Arabella Barlow: A General’s Wife, Nurse & Sacrifice (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of an article published yesterday

“In the crowd of ambulances, army wagons, beef-cattle, staff officers, recruits, kicking mules and so on, who should turn up but Mrs. Arabella Barlow, nee Griffith, unattended, but serene and self-possessed as if walking down Broadway. She is nursing the colonel…and never looked so well. Talked like a sensible, practical, earnest, warm-hearted woman…”[i]

"The Field Hospital" by Eastman Johnson
“The Field Hospital” by Eastman Johnson

In the days following the Battle of Antietam, Arabella volunteered taking care of the wounded in Keedysville, Maryland, where her injured husband had been moved. His wound “in the groin by a piece of shell” was “an ugly looking wound, but not a serious one…painful and a long time in healing but does not endanger life or limb…”[ii] On the 19th of September, Colonel Barlow was promoted to brigadier general for his bravery in leading attacks during the recent battle. Though pleased with the promotion, it would be months before he returned to active duty.

Complications and a lengthy convalescence kept the new general confined to a bed or stretcher. As soon as possible, Arabella took Frank north where they spent the next months in a quiet home setting, venturing out to the visit friends as he recovered.

It was spring of 1863 before General Barlow rejoined the army, taking command of the Second Brigade of the Second Division of the XI Corps. It is likely that Arabella was nearby during the Battle of Chancellorsville, and she was definitely trailing the army with the Sanitary Commission during the Gettysburg Campaign.

Traveling north on the dusty roads in a supply wagon or some other horse-drawn vehicle, Arabella worried about the military situation. She had been present near the battlefield of the last Confederate invasion and the battles seemed to become more costly every month. Frank still was not in the best of health, and his patriotic impetuosity tended to put him in harm’s way. Then there was the concerning leadership flaw in her hero. Frank was clearly not impressed with the units he commanded in the XI Corps, and his sharp disciplinary actions and impatience were not particularly endearing him to his men.

Barlow's Knoll, Gettysburg, c. 1900 (LOC: LC-DIG-det-4a11026)
Barlow’s Knoll, Gettysburg, c. 1900
(LOC: LC-DIG-det-4a11026)

The Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1st. Though details from Arabella’s perspective are nonexistent, other primary sources hint and reveal her story. By the evening of July 1st, Arabella had arrived on the battlefield and was likely assisting in the chaotic medical situation on or near Cemetery Hill. The XI Corps had broken in the afternoon’s battle and was reorganizing in the area, but Frank was not with them…or if he was, he did not come see her. Perhaps she heard it by rumor or perhaps an officer brought her the news officially, but somehow she was informed: General Barlow was wounded, left on the field, and was a prisoner. Again, they said he was dying.

Arabella had saved Frank’s life once, and she determined to find him now – whatever the risks. Some legends claim she ran between the skirmish lines near Culp’s Hill, but it seems more reasonable she would’ve cross to the Confederate-held town under a flag of truce, later on July 1st or early the next day.

If a Confederate officer or surgeon was expecting her arrival, he wasn’t there to greet her. A Gettysburg civilian – Daniel Skelly – recalled “On the evening of the 2nd on Chambersburg Street 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 Barlow who had come through the Confederate lines under a flag of truce looking for her husband who had been severely wounded on July 1…”[iii] Relying on her own courage, Arabella searched the town for her general; it was dangerous mission. Snipers fired at anything moving in the Gettysburg streets, and the battle raged not far from town. When it was too dangerous to be on the streets, Arabella probably took refuge in a civilian home or assisted at one of the many hospitals.

A few long, frightening days later, Arabella did find Frank, probably at a home in the north end of Gettysburg. The house had been the headquarters for the Confederate Second Corps, and General Barlow had been moved there on July 2nd where “an elderly lady and her daughter were very kind to me. I found some books there and passed Thursday and Friday very comfortably… The ladies and some of our wounded in the house did what nursing I required.”[iv]

Though at least four surgeons had pronounced the abdomen-penetrating wound mortal, Arabella did not give up. She took “care of him, and of the other wounded, during the dreadful days that followed, during which the sufferings of the wounded from the intense heat, and the scarcity of medical and other supplies were almost incredible, and altogether indescribable.”[v] By the beginning of August, she had moved Frank to Baltimore, and a surgeon had removed the bullet. Frank – probably guided by his wife’s optimism – wrote that he expected to recover quickly, but nerve and internal damage created another long and painful recovery, absenting him from the army until the following spring.

During the Overland Campaign while General Barlow led the First Division of the II Corps and coordinated fierce attacks, Arabella stationed herself in Fredericksburg, a hospital town filled with the casualties of the battlefield blood-baths. Bravely independent, Arabella got the nickname “the raider” for her expeditions. “At Fredericksburg she had in some way gained possession of a wretched-looking pony, and a small cart or farmer’s wagon, with which she was continually on the move, driving about town or the country in search of provisions or other articles as were needed for the sick and wounded… Many a fractured limb rest upon a mattress improvised from materials sought out and brought together from no one knew where but [that] earnest sympathizing woman.”[vi] Later in the campaign, she followed the II Corps and was near the Cold Harbor battlefield and various locations along the James and Petersburg lines.

City Point was a busy supply base during the Petersburg siege. Scenes like this were familiar to Mrs. Barlow
City Point was a busy supply base during the Petersburg siege. Scenes like this were familiar to Mrs. Barlow.

By the time the Union armies settled in the vicinity of Petersburg and launched futile summer assaults, Arabella Barlow was sick. So sick that Frank sent her to Washington City to stay with friends and recover. “I perfectly long to get home… Arabella is sick in Washington & I fear seriously. She is all run down with fever.”[vii]

On July 15th General Barlow reported to his mother that Arabella’s fever had broken. As he wrote confidently and tried to convince himself everything would be alright, he did not know Arabella was still fighting for life. Typhoid was a ravaging disease, and, exhausted from her months of hospital service, she did not have the physical strength to survive. On July 27, 1864 – while her husband distractedly oversaw an attempted military maneuver at Deep Bottom – Arabella Wharton Griffith Barlow died quietly in a military hospital in Washington.

Arabella Barlow's Grave (Photo by Penny Colman, featured on FindAGrave)
Arabella Barlow’s Grave
(Photo by Penny Colman, featured on FindAGrave)

“You say I am getting familiar with death,” wrote Miss Helen Gibson, a nurse who had worked with Arabella near Petersburg, “Yes; but death wears its most solemn aspect when it touches our individual lives. Sometimes it makes terrible voids in our hearts. I groaned aloud last night, so heavy was my heart when I knew I should not again see Mrs. Barlow.”[viii]

While the news of her death deeply affected friends, it “entirely incapacitated” Frank.[ix] He took a short leave of absence to mourn and bury his wife, but later gave up his command and retreated to Europe for several months. He never forgot her, but he chose not to write or talk about “Belle,” leaving friends to write moving tributes and memorials.

And so, when he received the telegraph and turned away from his staff officers, he shut out prying eyes and curious minds from his grief. So many memories of her beautiful constancy and self-sacrifice, of her bright and genial companionship, of her rich and glowing sympathies, of her warm and loving nature, come back to me, that I feel how inadequate any tribute I could pay her is worth.[x] His comrades saw grief’s effects, and his troops feared he would lose his mind. Belle had been his quiet strength and inspiration. She was the love of his early life. She saved him twice when medical authorities thought it wasn’t possible. Many commanders died in the service of their country, making an ultimate sacrifice for their patriotism. General Barlow was fated to live; the sacrifice demanded of him was his beloved wife.


[i] Eileen F. Conklin, Women at Gettysburg, 1863, Revisited (2013), page 22.

[ii] Christian G. Samito (Editor) “Fear Was Not In Him”: The Civil War Letters of Major General Francis C. Barlow (2004), pages 116-117.

[iii] Eileen F. Conklin, Women at Gettysburg, 1863, Revisited (2013), page 19.

[iv] Christian G. Samito (Editor) “Fear Was Not In Him”: The Civil War Letters of Major General Francis C. Barlow (2004), page 164.

[v] Eileen F. Conklin, Women at Gettysburg, 1863, Revisited (2013), page 19.

[vi] Eileen F. Conklin, Women at Gettysburg, 1863, Revisited (2013), page 23.

[vii] Christian G. Samito (Editor) “Fear Was Not In Him”: The Civil War Letters of Major General Francis C. Barlow (2004), page 207.

[viii] Eileen F. Conklin, Women at Gettysburg, 1863, Revisited (2013), page 24.

[ix] Richard F. Welch, The Boy General: The Life and Careers of Francis Channing Barlow (2003), page 180.

[x] This quote was written by Dr. W.H. Reed, a friend of General & Mrs. Barlow. Richard F. Welch, The Boy General: The Life and Careers of Francis Channing Barlow (2003), page 182.

11 Responses to Arabella Barlow: A General’s Wife, Nurse & Sacrifice (Part 2)

  1. Another fantastic post Sarah Kay Bierle. The magnitude of suffering and sacrifice in this war can scarcely be appreciated at our remove. Here we get an affecting glimpse. Please keep them coming.

  2. Which i s why the truth about the Civil War is so much better than any fictional stories! Thanks, Sarah!

  3. I greatly enjoyed this two part series on the Barlows. The two main references here, Barlow’s letters and the biography of Barlow, are excellent sources for anyone looking to study the Siege of Petersburg. Barlow was an interesting character, respected but not loved. I was just rereading John Horn’s book which covers, in part, the Second Battle of Deep Bottom. In that mid-August battle, especially on August 14, Barlow performed poorly. When you read this two part series and realize his wife died only a few weeks earlier, it really puts things in perspective.

    1. Glad to hear you enjoyed the series. Certainly Barlow wasn’t performing well during the Deep Bottom “campaign” – in addition to worry and grief, he was also very ill. When he resigned, he admitted to battling dysentery for about 7 weeks. Poor guy…

  4. Arabella is such an interesting figure as is her relationship with Francis Barlow. After the war Francis would marry a sister of Robert Gould Shaw. Nice article. I wish there was more extant information about Arabella.

    1. Yes, I wish there was more information about Arabella too.
      Francis Barlow’s post-war career is pretty amazing; his sense of honesty and justice made him a “misfit” in the political machines, but his integrity was without question. Maybe I’ll do a post on his politics later in the year. His friendship with the Shaw Family and his marriage to Ellen Shaw is also interesting; I’d love to know more about his post-war family life, but haven’t found extensive details yet.

  5. Barlow was #1 in his Harvard graduating class in 1855. Charles Russell Lowell was #1 in his Harvard class in 1854. Lowell would marry a sister of Robert Gould Shaw, Josephine, in October 1863. Lowell was killed while leading the Reserve Cavalry Brigade of the Army of the Shenandoah at the Battle of Cedar Creek, October 19, 1864. Josephine would have their daughter after his death. Lowell is another very interesting figure.

    1. Sharon, I’ve heard Lowell’s name, but didn’t know much about him. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing. I’m thinking the ladies of the Shaw family deserve some good research. 🙂

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