Francis C. Barlow: From Private to General, and Beyond
The year was 1851, and it was a still, silent night on the Harvard Campus in Boston, Massachusetts. Dew beaded the spacious and lush grounds. Night birds sang and crickets chirped. Most students and faculty were sound asleep in their cozy dormitories.
Suddenly…. KABOOM. An earth-shattering roar split the air. Students rolled out of their beds. Some stray dogs barked and windows rattled. In the Cambridge arsenal on campus, smoke rose from a cannon that hadn’t been fired since the War of 1812.
And that was how a scrawny, ornery student named Francis Channing Barlow entered the national arena with a bang. Meant as a harmless prank, the cannon incident drew the ire of many a Harvard authority figure. However, Barlow was well-known for pranks. A favorite was when he arrived at a writing and debate meeting adorned with brightly-colored plumes and curtains. He caused the biggest uproar of all when he graduated first in his Harvard Class of 1855.
I’ve studied military history for a large portion of my life, and I encounter plenty of charismatic characters there. People whose exploits seem more suited to fictional novels and adventure stories. The American Civil War is littered with such people. While the top tier generals often get the most attention, the lower ranks carried ample amounts of charm, wit, and ferocity. One of these is the oft-forgotten “Boy General” (so named for both his boyish looks and his young age), Francis Channing Barlow.
From the beginning, Barlow was a steely boy who wouldn’t go down without a fight. Abandoned by his father when he was young, he spent the flower of his youth with his mother and brothers at a religious and theological commune called Brooke Farm. Comprised of 1800s Transcendentalists, the farm was created in 1841 by George Ripley, a former Unitarian minister. The commune was committed to a self-sustaining life free of government interference. Theirs was a regimented routine that not even children like Barlow were exempt from. He completed rigorous studies every morning and spent afternoons doing chores and helping his mother manage the household.
Despite the hard work and tiresome schedule, Barlow stood out as a bright youth on the commune, and he gained entrance to Harvard College at the age of seventeen. After coming first in his class (in both scholastics and wild stunts), he moved to New York and enjoyed a brief teaching stint before he joined the lawyer ranks. On the side, he dabbled in writing with a staff position on the New York Tribune.
It wasn’t quite enough though. Barlow was born restless and he spoiled for a fight, as if his spirit couldn’t be contained by his skin. Perhaps that’s why when Civil War broke out across the country, Barlow had no qualms about dropping his lawyer life and beating all hell to the nearest recruitment center. He wasn’t frightened by the prospect of no commission either. Just one day after marrying a lovely, strong woman named Arabella, who was ten years his senior, Barlow signed on as a private to the 12th Regiment of the New York State Militia. If they wouldn’t give him a commission, he would prove that he was worth one, and he would start from the bottom.
It would be a challenge, because Barlow wasn’t seen as army material by his peers. His build didn’t exactly scream “soldier specimen” either. Only in his twenties at the outbreak of hostilities, Barlow was more scrawny than brawny, and his face was so boyish he was sometimes mistaken for his wife’s son. He also had a quick temper and a shocking arrogant streak.
However, his prowess on the training fields, his courage during the dreadful Seven Days Battles of 1862, and some fortuitous connections in New York, saw him fly up the ranks with warp speed. By the fall of 1862, Francis Barlow was already a Colonel, up for promotion to Brigadier General.
But first, he had to survive Antietam. That wouldn’t be easy for anyone, but the bloodiest single day in the war’s entire history firmly fixed Barlow on the Union map. With the 61st and 64th New York under his command, he wound up in one of the hottest areas of the fighting – the sunken road. This was an old and narrow roadway dipped into the earth, an ideal defensive position for the Confederates. The Irish Brigade tried all afternoon to roust them out, and they didn’t fail for lack of courage. The Confederates were just too well entrenched with too much protection. While wave after wave of screaming Irishman came at them, all the rebels had to do was point and shoot…
…Until Barlow entered the picture. He led the charge himself, brandishing a sword and a bold strategy to aim at the road’s shallowest point instead of its strongest. He tore ahead of the beleaguered Irish and into the Confederate right. It crammed the enemy soldiers in between vengeful Irish on one side, and snarling Barlow on the other. Barlow and his men took over three-hundred prisoners and captured two flags. It was a stunning feat, but it didn’t come for free. A chunk of rebel case shot smashed into Barlow’s groin and threw him off his horse. He was knocked out cold and carried off the field.
It was a serious wound that was often fatal in other cases. Barlow wasn’t expected to recover, but he did love surprising people, especially with a promotion to Brigadier General on the line. Under his wife’s careful supervision, Barlow made a full recovery, and his promotion came through just in time for his twenty-eighth birthday. Now deemed “the Boy General,” Barlow returned to the Army ready to brawl in April of 1863. He was put in charge of the Second Brigade in the XI Corps, and he was one of the first to meet Lee’s gray-clad Virginia troops in the little Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.
The sizzling afternoon of July 1, 1863 was chalked with blunders for the Union Army, especially Barlow’s corps. How the disaster unfolded for the XI corps remains a little unclear, but it is safe to say that at least part of the blame rested with Barlow’s notorious arrogant streak. As the Union moved in on Gettysburg, he positioned his troops on a hill just outside of town known as Blocher’s Knoll. The rest of the army had opted to stay further back, but Barlow wanted the high ground. The forward position would also form a salient that he could thrust into the Rebels like a spearhead.
It all looked pretty good on paper, but salient positions (which is a forward bulge in front of the rest of the battle line) are a risky gamble. If the enemy sneaks behind the salient, then the forward troops (in this case Barlow’s) are cut off from the rest. This is exactly what happened on Blocher’s Knoll. Jubal Early’s Confederate troops blasted right into Barlow’s position on the far right of the Union line. Caught in a violent vortex of gunfire and confusion, Barlow’s troops broke and ran almost immediately. He tried to restore order to his panicked brigades, and he describes the harrowing details of what happened next:
“… I started to get ahead of them [his troops] to try and rally them… Before I could turn my horse I was shot in the left side about half way between the armpit 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. I then got a spent ball in my back… A ball went through my hat as I lay on the ground and another just grazed the forefinger on my right hand…. I did not expect to get out alive.”
Barlow sustained more potentially fatal blows on Blocher’s Knoll (eventually renamed Barlow’s Knoll). Given the utter route suffered by his troops, his reputation took a big hit too. Meanwhile, the rest of the Union Army was pushed back through the town of Gettysburg, and they hurried into retreat atop Cemetery Hill. When some of Barlow’s captured boys found him saturated in blood but still alive, they fashioned a stretcher for him and carried him to a nearby home-turned-hospital.
Barlow’s situation was already precarious, since his injuries were severe and he was now in Confederate captivity. Things got worse when the doctors gave him his prognosis. His intestines had been cut, and there was nothing they could do. For the second time, Barlow was not expected to survive his injuries.
But Barlow wasn’t expected to do a lot of things, and he wasn’t the only one who was determined that he should survive. His wife Arabella, a very strong spirit in her own right, worked in the army hospitals on the Union side. She received word of her husband’s critical condition, and the fact that he was a rebel prisoner. She tried asking higher-echelon Union generals for a pass onto the battlefield to collect her husband. When they refused, she took matters into her own hands. Donning a flag of truce, she marched onto the Gettysburg No Man’s Land, in full view of both sides, and went out in search of Barlow. The Confederate generals, well aware of who General Barlow was, took Arabella to his side. While she nursed her husband during his waking moments, she also continued tending to the thousands of wounded soldiers crammed into the Gettysburg hospitals.
Under her very calm and compassionate care, Barlow shocked everyone when he began to recover from his wounds. He also wound up back on the right side of the war, once the Union army rallied and recaptured Gettysburg on July 3. There were several months of bitter and painful recovery ahead, and all the while, Barlow could only stew. Going down as a routed and wounded general was absolutely out of the question. He yearned to return to the battlefields and right some of the wrongs.
He would get his chance in Virginia in the summer of 1864. This time, he would head a division in General Hancock’s battle-tested II Corps. They had already been through hell. They saw blood, death, and destruction in most major campaigns of the entire war, and the fires had molded the II Corps into the strongest branch of the army. With Barlow at the head of the First Division, this corps would become one of the biggest players in the summer campaigns of 1864.
It all started in the Wilderness, which didn’t go well for the Union Army (read more about that here). Barlow’s troops held the far left of the Union line, which kept them out of the brunt of the fighting. However, it was the last quiet they would know for a long while. Over the next three weeks, Barlow’s First Division of the II Corps wound up in the hottest zones of some of the worst battles in the Civil War.
One of them was the bloodbath at Spotsylvania Court House. Grant decided to sneak his troops into position by the Po River and charge the center of the Confederate line. However, he couldn’t let Lee know what he was up to. He needed a division to stay behind, by themselves, caught between two forks in a hard-to-cross river, to keep them busy and unawares. In short, Grant needed live bait.
It was left to Francis Barlow to entice and fight off the Confederate army with a single division. While fires raged in the underbrush, and while the rest of the Union Army prepared to charge down the line, Barlow’s troops held off attack after attack by the bloodthirsty rebels. Although Grant’s big charge failed, he wasn’t swayed, and he decided to try again the next day. Instead of a single division, he would throw a whole corps at the stubborn rebel defenses. He just needed someone to lead the charge. Someone who was a fighter, bullheaded, confident, and battle-tested. He needed a man who wasn’t afraid to walk onto a battlefield of flying lead. He needed Francis Channing Barlow.
Bright and early on the morning of May 12, 1864, the entire II Corps of the Union Army flew at the deeply-entrenched rebel stronghold at Spotsylvania Courthouse. At the very tip of the charge was Barlow, “the Boy General.” He and his division ran hell for leather across that field, and they dove into the rebel works in a scream of fury. While the charge did not end well (read about it here), it cemented Barlow’s reputation as one of the wildest fighters in the entire Union army.
Yet, Barlow had some quirks that raised the eyebrows of his men and fellow officers. For instance, he was a big fan of the rod when it came to disciplining his troops. It was an interesting approach from one of the former biggest hell raisers at Harvard. For the slightest infractions, boys were strung up by the thumbs, made to march inside a heavy barrel, forced to do the worst camp chores while strapped to heavy beams, and often times drummed out of camp all together. Cowardice was the surest fire way to get on Barlow’s wrong side, and his punishments for boys who fled the battlefield didn’t gain him many friends among his troops.
Barlow also had a brashness that put the “more refined” officers off. He detested the formal wear of generals, and he was often spotted in just his Union issue pants and a tattered flannel shirt. He had a strange obsession with keeping his feet clean, and he stopped his army several times, sometimes on urgent marches, to bathe his feet in the brook. On a particularly long night march during the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Barlow befuddled fellow officers with an explosive laughing fit that lasted all night long. Reportedly infuriated with the bare minimum information about rebel positions, as well as about three weeks short on sleep, the Boy General spiraled out of his mind when silence and secrecy were of paramount importance.
Through all his bizarre traits and harsh discipline, Barlow was still one of the most respected generals in the entire II Corps. After all, he had been twice blasted half to hell, survived a stint in rebel captivity, rose from the ranks from private to general, and sent rebels scurrying from his fierce antics on battlefield. Yet, there came a blow from which even the famous Boy General could not recover, and that was the death of his wife in the summer 1864, from Typhoid fever that she caught in the hospital.
Francis Channing Barlow, who had survived so much else, was shattered by the loss of Arabella. Just after the opening skirmishes of what would be a nine-month siege at Petersburg, Barlow left the battlefields and went to Europe to recuperate. He didn’t rejoin the Army until April of 1865, just as the Confederate Army threw their guns down once and for all. He kept Arabella’s ring on his finger all through his last days in the military, and he hung up his uniform shortly after the war ended.
Although forever damaged by the death of his wife, Barlow’s fighting spirit never left him. He was imbued with a strong sense of social justice, probably from his days on the commune. During the Civil War, Barlow’s was one of the loudest voices to cry for arming a black regiment. His name was also one of the top contenders to lead the newly-created Freedman’s Bureau. After the war, Barlow took his urge to fight to the law bench and beyond. He was elected Secretary of New York City in 1865, and in 1869, Grant appointed him U.S. Marshal to New York’s Southern District. In 1971, he was appointed Attorney General of the State of New York.
In all these public posts, Francis Barlow’s mission was rooting out and abolishing corruption. As U.S. Marshal, he got started fast and fired everyone in his office after the first week. He also tackled the rampant corruption in the New York law system by helping to create the Association of the Bar of the City of New York (later turned into the American Bar Association). It was a platform for New York attorneys to organize and take a stand against the many scandalous people in Tammany Hall, namely the infamous Boss William Marcy Tweed. While many trembled at the mere thought of taking on the Tweed Ring, Francis Barlow merely sharpened his knives. His early efforts in prosecuting the Tweed Ring led to the eventual downfall and imprisonment of one of New York’s most corrupt figures.
By 1875, after tackling corruption all over New York with the same vigor he tackled rebels on Civil War battlefields, Barlow retired back to his private law practice. He had earned a break, and he had also racked up considerable enemies who barred him from anymore appointments to public office. There was his family to think about too. He had remarried and had children of his own by then. Since he knew the sting of abandonment, he couldn’t forsake his children.
In the 1890s, Francis Barlow finally encountered an enemy he couldn’t best –time. His fights on battlefields and beyond took a lot from him, and his health began to fail from Bright’s Disease and heart problems. On January 11 of 1896, surrounded by his family, Francis Barlow answered the final roll call.
What a story he left behind! I imagine when someone like Barlow goes, a warrior who fought so many battles, a ripple of that fighting spirit remains. He had more than his fair share while he lived. Maybe when he died, it broke up and scattered about for others to pick up. Because we all need that spirit sometimes, that fierce energy that helps us never give up, no matter how many times we are knocked off the horse. When I got to know Francis Barlow through faded old Civil War books, I think a piece of that energy found me. It took hold and gave me the courage to put pen to paper, and to not stop no matter how many people don’t believe in me or how many rejection letters I get. Because people like Francis Barlow deserve to be remembered. No matter how many shells I take in the process, a spirit like his helps me keep telling the stories.
“Fear Was Not in Him” – C.G. Samito
“The Boy General” – R.F. Welch
“The Battle of the Wilderness” – G.C. Rhea
“The Battles for Spotsylvania Courthouse & the Road to Yellow Tavern” – G.C. Rhea
Cannon Photos by M.B. Henry – Photo in book from the Library of Congress and “the Boy General,” by Richard F. Welch. For more Civil War Photos, please visit my photo gallery