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The Barlow-Gordon Controversy: Rest in Peace
By John C. Fazio
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2006, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s Note: In 2005, the author penned articles about Francis and Arabella Barlow and John and Fanny Gordon. He promised to enlighten us about the controversy surrounding Barlow and Gordon that arose after the war. Here he enlightens us.

The human interest story about the relationship between Francis C. Barlow, the Northern "Puritan" who rose to the rank of division commander, from private, in the Army of the Potomac, and John B. Gordon, the Southern "Cavalier" who rose in rank from captain to corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia, is one of the most famous of the Civil War. The story concerns Gordon's perhaps life-saving ministrations to a stricken Barlow on Blocher's Knoll (now Barlow's Knoll) on the first day of Gettysburg, his arrangement of safe passage for Arabella, who then made her way to her husband and nursed him back to health, the later suppositions of the commanders that neither had survived the war, and their subsequent meetings, particularly the first, at a Washington dinner party, where they were, as it were, resurrected to each other. 

The story was apparently first published in 1879 by various newspapers around the country after an unidentified Washington, D.C. correspondent for the Boston Transcript wrote it. One of the newspapers was the Dublin Post of Dublin, Georgia, Gordon's home state. We know it came from the pen of the correspondent because the National Tribune, another newspaper that published the story, gave it that attribution. It appeared later in McClure's Magazine (once in the 1880's and again in June, 1894), Vol. XXI of the Southern Historical Society Papers (1893), Campfire and Battlefield (1894), James A. Scrymser's In Time of Peace and War (1915), a volume titled New York State, issued in 1923 to commemorate the unveiling of a statue of Barlow on the knoll, The Shaping of a Battle: Gettysburg (1959), by James Montgomery, Generals in Blue (1964), by Ezra Warner, John Brown Gordon: Soldier, Southerner, American (1989), by Ralph Lowell Eckert, and Gettysburg: The First Day (2001), by Harry W. Pfanz. Articles on the subject include: "A Gettysburg Myth Exploded," by William F. Hanna, Civil War Times Illustrated (May, 1985), "The Barlow - Gordon Incident," by Gary Kross, Blue and Gray Magazine (December, 2001), a response to the Kross article by Gregory C. White, Blue and Gray Magazine (February, 2002), and "Encounter on Blocher's Knoll," by Richard F. Welch, America's Civil War (March, 2004). The story, and commentary on it, have obviously become a Civil War item. 

Three months before his death in 1904, Gordon published his memoirs, titled Reminiscences of the Civil War, which he wrote during the period 1891-1897. In it, he said that when his men overran the knoll he saw Barlow fall from his horse. He rode up, looked at him, saw that he was not dead, and dismounted. He gave him water from his canteen, but because his wound was so grave, including paralysis, he fully expected him to die. He directed some of his subordinates to carry Barlow into the shade, but before leaving him, Barlow asked him to destroy some of his wife's letters that he had on his person and to tell his wife of their meeting on the field and that his last thoughts were of her.

Gordon learned that Arabella was near the battlefield and so at the close of day he sent word to her of her husband's condition and granted her safe passage through his lines to be with him. About a year later, he added, his kinsman with the same last name and initials was killed. Barlow, who had recovered, heard of it and assumed it was Gordon. So both men assumed that the other did not survive the war. Fifteen years passed. Both men were invited to a dinner party in Washington by Clarkson Potter, a Congressman from New York. At table, Gordon peered at Barlow and asked: "General, are you related to the Barlow who was killed at Gettysburg?" Barlow answered: "Why, I am the man, sir. Are you related to the Gordon who killed me?" Gordon responded: "I am the man sir." At which time, of course, they hugged and cemented a friendship that lasted until the end of their days. 

In a speech Gordon gave dozens of times, perhaps hundreds of times, between 1893 and 1904, the year of his death, titled "The Last Days of the Confederacy," he told essentially the same story, with minor variations. 

In an incomplete letter to his mother, Almira Penniman Barlow, dated July 7, 1863, Barlow told a story similar to Gordon's, but with substantial differences. Foremost is a complete omission of any mention of Gordon. In addition, he said that two of his men tried to carry him from the field, but failed, and that he lay in the field for about five minutes before the enemy came up. He says that "Major Pitzer" had him carried into the woods. He then describes his diagnosis by surgeons (terminal) and his subsequent care in Gettysburg by his captors and by civilians. 

In a subsequent letter to Almira, undated, but written before August 5, 1863, Barlow said that while he was lying on the knoll, he remembered that he had incriminating letters on his person (incriminating because they related to his nomination as the "Negro Superintendent") so he destroyed them before the enemy reached him. 

Apart from Barlow's saying that he destroyed letters, the accounts seem to tell a reasonably clear and coherent story. Unfortunately, they aren't clear and coherent enough for some students of the war, who contend that the whole story is "a fable," "apocryphal," "highly unlikely," "a contrivance," "a myth," "fiction," "bogus." This view received its most definitive expression by William Hanna in his article that appeared in the May, 1985, issue of Civil War Times Illustrated, referred to above. Numerous reasons are given, by Hanna and others, for the contention that the meeting never took place, including:

  1. There are inconsistencies between Gordon's two accounts. 

  2. There are inconsistencies between Gordon's accounts and Barlow's accounts, especially Barlow's failure to mention Gordon or Arabella in his letter of July 7 and the business about the letters. 

  3. Arabella was working at a Christian commission in Maryland during the Gettysburg fighting and it is therefore unlikely that she could have made it to the battlefield in time to care for her husband, which is borne out by the fact that he does not mention her in the July 7 letter. 

  4. It is inconceivable that Gordon did not know that Barlow subsequently fought against him in Grant's Overland Campaign of 1864. 

  5. Gordon was a very powerful voice in the movement to heal and move on after the war. The Barlow story was only an attempt on his part to effect a reconciliation of the regions based on mutual admiration for the heroism of the foe. 

Let us consider each of these objections in the light of the sources, our knowledge of human nature, and reason. 

First, the inconsistencies in Gordon's two accounts are all minor variations of a kind that one would expect in the telling and retelling of an event. In their essentials, the accounts tell the same story and are therefore more likely to be true than false. Indeed, minor variations are the mark of truth rather than falsity; identical or substantially identical stories reflect copying. 

Second, except for Barlow's failure to mention Gordon or Arabella and the business of the letters, the inconsistencies between Gordon's and Barlow's accounts are of minutia and are easily and reasonably attributable to differences of perception and interpretation, taking into consideration all of the surrounding circumstances and the condition of the principals. 

As for the letters, how did Barlow destroy them when he was lying on his back nearly dead and possibly completely paralyzed? By his own testimony, he was too faint to walk, did not expect to get out alive, was in considerable pain, and his clothing was saturated with blood. I submit that in these circumstances there is really only one explanation for the apparent conflict in the primary sources, and it is this: Barlow did not himself destroy the letters on his person; he was in no condition to do that. But he knew about the incriminating letters and it was thus a matter of great importance to him that they not fall into the hands of the enemy. So he got rid of them (i.e. he "destroyed" them) the only way he possibly could -- by getting someone else to do it for him. That someone else was none other than John B. Gordon! That is the only explanation that squares with all three accounts, with reason, and with probabilities rather than possibilities. That Gordon mentions letters in both Reminiscences and Last Days makes it very probable that the letters were a part of the happening that occurred between him and Barlow on the knoll. That Barlow also mentions letters in his account makes the case even more compelling. That both men expressly speak of the destruction of letters makes it somewhere between very probable and nearly certain that they are talking about the same transaction. The stew is simply too thick to suppose that they are talking about separate letter incidents. Postulating that they are talking about the same incident is the key that opens all doors. 

With respect to the July 7 letter, the first thing that needs to be said is that it is incomplete: pages are missing. There is simply no way of knowing whether or not he mentioned Gordon or Arabella or both in the missing pages. That the letter does not mention Arabella has not been taken as evidence that she never came. That Gordon is not mentioned in the incomplete letter should likewise not preclude his having helped Barlow in the way he says he did. A lot of possibilities can be offered as to why Barlow did not mention Gordon in his letter (assuming there is no mention in the portion of the letter that did not survive), namely: Barlow was almost certainly in a state of shock at the time, probably delirious, and for that reason may have had only a very dim recollection, assuming he had any at all, of the first person to attend to him; Gordon says quite clearly that he did not linger with Barlow, that he did what was asked of him by Barlow, promised him that he would get word to Arabella, and then turned him over to his subordinates for further care; Barlow may have deliberately omitted Gordon from his narrative because of what he had requested of him, i.e., to destroy Arabella's billets-doux

With respect to the third reason for doubting the authenticity of the meeting, i.e. Arabella's coming to the battlefield, first things first. Is there any doubt that she came? None whatsoever. Is there any doubt as to when she came? None; she came the evening of July 1. Then why does Barlow not mention her in his letter of July 7? One can conceive of reasons, but it really doesn't matter. What matters is that we know with certainty that she came to him well before July 7, that he nevertheless does not mention her in the surviving part of his letter of that date, and that such failure to mention her does not negate her coming, in the same way that failure to mention Gordon's acts of kindness does not negate their meeting. 

In an article entitled "After the Battle" that appeared in the December 31, 1885, edition of The National Tribune, General O.O. Howard, Commander of the XI Corps at Gettysburg, wrote at great length about Francis and Arabella, spoke glowingly of both and included the following material that is relevant here: 

I can never forget how speedily, as if led by instinct, (Barlow's) good wife found her way from Frederick or Baltimore to our lines after they had been established on the Cemetery Ridge. She said, as she found me not far from the Cemetery gates: "Gen. Howard, my husband is wounded and left within the enemy's lines, I MUST GO TO HIM."… She said, "They will not fire at me," and so started rapidly down the Baltimore Pike toward the court-house…"I cannot get through there," she said. She undertook this bold enterprise once again. "I will go there," pointing to the left, "where both sides can see me." She did so, and this time succeeded in passing through both skirmish-lines and reaching her husband. 

Arabella's arrival on July 1 receives corroboration from Gordon's statement, in Last Days, that "Late that night (i.e. the night of July 1 - July 2), as I lay in the open field upon my saddle, a picket from the front announced a lady on my lines. It was Mrs. Barlow. She was carried to her husband's side during the night by my staff."

Still further corroboration of Arabella's arrival comes from a passage in A Gallant Captain of the Civil War, edited by Joseph Tyler Butts. Describing the events of the evening of July 1, after the fight on the knoll, Frederick Otto Baron von Fritsch, a war correspondent, says that: 

"By seven o-clock we had several hundred men of the Division together. General Barlow lies wounded outside of Gettysburg," the General (Ames) said, "and I take command of the Division. You'd better stay with me, Captain." "Thanks, General," I returned. "Here comes Mrs. Barlow with an ambulance," I added, and we both approached her, and tried to describe where her husband could probably be found. The courageous lady, sitting next to the driver, with a white flag in her hand, then drove quickly towards the town, although we could still hear firing." 

A passage in the War Diary of Stephen Minot Weld, a staff officer for General John F. Reynolds, is also relevant. In an entry dated July 1, Weld describes a discourse he had with General Howard concerning the identity of troops coming out of the woods toward the cemetery. He rode into town, on Howard's order, and identified the troops as "rebs." Then he writes: 

On my way back I saw a lady riding in (i.e. into Gettysburg), through all those bullets, on a horse with a side-saddle, who turned out to be Mrs. General Barlow. She had heard of her husband's dreadful wounds and came in to nurse him. She came in safely, as I afterwards heard, and undoubtedly saved her husband's life. 

But there is more. 

Daniel Skelly, a teen-aged resident of Gettysburg who was a clerk at a dry goods company at the time of the battle, wrote his account of the battle in 1932 under the title "A Boy's Experiences During the Battle of Gettysburg." In pertinent part, this is what he said: 

Day dawned on the second of July bright and clear…About dusk, Will McCreary and I were sent on some errand down on Chambersburg Street and as we were crossing from Arnold's corner to the present Eckert corner, we were halted by two Confederate soldiers who had a lady in their charge. She was on horseback and proved to be the wife of General (Francis) Barlow who had come into the Confederate lines under a flag of truce looking for her husband, who had been severely wounded on July 1… 

It is reasonable to conclude from these accounts that Arabella arrived at the battlefield on July 1. Because it is unlikely that Gordon's message reached her before sunset, inasmuch as he says he sent it at the close of the day's fighting, and that such shooting as Howard describes would not occur at night, it follows that Arabella must have crossed into no-man's land some time in the long summer twilight between sunset and nightfall. 

We can thus say with certainty that she came through Confederate lines from Union lines successfully and that once inside Confederate lines she was given an escort. That could only have been accomplished if she had a safe passage or escort and she could have had that only if it had been given to her by a Confederate officer of very high rank. Lt. Pitzer does not fit that description, but Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon does. 

Two other Confederate generals also fit the description: Lieutenant General Jubal Early, Gordon's division commander, and Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, their corps commander. Early wrote memoirs, mentioning the fight on the knoll and Barlow, but he says not a word about conversing with him, learning that Arabella was nearby, sending her a message concerning her husband, or providing her with a safe passage or escort to be with her husband. I submit that if Early had done any or all of those things, he would not have let the opportunity pass to tell the world of his humanity, and that his silence can have but one reasonable conclusion: he did not do them. As for Ewell, he wrote no memoirs and there is no record of his ever having said or written anything relating to the Barlow incident. I think it is a safe conclusion that Ewell had no role in this matter. Well, if Early is not our man, and Ewell is not our man, and they were the only officers other than Gordon who at that time and place had the authority to do what we know was done, then what conclusion shall we draw? 

The fourth reason given that Gordon’s account is a fable is that both commanders must have known they were facing each other in subsequent encounters at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, the North Anna River, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and Appomattox. Nonsense. Barlow was out of action from July 29 to August 13, 1864 when he went to Somerville, New Jersey, to bury his wife. Further, on August 24, he took a twenty-day leave of absence to recover from the devastating loss of Arabella, illness, and combat exhaustion. On September 12, October 3, and October 22, he obtained twenty-day extensions of the leave because he was not improving. Finally, on October 29, he applied for a five-month leave (until April 1, 1865), including permission to go abroad. It was granted on November 5 by the War Department. Barlow left for Europe later in November and did not return to the army until April 6, 1865. All told then, Barlow was away from the front from July 29, 1864, to April 6, 1865, a period of eight months and nine days. Gordon absented himself from the Overland battles when he left Lee and fought with Early in the Valley from June 13, 1864, to December 8, 1864. So what do we have?: A period of almost ten months (June 13, 1864 to April 6, 1865) when the commanders did not even face each other. I submit that that was a powerful inducement for Gordon to suppose that Barlow was quite dead, which supposition is supported by his narrative, as previously said. Barlow did not return to service, following his Gettysburg wound, until April 1, 1864 and was not actually in combat again until the fight in the Wilderness (May 5). From Gettysburg to Appomattox, therefore - a period of more than twenty-one months - Gordon and Barlow faced each other for only thirty-nine days, i.e., May 5, 1864, to June 13, 1864, the date that Gordon joined Early. Is it really such a stretch, therefore, to conclude that they were ignorant of each other's presence among the enemy? If they had faced each other for the entire twenty-one month period, or even most of it, we should be justified in our skepticism of such ignorance. But thirty-nine days? A lot can get past a person in thirty-nine days that would not in twenty-one months. 

The fifth reason for supposing that Gordon's account is bogus is that, after the war, Gordon was an active voice for reconciliation of the regions and the former belligerents and for that reason was strongly motivated to doctor or wholly fabricate events, in his speeches and in his writings, so as to cast both sides in a favorable light by emphasizing their common humanity, their common nationality, and their mutual respect and admiration. 

In some ways this argument is the most egregious of all, because it supposes that Gordon was not only a knave, but also a fool. It supposes that he didn't have sense enough to know that if, in his addresses, his Reminiscences, or his other writings, he told one flagrant lie, and if that lie were exposed, it would destroy all of his credibility, credibility that he desperately needed and sought if he were to accomplish the very purposes for which he is now charged with distorting the truth and marketing wholesale fabrications. We are being asked to believe that he would risk his good name, honor, reputation, and bank account. Moreover, we are asked to believe that he would do so at a time when hundreds of thousands of men and women who had fought in the war, or otherwise been directly involved with it, including Barlow, were still alive, and when the lie, therefore, was quite susceptible of being challenged and exposed by eyewitnesses or others who were conversant with the facts. 

Let us talk about the Potter dinner party a little bit. This is the second half of Gordon's accounts. If the second half is true, then the first half must also be true, because the second half is entirely dependent upon the first half. Do we have any reason to doubt the second half? None. It is a perfectly plausible story. Furthermore, there were witnesses, i.e., other dinner guests. If the conversation and its effects, as described by Gordon, are fanciful, these witnesses could have and might have exposed it as fraudulent. Again, is it reasonable to suppose that Gordon would risk his priceless credibility for such a piece of fluff? For that matter, is it reasonable to suppose that he would invent the whole story? For what purpose? The second half of the story is dependent upon the first half, as said, but the opposite is not true. If the first half is a fraud, there is no necessity to add the second half; it is gratuitous. 

The veracity of Gordon's account receives further support from the fact that the story circulated from at least 1879, seventeen years before Barlow's death, but was never contradicted by Barlow. It is simply incredible that the story, as told by Gordon, and as it appeared in the publications antedating 1896, would not have come to Barlow's attention in that seventeen-year period. That includes Gordon's speech (Last Days), which was given all over the country and which surely appeared in print while Barlow still lived. Further support for the story's veracity is that Barlow and Gordon met on at least two occasions after the war, once at Potter's dinner party (1879) and again at the twenty-fifth anniversary of the battle (1888). By the time of the second meeting, the story had been in circulation for at least nine years. On the occasion of that meeting, the New York Times wrote that: 

The two men met for the second time in 25 years and the meeting was rather affecting. Gen. Barlow was left on the field on the first day's fight. He was found by Gen. Gordon, who not only saw that he was taken care of, but allowed Mrs. Barlow to come through the lines to nurse her husband. 

That the story appeared in such a prominent newspaper as the New York Times, which, living in New York, Barlow must surely have read, gave him an excellent opportunity to denounce it as false, but of course he didn't. 

Still further support for the veracity of the story is Gordon's statements, in both Reminiscences and Last Days, that Barlow had heard of the death of Gordon's cousin, General J.B. Gordon of North Carolina, who was killed near Richmond in the summer of 1864, and, because of the identical initials, had assumed that this was the J. B. Gordon who had assisted him at Gettysburg. How would Gordon know that? The only reasonable answer, of course, is that Barlow told him. But when and why would Barlow tell him that? The only reasonable answer is that he told him at or some time after the meeting at Potter's dinner party in the context of how and why he, Barlow, assumed that Gordon was dead. Outside the context of a confession of ignorance as to Gordon's survival, Barlow's telling of his mistake as to the other Gordon makes no sense at all. Their supposed deaths must therefore have been a subject of conversation between them. And such conversation would only have taken place if, as Gordon says repeatedly, they both thought each other dead. And if they both thought each other dead, which is the logical conclusion from all of this, then Gordon's telling of Barlow's mistake is strongly probative of the essential truth of Gordon's accounts. 

Still further support for the truth of the story is that, in the account of it that appeared in 1879 in the National Tribune, the unidentified author concludes his description of the dinner party by saying "The hearty greeting which followed the touching story, as related to the interested guests by General Barlow (my italics), and the thrilling effect upon the company, can be better imagined than described." Observe that according to this unidentified author (who was approximately one hundred twenty-seven years closer to the event than we are), the story was told by Barlow, not Gordon, thus further corroborating Gordon's accounts, unless we prefer to go off into daisyland again and hold that Barlow fabricated the story first, but that Gordon liked it so much that he later incorporated it into his speech and memoirs, sanitized his other writings, and threw in a couple of other fabrications here and there to beef it up. 

The weight of the evidence, indeed the great weight of the evidence, is in favor of the truth of Gordon's and Barlow's accounts, later embellishments in the retelling of it by others notwithstanding. The only reasonable conclusion, therefore, is that it happened in substantially the way that Gordon said it happened, and that the integrity of both Americans, therefore, remains untarnished.

Related Links:

Francis and Arabella - A Love Story at CCWRT

John and Fanny - A Love Story at CCWRT

Reminiscences of the Civil War - General John Gordon's memoirs

General Barlow and General Gordon Meet on Blocher's Knoll
at Historynet

General Francis Channing Barlow at Historynet

The Gordon / Barlow Incident 
at brotherswar.com


Francis C. Barlow


Arabella G. Barlow


John B. Gordon



The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable