Original images lie in bins at the antique stores, offered for cheap prices. Many are photographs of women, and upon closer examination there is no writing or markings to identify the sober faced ladies. Their hairstyles and clothing give clues for the date of the photograph, but who are they? Unlabeled photographs of Civil War women are a mystery to me, especially when I have not been able to find archived images of the women I am studying. Could that be her photograph lying unmarked and priced for a dollar?
I have been working on a lengthy research project focusing on the life of Arabella W. Griffith Barlow. She is a woman who has many names in the historical records. Miss Griffith. Arabella Griffith Barlow. Mrs. Colonel Barlow. Mrs. General Barlow. Belle. After much deliberation, I decided to call her Arabella in this article and in a presentation; stripping away her social titles lets us remember and “see” her more clearly as an independent woman.
In Civil War history, she is usually first remembered as Union General Francis C. Barlow’s wife. But she had a life and history of her known both prior to and during the war. In the conflict years, she volunteered as a nurse with the United States Sanitary Commission, finding ways to be close to the battlefields which allowed her to attend to her badly wounded husband on two occasions.
As I worked with primary sources, I wanted to know what Arabella looked like. No one really seemed to describe her appearance or features in detail, but her character and personality were often noted. For example, in 1855, George Templeton Strong of New York noted that she was “certainly the most brilliant, cultivated, easy, graceful, effective talker of womankind, and has read, thought and observed much as well.” A Union surgeon remembered “her sparkling wit, her brilliant intellect, her unfailing good humor…”
In November 1861, New York diarist Maria Lydig Daly made some catty remarks about Arabella, journaling that when Colonel and Mrs. Barlow came to visit, the servant announced there was a “young soldier and his mother” in the parlor. Daly often focused her remarks on the couple’s age difference. (Arabella was ten years older.) However, in the same entry, she noted that Arabella looked well, content, and that marriage “agreed” with her.
I had almost come to the conclusion that Arabella’s photograph did not exist, that it hid deep in an archive, or had landed in the unfortunate pile of unmarked images now sold cheaply at antique stores. Then, I had an unexpected surprise.
A friend gifted me the book Warrior Generals which looks at the military actions and leadership of six Civil War commanders; Barlow is one of the six. Imagine my surprise to find an image of Arabella! Reproduced and cited, the sketch had been done by Winslow Homer during the Civil War years. Historically, that made sense. Arabella had been acquainted with the artist in antebellum New York City, and Homer actually created a Civil War painting (Prisoners from the Front) and features General Barlow.
The sketch is really lovely. Facial details are difficult to discern because it is not a detailed sketch. Here is a woman in her late thirties, dressed fashionably for travel. She might have a matronly appearance, but not the middle-aged to elderly look that Mrs. Daly wanted to see. The hat perched on her head was a fashionable style, and the long cloak hints that this could have been either sketched in winter or it could be the folds of a traveling dress. There is subtle hints of movement in the sketch. Her head is held high, and this woman is ready to go.
Throughout her life, Arabella accepted traditional feminine roles, but she pushed the boundaries within those roles. Well educated but virtually alone in the world due to a family break-up and deaths, she found a way to support herself respectably in middle and upper class New York City society where she worked as a governess. Even marriage in her late thirties and to a man several years her junior pushed the social norms and made the jealous resort to critical remarks.
The Civil War opened new doors of opportunity for service outside the home and with no household or children of her own, Arabella quickly found ways to live near her husband’s headquarters or volunteer as a field hospital nurse. Primary sources hint that she was always busy doing good things, always on the move. Her husband’s letters mention her war era travels and she moves from city to city in the north, taking care of his mother, handling their business affairs, looking after sick soldiers.
The sketch seemed like enough research happiness for one year. I counted it as a major breakthrough in my Barlow research, even though it had clearly been discovered before. Then, one evening…I paged through a book of color tinted Civil War photographs. I was more focused on trying to decide if I like this style of colorizing old Civil War classics, when I spotted a familiar image of Sanitary Commission volunteers. I’ve probably seen that image a hundred times. I’ve noticed the women in it, but haven’t seen it captioned with identification. This book’s caption had the usually notes but said the photograph location was Fredericksburg during the spring 1864. That set off the alarm bells in my mind. Arabella was in Fredericksburg taking care of the wounded during the early part of the Overland Campaign, and she had been working with the Sanitary Commission at that time. Could she one of the ladies in the photograph?
Honestly, I saw the image and caption on the night before I hosted a history conference, and the late hour meant I needed to go to bed, not follow up a research rabbit trail. The next evening I talked with a friend who has spent years studying the Sanitary Commission and asked her if she any further details about that photograph. She immediately know which image I referred to, but didn’t know the photographer or details. But she had internet connection on her phone and offered to check Library of Congress’s catalog.
There, in the photo caption on Library of Congress the women in the photograph were identified from a noted source. The woman on the far left is “Mrs. General Barlow.” Again, she wears that practical, traveling style dress.
History tells us that she was on the move in 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 country in search of provisions or other articles as were needed for the sick and wounded. The surgeon in charge had on one occasion assigned her the task of preparing a building, which had been taken for a hospital, for a large number of wounded who were expected immediately… It was empty, containing not the slightest furniture or preparation for the sufferers, save a large number of bedsacks, without straw or material to fill them…. A quantity of straw was obtained, but not nearly enough for the expected need, and we were standing in a kind of mute despair, considering if it were indeed possible to secure any comfort for the poor fellow expected, when Mrs. Barlow came in. ‘I’ll find some straw,’ was her cheerful reply, and in another moment she was urging her tired beast toward another part of town where she remembered having seen half a bale of the desired article…”
Frederickburg and the field hospitals of the Overland Campaign pushed Arabella to her limits. In words of a surgeon who worked with her during this period:
“Her exhausting work at Fredericksburg…left but a small measure of vitality with which to encounter the severe exposures of the poisoned swamps of the Pamunky and the malarias districts of City Point. Here, in the open fields, she toiled…under the scorching sun, with no shelter from the pouring rains, with no thought but for those who were suffering and dying all around her. On the battlefield of Petersburg, hardly out of range of the enemy, and at night witnessing the blazing lines of fire from right and left, among the wounded, with her sympathies and powers of mind and body strained to the last degree, neither conscious that she was working beyond her strength, nor realizing the extreme exhaustion of her system, she fainted at her work and found, only when it was too late, that the raging fever was wasting her life away. It was strength of will which sustained her in this intense activity….”
Francis Barlow sent his wife north, saying “Arabella is sick in Washington + I fear seriously. She is all run down with a fever.” But she seemed to recover and by July 6, she had come back to his headquarters near Petersburg. Before long though, it was clear that she suffered a relapse – or had entered another dangerous cycle of typhoid fever’s phases – and he sent her north again, this time in the care of a doctor. By July 15 word had reached the general and he felt confident that “she will be well again.” Sadly, Arabella did not recover from the illness. She died quietly in Washington D.C. on July 27, 1864, leaving behind a devastated husband and doctors and nurses who cried when they heard the news.
Is the Fredericksburg photograph the last image of Arabella Barlow? Probably. And it reveals how she appeared as she worked alongside the doctors and nurses during the final weeks of her life. Looking closely, the woman in the photograph looks tired, but she has a half-smile on her face. She seems satisfied, knowing that she is making a difference, saving lives. Her hair is styled neatly, but the fashionable hat from the Homer sketch is not here. Her dress is that traveling style and interestingly it looks like she is wearing a stiffly corded petticoat or a cage crinoline; it is possible that she put it on for the photograph since most women did not wear those full skirts while working in hospitals. (One of the other women in the photograph also appears to be wearing a hoop or cage crinoline.) Arabella’s white collar is particularly noticeable, perhaps hinting that feminine details were still important to her. She turns slightly from the camera and stands while the other ladies and gentlemen sit. Could she have been passing by with her “wretched pony and cart” and they called her to “get in the photograph” when she had something else she needed to do? Although she is still, there is that sense that she will move rapidly and with purpose as soon as the photograph process is finished.
Arabella Griffith Barlow was a woman who moved. Though social circles to battlefield field hospitals or from city to city, she always had a purpose and a goal. To find her sketch and image merely increases our understand of this woman who helped push the boundaries of women’s roles. Perhaps it is significant that both images of her show her in a traveling style dress. Her actions also helped push the boundaries of women’s roles. Whether she traveled alone, decided to step ashore at Harrison’s Landing without permission, rode horseback through the town of Gettysburg, or rattling through Fredericksburg, Arabella actions were fueled by her purpose and compassion.