Romances of Gettysburg – The Barlow-Gordon Incident

    It is perhaps the most well known human-interest story of the Battle of Gettysburg; Confederate Brigadier General John B. Gordon, his troops in pursuit of the retreating Federal soldiers of the 11th Corps on the afternoon of July 1, stops to help the badly wounded Union Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow, who lies prostrate on the knoll that will eventually bear his name. The most frequently quoted version of this story appeared in Gordon’s Reminiscences of the Civil War, published in 1903:
    In the midst of the wild disorder in his ranks, and through a storm of bullets, a Union officer was seeking to rally his men for a final stand. He, too, went down, pierced by a Minie’ ball. Riding forward with my rapidly advancing lines, I discovered that brave officer lying upon his back, with the July sun pouring its rays into his pale face. He was surrounded by Union dead, and his own life seemed to be quickly ebbing out. Quickly dismounting and lifting his head, I gave him water from my canteen, asked hi s name and the character of his wounds. He was Major General Francis C. Barlow, of New York, and of Howard’s corps. The ball had entered his body in front and passed out near the spinal cord, paralyzing him in legs and arms. Neither of us had the remotest thought that he could possibly survive many hours. I summoned several soldiers who were looking after the wounded, and directed them to place him upon a litter and carry him to the shade in the rear. Before parting, he asked me to take from his pocket a package of letters and destroy them. They were from his wife. He had but one request to make of me. That request was that if I should live to the end of the war and should ever meet Mrs. Barlow, I would tell her of our meeting on the field of Gettysburg and of his thoughts of her in his last moments. He wished me to assure her that he died doing his duty at the front, that he was willing to give his life for his country, and that his deepest regret was that he must die without looking upon her face again.
    Gordon continued that he learned that same day that Mrs. Barlow was with the Union army and close to the battlefield. How he learned this he does not tell us, but he sent Barlow’s message to his wife through the lines under a flag of truce after the fighting on July 1 ended, adding the assurance that if Mrs. Barlow wished to come through the lines he would make sure that she would have safe escort to her husband’s side. He did not hear from Mrs. Barlow and the subsequent events of the battle of July 2 and 3, and his army’s retreat from the field, occupied his attention and he “thought no more of Barlow, except to number him with the noble dead of the two armies.”

General John B. Gordon. Library of Congress

    Sixteen years later, in 1879, Gordon was a U.S. Senator from Georgia in his second term [Gordon writes that this was fifteen years later, but this cannot be since he was in his first term in the Senate in 1878]. He was invited to a dinner party hosted by Democratic Congressman Clarkson N. Potter, of New York. It turned out that a General Barlow, formerly of the Union army, had also been invited. Gordon presumed it was another General Barlow since he was certain the one he had encountered at Gettysburg had died. According to Gordon, Barlow thought the same thing about Gordon. During the fighting around Richmond in 1864, Barlow had read that a Confederate General J. B. Gordon had been killed, and he presumed that this was the same Gordon that had assisted him on the Gettysburg battlefield. So he supposed that the General Gordon coming to the dinner party must be a different Gordon. When they met at the dinner table the two men were astounded to discover that they were the same Gordon and Barlow of Gettysburg, and Gordon relates that thus began a lifelong friendship that continued to Barlow’s death in 1896.
    This version of the Barlow-Gordon incident was accepted without question for decades. When I first arrived at Gettysburg NMP there was a National Park Service waysideexhibit on Barlow’s Knoll that related the story, and a diorama in the Cyclorama Center which illustrated the moment on the knoll when Gordon knelt down to help the wounded Barlow. In May 1985 Civil War Times Illustrated published William F. Hanna’s, “A Gettysburg Myth Exploded,” in which Hanna argued that the Gordon-Barlow incident was largely a myth invented by Gordon to promote the sectional reconciliation he believed was critical for the nation’s future. Hanna based his challenge to Gordon’s account on several pieces of evidence. A letter written by Francis Barlow to his mother on July 7 described his wounding in some detail but said that a Major Pitzera of General Jubal Early’s staff had

Francis C. Barlow as a major general. Library of Congress

Barlow carried by some men into the nearby woods and placed on a bed of leaves. Barlow said nothing about Gordon. Barlow also made no mention to his mother that his wife had joined him, and in a letter written on July 10 he related how, before the Confederates reached him, he had destroyed all the letters in his pocket, which included two letters between Barlow and Robert Dale Owen, a well known emancipationist, about the possibility of Barlow accepting the position of superintendent-general of one of the newly created departments on the east coast set up to administer to the needs of newly freed slaves. “I remembered I had two of those letters in my pocket,” wrote Barlow, “+ that the enemy might not be inclined to parole so important a functionary as the ‘Superintendent of the Freedmen throughout the U.S.’”
    Hanna’s article raised questions about Gordon’s credibility. Independent of Hanna, a new generation of Civil War historians were already beginning to critically analyze Gordon’s Reminiscences and other standard from the post-war era, such as Henry Kyd Douglas’s I Rode With Stonewall, that for decades were accepted as factual, unbiased accounts of the war. Dr. Gary Gallagher was part of this new generation and he advised that Gordon’s recollections should be used with great care, writing, “Few witnesses matched Gordon in his egocentrism or his willingness to play loose with the truth, and his recollections leave unwary readers with a distinct impression that the South would have triumphed if only misguided superiors such as Ewell and Early had acted on his advice. [Gary W. Gallagher, ed., “Confederate Corps Leadership on the First Day at Gettysburg,” Three Days at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership (Kent, OH: Kent State Univ. Press, 1999), 31. Note: this article first appeared in 1992 in The First Day at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership.] 
    By the 1990’s, in the Civil War community, Gordon’s Reminiscences were no longer considered to be a credible source, and the Gordon-Barlow incident was assumed to be another of the romances with which Gettysburg abounds. But was it a romance? Was it possible that the incident had occurred but that Gordon had embellished it to help serve the purposes of his Reminiscences? This is the question we shall take up in our next post.

D. Scott Hartwig

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Staff of Gettysburg National Military Park
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3 Responses to Romances of Gettysburg – The Barlow-Gordon Incident

  1. Dale Call says:

    Although it seems fairly certain that Gordon was prone to exaggerate it also seems as if there is a kernel of truth in the story as well. Think of the stories we’ve all heard about momentous periods of someone’s life (from those who lived them), or even the way our own stories tend to become larger than life as we get older (and farther from the time they happened).

    I think that the incident could very well have happened – but not quite as dramatically as described. The fact that Barlow, seriously wounded and in shock, did not mention any of it is not a deal breaker here.

  2. Would there have been any incentive for Barlow not to mention Gordon? It seems to me odd that Barlow makes no mention of Gordon in his letters if Gordon was as gentle as he claims.

    • The Staff says:

      Cooper,

      As you will see in part 3, I don’t think there was any incentive for Barlow not to mention Gordon, although remember parts of both Barlow’s July 7 and July 10 letters are missing. It is possible that he did mention Gordon in the missing sections, but I have my doubts since I think the encounter between Gordon and Barlow was very brief and did not leave as distinct an impression on Barlow as did the help Lieutenant Pitzer provided him.

      Scott Hartwig

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