Who was Clarkson Nott Potter? He is important to unraveling the Barlow-Gordon story, for it was at his Washington, D.C. residence that John B. Gordon says he met Francis C. Barlow again, sixteen years after the Battle of Gettysburg. [Gordon says it was 15 years later, which is possible since he was re-elected Georgia’s U.S. Senator again in November 1878, so conceivably the dinner may have been late in the year] So, who Potter was is significant because it can help us establish whether such a dinner ever took place or was instead a product of Gordon’s imagination.
Clarkson Potter was a Democratic U.S. Congressman from New York who served from 1869 to 1875, and again from March 1877 to March 1879. Potter returned to Congress the
year of the Compromise of 1877 which decided the election of 1876 in favor of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. The compromise gave the election to Hayes in return for the withdrawal of Federal troops from the former Confederacy. This meant the end of Reconstruction and paved the way for the Democratic “Redeemers,” white Southerners who sought a return to white’s only rule and a suppression of rights for African Americans (both of which Gordon subscribed to), to gain control of state governments across the former Confederacy. Potter was a Tilden man. Tilden did not accept the Compromise of 1877 gracefully and declared the election “a great fraud.” Enemies of Hayes’s administration sought to exploit the controversy of his election as a means of weakening his presidency and putting a Democrat back in the White House in 1880. In January 1878, Montomery Blair, who had been Lincoln’s Postmaster General, called for legal action to overturn the Electoral Commission’s decision that gave Hayes the election. On May 17, 1878, Congressman Potter introduced legislation to appoint an eleven man committee to investigate the allegations of fraud in the election. As this was intended more to damage Hayes than produce an objective finding, nothing came of the investigation, but it elevated Potter into national prominence, and in the fiercely contested New York gubernatorial election of 1879, Samuel Tilden added Potter to the ticket as a candidate for lieutenant governor. The Democrats in New York had separated into two rival factions that despised one another; the reformers led by Samuel Tilden, and the Tammany Hall machine of New York City, led by John Kelly. The rivalry split the Democratic vote, the Republicans carried the election, and Potter’s political career was effectively ended.
That is the background, but why does any of this matter? Because it helps us understand why Potter would invite Francis Barlow, a New York Republican, and John B. Gordon, a Georgia Democrat, to the same dinner party. Gordon’s attendance can be easily understood. He was a Democrat with a strong interest in reconciliation between the North and South and a return to white rule in the South. A congressman with close connections to Samuel Tilden was a good contact to have. But why would Barlow be there? There are two plausible reasons. From 1871 to 1873 Barlow served as attorney general of New York State. During his tenure he attacked the corruption rampant in Tammany Hall, overthrew the party boss, William “Boss” Tweed, and successfully prosecuted the Tammany Ring. Clarkson Potter, closely aligned with Samuel Tilden and the reformers in the Democratic Party, was delighted with Barlow’s attack on the Tammany machine. Three years later, in 1876, Barlow was tapped by the Republican Party to investigate the questionable ballot count in Florida for the Hayes-Tilden presidential election. Barlow was assigned to examine the voting in Alachua County, where Republicans expected he would find rampant fraud against African American voters. But when Barlow reported back that claims by the Democrats to Florida’s electoral votes might have merit, he was immediately recalled and replaced. That he also believed the Democrats claims to massive Republican voter fraud held no water was ignored. Although he remained a Republican, Barlow was an outsider in his party. But for Clarkson Potter, facing a tough gubernatorial election in New York in 1879, Barlow was a man worth courting.
So, while Gordon left the only known written account of the dinner party at Clarkson Potter’s Washington residence and his meeting with Barlow, the evidence leans strongly that such a party did indeed occur.
Lending further credence to Gordon’s story is a March 1, 1879 Philadelphia Weekly Times article about Gordon and Barlow. The story was also published in the National Tribune, a newspaper for Union veterans, that same month, and was apparently picked up in other papers across the country. Although it differed in some minor details from the version Gordon told in his reminiscences, the essential details are identical; Barlow was wounded, Gordon dismounted to give him a drink from his canteen, Barlow believed he was dying and asked Gordon to read one of his wife’s letters to him (note, this part did differ from Gordon’s Reminicences), then to destroy them; Barlow asked for Gordon to send word through the lines to his wife, to which Gordon agreed, Gordon had Barlow carried to the shade of a nearby tree, and finally the two men met again at a dinner party in Washington. Unfortunately, the source for the story is identified only as “a Washington correspondent of the Boston Transcript,” so we do not know who he is. [National Tribune, March 1879]
Gordon published his first version of the incident in another Union veterans newspaper, Grand Army Scout and Sentinel Mail, on June 19, 1886. That same year, Henry Martyn Field, a Presbyterian minister and travel writer, published the book Blood is Thicker Than Water, about his postwar trip through the South. Early in the book Field wrote about a dinner he attended in Atlanta, where the discussion drifted to the war and reconciliation. After hearing from his Southern hosts, Field related a story from the funeral of Ulysses S. Grant, then thinking it “not inappropriate to tell a story in harmony with the spirit of the hour,” proceeded to tell a story he emphasized had been told him by both the actors in the drama. Field then proceeded to relate the Barlow-Gordon story. [Henry M. Field, Blood is Thicker Than Water, (New York: George Munro Publisher, 1886), 33-35.]
Gordon’s account received further unexpected support from an 1885 article about Gettysburg by Union General Oliver O. Howard, Barlow’s corps commander. Howard related that Barlow’s remarkable wife, Arabella Barlow, appeared on Cemetery Hill on the night of July 1 after learning that her husband had been wounded and lay behind Confederate lines. Howard explained that he could not authorize a flag of truce to send her through the lines to which she replied that the soldiers would not fire upon a woman and she set off down Baltimore Street toward town. Whether anyone fired at her or not is unknown but there was enough firing and bullets striking near her that she turned back and returned to Howard, who found her undeterred in her mission. “I will go off there,” he recalled her saying, and pointing to the left (perhaps Washington Street), “where both sides can see me.” “She did so,” wrote Howard, “and this time succeeded in passing through both skirmish-lines and reaching her husband.” [Oliver O. Howard, “After the Battle,” National Tribune, Dec. 31, 1885]
Dan Skelly, a teenager at the time of the battle, also recalled encountering Arabella, although he remembered it as the night of July 2, and that Arabella was mounted on a horse and escorted by two Confederate soldiers. She had been told her husband was at a McCreary residence on Chambersburg Street. Skelly directed her to the McCreary’s where Arabella may have learned that her husband was at the Josiah Benner farm. The details here are irrelevant for our purposes. What is important is we have a second confirmation that Arabella passed through the lines during the battle to find her husband. [A Boy’s Experience During the Battle of Gettysburg, (Gettysburg, 1932).]
Gordon, significantly, did not claim credit for escorting Arabella through the lines, only that he sent word through the lines that her husband was gravely wounded and that he would ensure she should have safe passage through the lines. Had Gordon invented this entire tale it seems odd that he would not have also claimed credit for providing Arabella safe conduct through the lines to her husband.
Since it can be confirmed that Arabella passed through the lines during the battle why did Barlow not mention her? The answer is he might have. Part of the letter he wrote from the battlefield on July 7 and a second, believed to be written on July 10, is missing.
Barlow and Gordon met again in 1888, at the observation of the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Gordon and his wife arrived on the field on July 2 and proceeded to tour the field by carriage. They drove to Barlow’s Knoll, where they met Barlow, and Gordon shared his story of the Barlow-Gordon incident to those gathered around, which included members of the press. “The meeting was rather affecting,” observed a New York Times reporter who was present, a statement indicating a warm, friendly encounter. [New York Times, July 4, 1888]
In 1893, while serving another term as a U.S. Senator from Georgia, Gordon prepared a lecture he entitled “The Last Days of the Confederacy.” It focused primarily on the final days of the war, leading to Appomattox, but Gordon included several human interest
stories from earlier points in the war that helped advance the greater purpose of his lecture, which his biographer wrote was to “establish a common vantage point from which northerners and southerners alike could view the war and derive pride and honor from their participation.” One of the stories he included in the lecture was the Barlow-Gordon incident. He presented the lecture for the first time to an audience of 5,000 at the Tabernacle of Brookyln, in New York City on November 17, 1893. It was so well received that Gordon was asked to deliver it again the next week at Carnegie Music Hall. Since Francis Barlow was a resident of New York City it seems impossible that he was unaware of Gordon’s speech and that the Barlow-Gordon incident was an important element of it. [Ralph L. Eckert, John B. Gordon: Soldier, Southerner, American (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 315.]
The evidence then appears to refute the case that the Barlow-Gordon incident was an invention of John B. Gordon for the purpose of promoting his cause of national reconciliation. There is simply too much testimony from too many different sources to support that some encounter occurred between the two men at Gettysburg. But what did Barlow have to say about it? This is what we shall take up in the third and final part of this series.
D. Scott Hartwig