Romances of Gettysburg – The Barlow-Gordon Incident, Part 3

    Nearly everything we know about the Barlow-Gordon incident came from John B. Gordon. What did Francis Barlow have to say about it? The answer is Barlow did not write about the war. His son Charles wrote to the National Park Service on March 21, 1960, “so far as I can recall my father never published anything about the Civil War except a talk on Spotsylvania before the Massachusetts Historical Society.” [Gettysburg NMP Library Vertical File 8-22]. The only postwar account he left about the battle was an oral statement to the historian John B. Bachelder about the operations of his division on July 1, which Bachelder included in his ponderous Official History of the Battle of Gettysburg. Unfortunately, for our purposes, Bachelder omitted whatever Barlow had to say about the fighting on Barlow’s Knoll. We do not even know when Barlow made this oral statement.
We are left with what Henry Field claims was told to him by Barlow, which is second-hand, and Barlow’s two letters, mentioned in the earlier posts, written, we believe, on July 7 and 10, 1863. The letters are problematic so far as the Barlow-Gordon incident are concerned. In the July 7 letter he wrote that when the Confederates came upon him they were “very kind,” and that a Major Pitzer, “a staff officer of Gen. Early had me carried by some men into the woods.” The last sentence that survives of this letter begins, “Ewell + Early sent word that at the first flag of truce, they would;” the rest is missing. In the letter believed to have been written on July 10, Barlow mentioned that before the Confederates reached him he destroyed all the letters in his pocket. [Barlow’s correspondence was edited and published by Christian G. Samito in, “Fear Was Not in Him,” The Civil War Letters of Major General Francis C. Barlow, U.S.A. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004).]
    The officer Barlow identified as Major Pitzer was Lieutenant Andrew Lewis Pitzer, who was an aide-de-camp to Major General Jubal Early, who commanded the division to which Gordon’s brigade belonged. So, although Barlow had the rank wrong, he remembered the name correctly. And one cannot but speculate that the incomplete sentence in Barlow’s July 7 letter was about Ewell and Early saying that at the first flag of truce they would

Looking west toward Barlow's Knoll from the left of Gordon's position. NPS

send a communication through the lines to Barlow’s wife Arabella. Did Gordon know of this and later claim credit for sending this communication?
    Barlow’s statement that he destroyed the letters in his pocket also damages the credibility of Gordon’s account, as does the fact that what Gordon says about the letters changed in each account. In 1879 Barlow believed he was dying and asked Gordon to read one of Arabella’s letters to him. In Henry Field’s version of the story there is no mention of the letters at all. When Gordon prepared his “Last Days of the Confederacy,” lecture, he wrote that after he had Barlow placed on a litter and about to be carried to the nearby shade that Barlow “asked me to take from his side pocket, as he was paralyzed, some letters, and open them before his face.” The letters were from Barlow’s wife and “as his eyes rested, as he supposed, for the last time, the last lingering look, upon her signature, the great tears ran down his pale face. By 1903 Gordon had modified this to Barlow asked him to take the letters from his pocket and destroy them, that they were from his wife. He did repeat that Barlow was paralyzed, including the detail that the ball had struck him in front and passed out near his spinal cord, which paralyzed his legs and arms. This detail is significant and we shall return to it. But for now the letters are our focus. We have the following: In the earliest account of the incident Gordon reads one of Arabella’s letters to Barlow. In the next account there is no mention of the letters. Then Gordon claims Barlow was paralyzed and asked him to take the letters from his pocket and open them before his face, but Gordon does not read any of them. And lastly, the paralyzed Barlow asks Gordon only to take the letters from his pocket and destroy them.
    Barlow’s letter of July 10, and the details of his wound, deals a severe blow to the credibility of Gordon’s account about the letters. Barlow was not shot in the front of the body with the ball passing out by his spinal cord and he was not paralyzed. He was hit in the side about half way between the arm pit and head of the thigh bone, and the bullet glanced down into the “cavity of the pelvis.” He was also hit by a spent ball in the back that “has made quite a bruise.” There is no mention in either of his letters after the battle about any paralysis. His July 10 is clear that he, not someone else, destroyed the letters in his pocket, which is the clearest evidence possible that he did not suffer paralysis. I considered the possibility that Barlow did have Gordon destroy the letters and for some reason wanted to conceal this from his mother so he claimed that he did it, but this defies all logic since the letters included ones that Barlow did not want to fall into Confederate hands. The likelier scenario is that someone on Early’s or Gordon’s staff found the torn up letters, possibly Lieutenant Pitzer, picked them up thinking they might contain some valuable information, was able to discern that they were from Barlow’s wife, and later shared this information with Gordon . Also, lost in this letter business, is the fact that Gordon had a battle to fight and a brigade to manage. The idea that while his brigade was pursuing the retreating Yankees that he paused to read a letter to Barlow, or show him the letters, or even took the time to destroy them, is preposterous.
    There is also a question as to whether Gordon had Barlow carried to nearby shade. Major John Warwick Daniel served on the staff of General Jubal Early. In postwar notes [there is no date on the notes, but it appears they are post 1903 since they contain reference to Gordon’s Reminiscences] Daniel wrote that after Gordon’s attack broke Barlow’s line and drove the Federals off Barlow’s Knoll he was sent by Early to follow Gordon. Daniel writes:
    Passing by Gen. Barlow who lay on the ground wounded amongst the fallen of his Division; then through the field full of thousands of prisoners, then to the right where Doles’ brigade of Rodes’ Division was advancing in fine style and uniting with Gordon . . .” [John Warwick Daniel papers, copy GNMP Library, “Misc Notes Concerning Gordon’s Brigade,” Box B-8.]
    Daniel’s account informs us about two things, one, Barlow was lying among the fallen of his division and was not being cared for under the shade of nearby trees, and two, Gordon had moved on with his brigade in pursuit of the enemy and had not tarried long on Barlow’s Knoll, if at all. In these same notes Daniel describes Gordon’s overall account of Gettysburg in his Reminiscences as “an astonishing miscreate of history. It shows that Gen. Gordon either never knew the situation of the field he was on, or had forgotten it; and if he knew no more of other battles and wars then he did of Early and his division at Gettysburg his historical reading was sadly deficient.” [Ibid.]
    If Gordon exaggerated or played loose with other aspects of the battle on July 1, as Daniel believed he did, then it is reasonable to assume that he did so in recalling his encounter with General Barlow.
    Under closer scrutiny the Arabella Barlow story Gordon told, which appeared to be sustained by the post-war accounts of Oliver O. Howard and Dan Skelly cited in part 2, must also be questioned. In his letter of July 7, Barlow mentioned that he was carried from the woods (where he says Lieutenant Pitzer had stretcher bearers carry him) to a nearby house, which was the Josiah Benner farmhouse. He remained here for the night of July 1

The Josiah Benner farmhouse where Barlow was taken on July 1. The view is looking south. The Old Harrisburg Road is to the left. Rock Creek is about 100 south of the house. Barlow's Knoll is several hundred yards southwest of the house. NPS

under the care of Confederate surgeons who declared his wounds to be mortal. On the morning of July 2 Barlow was moved to the John Crawford house, on the northeastern edge of town, where “an elderly lady + her daughter were very kind to me.” He remained here July 2 and July 3, during which time “the ladies + some of our wounded in the house did what nursing I required.” If Arabella did pass through Union lines on July 1, as Howard

The Crawford house on the Old Harrisburg Road where Barlow was moved to on July 2. It is about one mile south of the Benner farm. This is a private residence. NPS

wrote, or July 2, as Skelly claimed, then she did not find her husband until July 4, for it is inconceivable that Barlow would not mention that his wife arrived during the battle and helped care for him. The conclusion must be either that Howard and Skelly did not correctly remember when they encountered Arabella, or that she had difficulty in finding where Barlow was being treated.
    A final piece of evidence to be considered are the letters Gordon wrote to his wife Fanny on July 7 and 10. There is no mention of General Barlow or Arabella, only a mention of the terrible damage his brigade inflicted upon the enemy on July 1. If the encounter with General Barlow was so memorable one would think Gordon would have at least mentioned the Yankee general or his wife.[Gen. Gordon’s letters are in the Special Collections at the University of George Library. Copies of the letters are at the Gettysburg NMP Library in the John B. Gordon vertical file.]
    So, is the Barlow-Gordon incident a myth? No. There is too much evidence that some encounter between the two occurred. It might be said to resemble a fish story. A fish of modest size was caught, but each time the story of catching the fish was told it grew larger and the battle to catch it more fantastic. We shall never know what really happened on Barlow’s Knoll that afternoon but the evidence points to Gordon’s role being considerably smaller than he claimed. Gordon very likely did dismount when he came upon Barlow, found out who he was, gave him some water and then moved on with his brigade certain that the Yankee general was mortally wounded. This is how Gordon presumably learned who Barlow was. Someone alerted Lieutenant Pitzer to Barlow. There is the possibility that this was Gordon or someone on Gordon’s staff, but it could just have likely been that Early and his staff passed over the knoll – it was an excellent vantage point – and found Barlow. Pitzer had Barlow moved to the woods and later to the Benner farm. Barlow may have told Pitzer about his wife being behind Union lines which would explain Barlow’s incomplete sentence, “Ewell + Early sent word that at the first flag of truce, they would . . ;” which might be about sending word to Arabella. Barlow mentioned that while at Crawford’s some of Ewell’s and Early’s staff came to see him and that he talked “very freely with them.” Surely, some of what Barlow shared with Ewell’s and Early’s staffs made its way to Gordon. This is likely how Gordon learned about Barlow’s letters to his wife and that Ewell and Early sent word through the lines under a flag of truce to Arabella.
    In reconstructing the event years after the war Gordon made himself the central figure, eliminating the parts that Pitzer, Early and Ewell played in the story and assuming them for himself. As Major Daniel’s notes on Gordon’s Reminiscences reveal, the General was

Senator John B. Gordon

not above playing loose with facts to serve his purposes. The dinner at Clarkson Potter’s, where Gordon and Barlow met again, certainly happened. So too did the meeting between the two generals on Barlow’s Knoll in 1888. What seems likely is that Barlow understood Gordon’s motives in using the story of their meeting on the battlefield for his purposes of reconciliation, and even though the story was exaggerated and embellished from what had really happened, he saw no value in publicly refuting it.

D. Scott Hartwig

Francis Barlow's bronze statue on Barlow's Knoll.


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5 Responses to Romances of Gettysburg – The Barlow-Gordon Incident, Part 3

  1. Cooper Wingert says:

    Is the book you mentioned of Barlow’s published letters the same as the letters that are in the Massachussetts Hist. Soc?

    • The Staff says:


      Yes, these are the same letters, but the author has annotated the letters and provided connective narrative to place the letters in context.

      Scott Hartwig

  2. Pingback: Myth, Fact, and The Murky Middle: The Barlow-Gordon Incident « Crossroads

  3. Mark Snell says:

    Impeccable analysis, as always.

  4. John C. Fazio says:

    Mr. Simpson:

    I believe your analysis of the Barlow-Gordon incident, an event in which I have a great interest, to be partially correct and partically incorrect. Please see my article on the subject which appeared in the July 9, 2009, issue of The Gettysburg Magazine. In my judgment, this 22-page article clarifies the ambiguities about as well as they are ever likely to be clarified.

    John C. Fazio

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