“Face Us In The Right Direction”

Francis C. Barlow

The inky black darkness, slippery trail through the woods, and water droplets falling from the foliage added to the misery of the night march over unfamiliar terrain on the night of May 11, 1864. The marching column halted frequently in this maneuver from the right flank to the center of the Union lines, and the weary soldiers tumbled to ground for a few moments of sleep before the plodding progress resumed. They were “worn out by loss of sleep and the terrible nervous and physical strain they had endured during the past eight days…” according to one of the officers.

From The Wilderness through the march along Brock Road, fighting across the Po River, and now moving to prepare for a massive assault on the following morning, the First Division of the Federal II Corps had endured a brutal beginning to the Overland Campaign. The worst still lay ahead, in the new place they stumbled toward in the darkness.

At the head of the column, the division commander—General Francis C. Barlow—rode with two of his brigade commanders and two staff officers from II Corps headquarters. He asked probing questions, trying to find out more about the planned morning’s assault, but the staff officers had very little information for the division and brigade commanders. Finally, he gave up in frustration, laughed at the ignorance of his “guides”, then declared: “For Heaven’s sake, at least, face us in the right direction, so that we shall not march away from the enemy, and have to go round the world and come up in their rear.” For better or worse, he would get his wish.

By about 12:30 in the morning of May 12, the marching column had arrived and filed into position. Barlow went to the Brown house, where he found General Hancock, commander of the II Corps, and the other other division commanders waiting. When the council of war began, Barlow found out that his division was expected to lead the II Corps assault, but there was not much else information:

“What is the nature of the ground over which I have to pass?”
“We do not know.”
“How far is it to the enemy’s line?
“Something less than a mile.”
“What obstructions am I to meet with, if any?”
“We do not know.”
“Well, have I a gulch a thousand feet deep to cross?”
“We do not know.”

Uncertainty prevailed, but decisions had to be made. Barlow said he would form his division in two columns, instead of traditional battle lines. The others questioned the idea, suggesting the columns could be decimated by artillery. Barlow responded, “If I am to lead this assault I propose to have men enough, when I reach the objective point, to charge through Hell itself and capture all the artillery they can mass in my front.” Eventually, Hancock conceded.

Though he won the decision points in the war council, Barlow was far from pleased or confident as he returned to his division. One of his officers later remembered, “I never remember seeing General Barlow so depressed as he was on leaving Hancock’s headquarters that night; he acted as if it was indeed a forlorn hope he was to lead. His voice was subdued and tender as he issued his orders to the staff, for the formation of the command; very different from the brusque and decided manner usual for him…”

By 4:35 in the morning of May 12, all would be ready. The troops faced in the right direction. Across an open, rolling field and obscured by ground fog, the Confederates waited in the “Mule Shoe Salient” trenches, soon to be called The Bloody Angle.

******

I don’t know if I would have described Francis C. Barlow as a very “quotable general.” Many of his “quotables” are a bit harsh or heavy with sarcasm, not usually elegant or eloquent. But in the last eight weeks, I have quoted him more and more frequently—sometimes in actual conversation, sometimes to a silent, empty apartment, or sometimes just mentally. This quote from the night march of May 11 about facing the right direction feels particularly relevant and has been my “survive-the-moment” phrasing.

Somehow, it captures my mood. Thanks to COVID-19, pretty much everything feels upended, cancelled, or confused. It’s not clear where this “night road” ends or even how I should be planning to attack next week. And that’s where the quote comes: when nothing else is clear, just point me in the right direction and then I’ll have to figure it out as time passes.

Sources:

Barlow, Francis C. “The Wilderness Campaign,” The Wilderness campaign, May-June, 1864. Military Historical Society of Massachusetts. Accessed at: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924008090601&view=1up&seq=268 Pages 247-250.

Samito, Christian G. “Fear Was Not In Him”: The Civil War Letters of Major General Francis C. Barlow, USA. New York: Fordham University Press, 2004. Pages 190-197.

Welch, Richard F. The Boy General: The Life and Careers of Francis Channing Barlow. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2003. Pages 109-123.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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6 Responses to “Face Us In The Right Direction”

  1. Charlie Herbek says:

    Only one Union Officer could have moved 20,000 men through the “inky black darkness,” and attacked with overwhelming force right on time at 05:30hrs 12 May 1864, Winfield Scott Hancock, Grants go to commander from 5 May all the way to the outskirts of Richmond in June 1864.

  2. johncfazio says:

    “His voice was subdued and tender as he issued his orders to the staff…” Indeed, his “usual brusque and decided manner” was to say “Make your peace with God and mount gentlemen. I have a hot place picked out for you today”. As for capturing all the artillery, Barlow, Birney and Mott captured whatever Lee hadn’t previously ordered to be relocated, i.e. 18 guns, in addition to 30 flags and between 3,000 and 4,000 prisoners. Among the Confederates waiting was division commander John Brown Gordon, who later described the blue tide as looking like a “torrent over a broken mill dam”. That he faced Barlow in head to head combat is pure Greek tragedy, or scripted in Hollywood, because it was he who had saved Barlow’s life on the field at Gettysburg 10 months earlier, by ministering to him and arranging for his wife, Arabella, to come through his lines to be with him and to save him, which she did. (See Gordon’s Memoirs (Reminiscences of he Civil War), the post-war speech he gave all over the country (Last Days of the Confederacy), the July, 2009, issue of The Gettysburg Magazine, and Henry M. Field’s Blood is Thicker Than Water: A Few Days Among Our Southern Brethren.)

    • Stefani says:

      Been with Rob Orrison to the Wilderness. . This particular area weighed heavier on me than most and I stayed back to let Rib and my son talk . I was disturbed by the realities of this battle in a different way . I could here the screams of the wounded and the fire throughout the night .

  3. johncfazio says:

    With good reason, Stefani. After the initial Union thrust was spent and the gray drove the blue back to the original line (most of it), there followed 22 consecutive hours of unprecedented bloodletting, equal to or exceeding anything in the war in sustained savagery. So heavy was the firing that the minie’ balls all but chopped a good-sized tree in half. It still exists and there are plenty of photos of it. A Union soldier later wrote that “I never expect to be fully believed when I tell of the horrors of Spotsylvania”.

  4. Girl, I feel the same. Pertinent advice: “just face us in the right direction”. Drawing comfort, humor, or wisdom from history sometimes gives us the right push to keep on truckin’. Thanks for the post!

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