On The March: General Barlow & “Cowards, Stragglers and Shirkers”

General Francis C. Barlow

Mentioning Union General Francis C. Barlow gets a variety of reactions in the in-person setting or in virtual space. Over the years, I’ve made mental notes of the typical responses:

  1. Something about Barlow’s debacle at Gettysburg on Day 1
  2. Some sort of mention about the “4 Generals Photograph” from the Overland Campaign
  3. A story about Barlow and the stragglers – usually in a negative connotation

Barlow could be a brilliant commander or a walking disaster, and sometimes both in the same campaign. He could be kind and compassionate, and he could be a first class jerk. A stickler for order and discipline, he had little patience with cowards, German-Americans, or others who had somehow provoked his ire. However, he always had a reason (not always a good one, but a reason) for his actions, and once he had determined his course, he was likely to stick to it and never-mind the gossip, the dirty looks, or the controversy. While it’s unlikely he and “Stonewall” Jackson would’ve been friends, they seem to have had quite similar personalities and a tendency to fixate on relatively minor points of military precision. Overall, Barlow was effective in battle (Gettysburg and Deep Bottom aside), broke the Sunken Road at Antietam, eventually gained General Winfield S. Hancock’s trust, and could win the confidence of his soldiers…if and when he wanted it. By 1864, he commanded the First Division of the II Corps of the Army of the Potomac, and his provost guard became a unit of legendary infamy for keeping order on the march.

Theodore Lyman who served on General George G. Meade’s staff during the Overland Campaign of 1864 vaguely described the crime problems with stragglers and the difficulty that many officers had with punishments:

 “The waggoners and train rabble and stragglers have committed great outrages in the rear of this army. Some of the generals, particularly Birney and Barlow, have punished pillagers in a way they will not forget; and they will be shot if they do not stop outrages on the inhabitants. The proper way to stop the grosser acts is to hang the perpetrators by the road where the troops pass, and put a placard on their breasts. I think I would do it myself, if I caught any of them. All this proceeds from one thing — the uncertainty of the death penalty through the false merciful policy of the President. It came to be a notorious thing that no one could be executed but poor friendless wretches, who had none to intercede for them; so that the blood of deserters that was shed was all in vain — there was no certainty in punishment, and certainty is the essence of all punishment. Now we must reap the disadvantage in a new form. People must learn that war is a thing of life or death: if a man won’t go to the front he must be shot; but our people can’t make up their minds to it; it is repulsive to the forms of thought, even of most of the officers, who willingly expose their own lives, but will shrink from shooting down a skulker.[i]

Barlow was one of the exceptions to the observation that officers did not want to shoot cowards or stragglers. Throughout his war service, Barlow had leadership problems and leadership growth. However, he consistently hated skulkers (or those he thought were acting cowards), but his methods of dealing with them changed over the war years.

In 1862 while colonel of the 61st New York, Barlow physically battered an enlisted man who took care of the officers’ horses and claimed to be ill one day to avoid combat. An eyewitness to the scene later wrote: “No doubt Barlow had noted the use this man had been put to [caring for the horses], and, where he believed a soldier was managing to escape danger and find a soft place, he always endeavored to make it as unpleasant for that man as possible. The Colonel was not in an amiable frame of mind…. He asked this man some questions which satisfied him he was a coward. His wrath broke out vehemently. He cursed and swore at him and called him a variety of unpleasant and detestable things and then he began to punch him with his fist wherever he could hit. Finally he partly turned him around, and gave him a hearty kick in the stern and said: “Damn you, get away from here! You’re not fit to be with my brave men.”[ii] The observer indicated that the incident provoked fear from his men rather than respect. Interestingly, the writer tried to make excuse for Barlow’s abusive behavior, saying, “I believe he [Barlow] did not know what personal, bodily fear was, and he had no consideration for a coward.”[iii]

The next year Barlow wasn’t physically punching cowards, but he had moved up in rank and had more disciplinary powers at his disposal. He moved to harsh measures, frequently skipping the escalation stages or lesser punishments for straggling. Barlow had a lot of serious leadership problems during his brief time with the XI Corps, and the march that culminated at Gettysburg was no exception. He placed officers under arrest for allowing their men to break ranks to get water, and at one point ordered, “Keep your men well together. Staff officers may even shoot down stragglers, and I demand the strictest discipline.”[iv] While military precision and discipline were important, Barlow may have taken his rules and enforcements to a ridiculous degree during his time with the XI Corps, especially on the road to Gettysburg.

Returning to the Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1864 after a lengthy recovery from his Gettysburg wound, Barlow had achieved better leadership skills and may have even had some personal character growth. On April 9 from his First Division of the II Corps, he wrote: “I think I have been successful in making a good impression. I have not lost my temper or spoken or acted hastily to anyone + though I am thought strict I think I am well liked.” Unlike the previous year when he blissfully believed the XI Corps liked him, his II Corps soldiers did have respect.

During the Overland Campaign, Barlow kept his division well-formed on the march and used the provost guard to keep order. Theodore Lyman observed the provost guard at work on June 13, 1864:

We kept on, on the flank of the column, admiring its excellent marching, a result partly due to the good spirits of the men, partly to the terror in which stragglers stand of Barlow. His provost guard is a study. They follow the column, with their bayonets fixed, and drive up the loiterers, with small ceremony. Of course their tempers do not improve with heat and hard marching. There was one thin, hard-featured fellow who was a perfect scourge. “Blank you! — you —” (here insert any profane and extremely abusive expression, varied to suit the peculiar case) “get up, will you? By blank, I’ll kill you if you don’t go on, double-quick!” And he looked so much like carrying out his threat that the hitherto utterly prostrate party would skip like the young lamb. Occasionally you would see a fellow awaiting the charge with an air of calm superiority, and, when the guard approached, pull out the aegis of a “surgeon’s pass.” The column marched so fast that I was sent forward to tell General Barlow to go more gently.[v]

During the campaign, the “cowards” that Barlow’s provost guard collected were subjected to punishments not readily practiced in other divisions. Shortly after the fighting at North Anna, Barlow had ordered the guard to “thrash” the shirkers, believing this would be a valuable example. Another time during the fighting at Cold Harbor, Barlow put the stragglers in custody in an open field under enemy artillery fire.[vi] While he may not have personally been punching cowards or making petty arrests, Barlow’s dislike continued.

Through the accounts, it may be helpful to make some distinctions about who was getting the brunt of Barlow’s anger and the provost guard actions:

  1. Cowards in battle (soldiers who intentionally left/avoided the battle lines under pretext)
  2. Criminal stragglers (soldiers wandering at the rear of the army or division and committing crimes of varying degrees usually against civilians)
  3. Other stragglers (soldiers not looking to commit crimes, but falling out of ranks for physical or mental reasons)

Under military considerations, Barlow was correct to try to prevent straggling which caused disorder on the march and could increase crime. His methods and punishments were extreme and other officers and his superiors had their doubts. However, not all stragglers fell out of ranks for ignoble purposes. As Dillon Carroll points out in his book Invisible Wounds, some soldiers chose straggler status to deal with the mental trauma of war.[vii] Taking time to sort their thoughts or maybe avoid one battle might give enough steadying time that they could stay for the rest of their service. How many soldiers trying to cope with mental trauma did Barlow’s methods and provost guard completely break?

Barlow’s dislikes carried into the post-war years when he vocally protested some of the pension plans for Union veterans. In his blunt language, he claimed “Many men who served in the army (who however large in numbers, were of course small as compared to the whole number of soldiers) did not render any such service as entitles them to any consideration. Mortifying as it is, and disagreeable as it is, the truth requires it to be stated that there were cowards, stragglers and shirkers in the army.”[viii]

What conclusions can be considered for Barlow’s disciplinary actions on the march? First, he took actual action on straggling, an issue that few of his peers wanted to address so directly. Second, his actions stemmed from a grimly pragmatic view that cowardice and disorder had to be punished — regardless of circumstance. Third, it is important to acknowledge the context that other officers found Barlow’s methods harsh and perhaps borderline abusive. Fourth, Barlow seems to have crafted a double-edged sword of both fear and a belief among the men that their officer respected their bravery; he would not keep “cowards” in the ranks to tarnish the brave soldiers’ success. Finally, the issue of stragglers and shirkers is a classic example of Barlow’s leadership strengths and flaws. He had targeted the rules and the necessity for keeping order on the march and in battle, but his methods were often overly harsh and often reactive to his personal temperament and possibly his own state of mind.


[i] Theodore Lyman, edited by Brooks D. Simpson, With Grant & Meade: From the Wilderness to Appomattox (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1994) Page 117.

[ii] Charles A. Fuller, Personal Recollections of the War of 1861. Page 27

[iii] Ibid., Page 27.

[iv] Francis C. Barlow, edited by Christian G. Samito, “Fear Was Not In Him” The Civil War Letters of Major General Francis C. Barlow (New York, Fordham University Press, 2004) Page 146.

[v] Theodore Lyman, edited by Brooks D. Simpson, With Grant & Meade: From the Wilderness to Appomattox (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1994) Page 117.

[vi] Richard F. Welch, The Boy General: The Life and Careers of Francis Channing Barlow (Kent, Kent State University, 2003) Page 146.

[vii] Dillon Carroll, Invisible Wounds: Mental Illness and Civil War Soldiers (Louisiana State University, 2021). Pages 88-91.

[viii] Richard F. Welch, The Boy General: The Life and Careers of Francis Channing Barlow (Kent, Kent State University, 2003) Page 244.

4 Responses to On The March: General Barlow & “Cowards, Stragglers and Shirkers”

  1. Sarah, I always was surprised that he wasn’t the target for friendly fire. A first class egocentric jerk.

  2. Very true Barlow was not well liked in the XI corps but he was a product of his New England upbringing. His opinions towards Germans was not uncommon in the Braham bunch. There are accounts by some soldiers in his command with the II Corps and commanding generals that he had earned the respect of some of the men under him.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!