Jan. 20, 2004 • Volume 13 Number 9

Boston College doctoral student Christian Samito with a photo of Francis Barlow, the subject of his recent book. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)

Triumph, Tragedy and Transformation

A young man's Civil War journey lives on in new book by BC author

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Christmas 1863 was drawing near, but comfort and joy seemed in short supply for Union Brigadier General Francis Barlow.

The Massachusetts native and New York City lawyer-turned-soldier was spending his second Christmas in as many years convalescing from a serious battle wound, having been injured at Gettysburg only a few months after recovering from wounds suffered at Antietam. Now, the War Department wanted Barlow to take command of a non-combat post he was not physically able - or at all anxious - to assume. He wanted another field command, another chance to lead men into battle.

But sometime around Christmas - the exact date is unknown - Barlow received heartening news, in the form of a letter sent on Dec. 12 from General Winfield S. Hancock. Barlow read that he would be joining the Army of the Potomac Second Corps under Hancock, who assured Barlow that he would "always be pleased to have you in a command of mine."

Barlow would get his chance to fight again, but the following Christmas would once again find him in recovery, from wounds of a far different kind.

Barlow's life and times as a young Harvard-educated intellectual called to war, and his transformation through triumph and tragedy, are recounted in a collection of letters edited by Boston College doctoral student and part-time Civil War historian Christian Samito, Fear Was Not In Him: The Civil War Letters of Major General Francis C. Barlow, USA.

Fear Was Not In Him is the second such compilation of Civil War-era correspondence compiled by Samito, an attorney with the Boston firm Donovan Hatem who is pursing a doctorate in American legal history.

"The Civil War remains fresh in our national memory, because it touched the lives of so many Americans for generations afterward," said Samito, who wrote an introduction for the book and narratives linking the letters. "There are a multitude of issues associated with that event which resonate today: equality, citizenship, military justice, the power of government, to name a few.

"Of course, it is the personal aspect of the Civil War which fascinates us most, and I've found that letters offer the most unvarnished view of the war. There was no censorship, so people could make very forthright statements about the military or political situations.

"Read a book of Civil War letters, and you get a sense of the time and the people in a way you can't with a straightforward history."

Barlow's story offers a particularly compelling perspective, says Samito, a Long Island native with degrees from the College of the Holy Cross and Harvard Law School.

"It's a story of personal transformation. Here was a young, well-educated, contemplative man of society who had to deal with people and situations far removed from his experience. He endured a lot during the war, and emerged as a vigorous figure with strong leadership qualities, engaged with life and politics."

Barlow enlisted in the 12th New York State Militia Regiment barely a week after the war began, marrying his sweetheart Arabella Griffith a day before he left to help defend the Federal capital. Arabella herself later volunteered as a nurse with the United States Sanitary Commission, often working only a few miles from the front lines.

His first taste of battle did not come for more than a year, when Barlow, as a colonel in the 61st New York Volunteers, led his regiment during the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. Writing to his mother and brother, Barlow evinces the acclimatization to the horrors of war: "It is singular how soon men become used to such horrid scenes we see, the dead + wounded carried past without any emotion."

As Barlow adjusted to military life and ascended the chain of command - he was promoted to brigadier general after Antietam - his letters reveal an awareness of his position as an authority figure: "There has been some murmuring at my drawing the reins but I am told [his troops] are beginning to like me better + have been very mild," he writes in April 1863.

In fact, Barlow had earned a reputation as a strict disciplinarian, and one soldier remembered him as a "taskmaster" who had no equal: "The prospect of a speedy deliverance from the odious yoke of Billy Barlow filled every heart with joy."

Barlow's leadership would be put to the test once he returned from his second wound to take part in the Wilderness campaign of May and June 1864. Although the campaign proved long and arduous, Barlow and his troops played a decisive role in the ferocious Battle of Spotsylvania on May 12, when they charged Confederate positions at the so-called "Bloody Angle."

Physically and mentally exhausted from the campaign, and dispirited by its slow progress, Barlow displayed all the characteristics of a battled-hardened veteran in a letter to his mother that summer. Noting recent Confederate forays near Washington, DC, Barlow railed against the apparent inability of "the cowards of the North" to defend themselves: "I am utterly disgusted with the craven spirit of our people. I wish the enemy had burned Baltimore + Washington + hope they will yet."

Barlow's concerns over the war were to be overshadowed by illness and personal tragedies: the deaths of Arabella in July from typhus fever - contracted in the course of her nursing duties - and, in November, of his estranged father. Barlow, granted an extended leave earlier that fall, soon left for Europe to regain his physical and mental health.

But, as Samito relates in the book's concluding chapter, Barlow not only recovered but thrived in the post-war years. In November of 1865, he was as elected as New York's secretary of state, beginning a successful career in public service. He remarried, and with his wife, Ellen - sister of Civil War hero Robert Gould Shaw, a former pupil of his - raised three children.

Barlow also was immortalized in Civil War iconography: Winslow Homer, a long-time family friend, is believed to have used Barlow as the model for a Federal officer in his painting "Prisoners from the Front"; in 1922, New York State dedicated a monument to him at the Gettysburg battlefield.

The son of a teacher of American history, Samito says his two vocations enhance one another: "My law experience helps me to be efficient in my historical research, and being a historian who reconstructs a series of events and narratives helps me be a better lawyer." Samito also admits to a certain amount of empathy with Barlow and other young men of his background - like Patrick Guiney, another Massachusetts lawyer and Civil War officer who was the subject of Samito's first book.

"I think it's fair to say I've felt a connection with them in that way, reading how they reacted to everything, changed under the burdens of command, adjusted to that kind of life, both the privations and the leadership responsibilities as well as the combat excitement," said Samito.

"I've certainly reflected on those experiences and how they must have interpreted events, and wondered how I would have if placed in the same situations."

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