fighting units in the Army were no longer performing at their former levels. The Irish Brigade, Barlow wrote, ‘behaved disgracefully and failed to attack, crowded into shelter of trees.’ Another old brigade ‘exhibited such signs of timidity and demoralization’ that Barlow gave up the attempt to use it.
While his leadership at Deep Bottom evinced his usual drive and commitment, Barlow’s health was shaky. His old wounds were giving him pain, and the loss of his wife further drained his spirits. For several days after the Deep Bottom fiasco, Barlow, in the words of Hancock’s adjutant, ‘had been more like a dead than living man.’ Finally, on August 18, Barlow handed over his division to Miles and went to a military hospital at City Point. Five days later, he returned to his division just as the corps set out to cut the Weldon & Petersburg Railroad at Ream’s Station. Barlow was simply too played out to shoulder the burden of command, however, and had to be relieved on a stretcher and taken back to headquarters.
In an attempt to, regain his health and to come to terms with his grief, Barlow took an extended trip to Europe. While abroad he kept in touch with Hancock, who wrote him an exultant letter after the II Corps carried the day against the Confederates at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run on October 27, 1864. In early November, Hancock wrote Barlow that he wanted him back with him when he was well. ‘You will have a magnificent division in the 2nd Corps should you prefer to remain with it,’ Hancock assured him. ‘It is over 7,000 men present for duty….Now our men as a mass are a little shaky for want of officers. But by Spring the Second Corps will be a power.’
But Barlow never served under General Hancock again. By the time he rejoined the II Corps on April 1, 1865, with the new rank of brevet major general, Hancock had left to take over the Veteran Volunteer Corps. Barlow was assigned command of the II Corps’ 2nd Division on April 6 and was in reserve at the Battle of Sayler’s Creek. Near Farmingville, he seized and held the only bridge to the north bank of the Appomattox. Lee had hoped to destroy the bridge in order to prevent Grant from using it to overtake Lee’s rapidly dwindling army. Lee’s failure to hold or destroy the bridge exposed is own men to attacks from the front and rear, resulting in his surrender. In recognition of this last act of military dispatch, Barlow was made full major general on May 25, and he assumed command of the II Corps during the remaining weeks of its existence.
Barlow later directed the energy and dedication he brought to his military career to public service. He was elected secretary of state for New York in November 1865. As a result, he declined a permanent position in the Regular Army and resigned from his rank as major general of volunteers on November 16. He reestablished his law partnership with George Bliss and opened law offices in New York City in 1866. The following year, Barlow remarried. His new bride was Ellen Shaw of Boston, sister of Colonel Robert Shaw, who had led the ill-fated assault of the 54th Massachusetts on Battery Wagner.
After failing to earn re-election as secretary of state, Barlow was appointed U.S. marshal for the southern district of New York by newly elected President Ulysses S. Grant. He inaugurated a major shake-up of personnel and refused to make political contributions based on the presumed emoluments of the office, offering only to make a donation on the basis of his salary. He also prevented his assistants from receiving any money other than that authorized by law. Grant then placed Barlow in command of the combined military, naval and revenue forces of New England, New York and New Jersey. His assignment was to prevent filibustering expeditions to Cuba, and he did the job well.
Barlow’s attempt to regain the position of secretary of state in 1869 was successful, and the following year he was elected attorney general of New York state. In the latter capacity, he initiated prosecution of the notorious ‘Tweed Ring.’ He also became one of the founders of the U.S. Bar Association. Barlow’s last public service entailed investigating the disputed presidential election of 1876 in the state of Florida, which was still under a Reconstruction government. He then practiced law privately until his death on January 11, 1896. Although he had spent most of his public career in New York, he was buried at his boyhood home of Brookline, Mass.
Dubbed the Boy General because of his slight build and youthful looks, Barlow possessed the sort of aggressive spirit that won the admiration of superiors and common soldiers alike. From the beginning of the war until the last days at Appomattox, Barlow was never less than fearless, energetic and committed to the cause of Federal victory. Throughout the vicious fighting, he and his men were usually in the forefront. All in all, the Boy General did everything required of him — and usually more.
This article was written by Richard F. Welch and originally appeared in the March 1998 issue of America’s Civil War. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of America’s Civil War.