Union General Francis C. Barlow is not generally hoisted on a symbolic white horse in Civil War memory. He has a reputation in the secondary source books for harsh discipline and a prickly temperament. He seems to be more remembered for his flaws at Gettysburg than his success at Antietam or hard fighting in the Overland Campaign. Barlow is associated with his bad days and outbursts rather than his moments of better humanity. Perhaps rightfully, perhaps not.
I confess that is one of the things I like about studying Barlow, and I have been for about several years. He is far from a “marble man.” There’s a gritty rawness about his character and actions that doesn’t refine well in memory. There are moments to hate him and moments to admire him with all the complexity of real human life between.
Barlow had a prickly relationship with his subordinates and superiors. There are moments recorded where he apparently was rather caring, but most of the time it seems that people wanted to give him a lot of space. Perhaps a regimental writer from the 148th Pennsylvania Infantry summarized it well, saying: “He had made a record for bravery and fearlessness…and was accounted a good General; but I always tried to keep out of his way as much as possible.”[i]
It’s been said that how people treat animals—particularly horses—reveals much about their character. In the mid-19th Century, horses were rarely treated as fond pets; they were working animals and a means of conveyance. Still, many civilians and officers alike showed a liking for their animals in their writings. From the beginning of his officership, Francis Barlow had good and bad moments with his horses, long before the literal white horse entered the scene.
Modern writers have noticed some of the Barlow-Equestrian accounts. For example, novelist Ralph Peters created an interesting characterization in his work of historical fiction Hell or Richmond, emphasizing Barlow’s rough riding and using it to hint at other subjects and character issues:
(General Hancock’s perspective) Young Barlow would never make a cavalryman, and that was certain, too. He sat a horse well enough to lead an infantry division, but an old soldier could tell at a glance that the New Englander had never ridden the plains with the old dragoons before the war…. Riding up to Hancock’s position between the crossroads and the poor-man’s tavern, Barlow stopped his horse, saluted carelessly — as if he were the superior — and patted the animal’s neck. The beast’s mouth foamed. Barlow was hard on every living creature, and Hancock wondered how the boy got on with his matronly wife. Stonehearted Frank Barlow, with his crooked teeth and prodding talk? Did Barlow, too, have a soul behind those close-set, wintry eyes?[ii]
So what do we really know about Francis Barlow and his war horses? Did he really treat them any better or worse than the average officer? Can we draw any reasonable, non-fiction conclusions about his character from the horse stories or is that taking it a hoof too far?
During the winter of 1861-1862, Barlow had what he called a “hard horse.” On December 28, 1861, he declared: “I have just come back from a 16 mile ride. My horse is terribly hard but I have got so used to him [now] that I ride 20 miles without feeling it.”[iii] About a month later on January 30, 1862, the same horse appears again in Barlow’s letters. “I was thrown quite violently from my horse but not at all hurt & did not feel it the next day. It arose from my riding without stirrups which I shall not do again. I did not tell you I was thrown once before over his head from his falling down when I rode him at full speed down hill on a slippery morning. But I am much more careful now.”[iv]
By February 18, Barlow showed some practical compassion for the horse which had suffered a hoof injury. “I have not used my horse since he was hurt. It has been raining & we have had no drills & I have not needed him. The rest has done him good & Braman says I can use him when occasion requires, though it will be a month or two before his hoof is wholly healed.”[v] On March 15, Barlow went riding. “My horse slipped…& fell on my ancle [ankle]. It was not his fault as the ground was very slippery & I was spurring him by way of salutary punishment & holding him in at the same time.”[vi]
Clearly, Barlow, the “hard horse,” and slippery surfaces were not a good combination, and the colonel seemed to be trying to teach the horse some type of obedience with spurs and force. Though a harsh-looking picture of equine training, it’s not out of line or totally unexpected for horse management, especially in that era. There’s not much evidence that Barlow was a great horseman, but he presumably grew up around horses in the Massachusetts countryside. He and his brothers knew how to ride since they wrote about planning to ride around the camps, countryside, or to tourist destinations on horseback.
Presumably the “hard horse” went to the Virginia Peninsula with Barlow and the 61st New York Infantry Regiment in the spring of 1862. In one of the regiment’s early experiences under fire, Barlow turned to bragging about his horse, saying, “The horse went on beautifully & calmly & was not frightened at all & did not once shy. He seemed wholly unconcerned. After we got into our position I found I could not move readily about in the woods on horseback & so dismounted.”[vii] The compliment to the horse also mirrors how Barlow wanted to be perceived on the battlefield. A couple weeks later a horse—again presumably the “hard horse”—was mentioned in another letter: “Night before last my horse was shot under me & a ball passed through my coat. I have lost horse[,] saddle[,] blanket & all.”[viii]
Barlow purchased a replacement horse and wrote about it in a September 6th letter: “I bought a horse at our last Camp for $150…. She is a mare, rather small but admirably built & full of life. She has very good blood in her & is very fast. She is highly thought of by all who have seen her.” Appearance of the horse seemed to influence Barlow’s preferences which continues to reflect the image he created of himself as a leader on the battlefield.
For many of Barlow’s great attacks or significant moments under battlefield fire, he dismounted. For example, during the battle of Antietam, a friend remembered seeing Barlow “sitting on his horse at the head of his regiment” but then when going into the attack it is strongly implied he had dismounted since he “rushed up the hill at the head of his regiment…facing his men to cheer them, moving with such grace and elasticity, that it seemed as if he were dancing…”[ix]
The next year he was mounted at Gettysburg when he was wounded a second time, then dismounted, and tried unsuccessfully to walk toward town. In the surviving portion of his Gettysburg letter, Barlow did not specify what happened to the horse. It may have run off or been led to the rear. He did write in mid-August that “I have my horses at pasture at an expense of only $7 for both. It is better for them just now than living on grain as they are not used.”[x]
It’s not clear if Barlow dismounted for the attack on the Mule Shoe Salient during the battle of Spotsylvania Court House in May 1864. Personally, I think he was on foot part of the time and mounted at other times that morning. Then, as the Overland Campaign slogged further south that spring with the II Corps of the Army of the Potomac taking heavy losses at most battles, a new horse appeared in Barlow’s story.
In June 1864 after the battle at William’s Farm (near Petersburg) which incurred more heavy losses for the regiments in the II Corps, a “Confederate colonel was captured during the fight. He was mounted on a superb grey horse.”[xi] Captured horses became the property of the U.S. Army, but officers could purchase particular animals for their own use. On June 23, Barlow wrote to his mother about the captured colonel “who had a fine (for the Army) white mare which I shall buy. He wanted to give it to me, but I refused.”[xii]
Evidenced by some of his letters during the Overland Campaign and other primary sources, Barlow slipped into a bad frame of mind. While nearly impossible to diagnose from primary sources, there are certain phrases in his writings from that campaign which—when combined with some of his actions—tend toward signs of combat fatigue, depression, post-traumatic stress, or possibly some other form of nervous or mental breakdown. Perhaps the safest conclusion is simply in his own words: “I long for this damned Campaign to be over…”[xiii] and “Nothing can be worse than the life here for the last week.”[xiv] Sentiments echoed by hundreds of other enlisted men and officers during the Overland Campaign.
And yet, in the midst of his gloom and a difficult military situation, Barlow had his new horse. “The splendid animal became very fond of the General and would follow him around the camp begging for the lumps of sugar that the General would be pretty sure to have in his pocket with which to treat his equine friend.”[xv] There’s something slightly charming and certainly humanizing about the thought of strict and severe Francis Barlow getting followed by an inquisitive mare around camp. Maybe the horse poked its head into the headquarters tent? Maybe the horse pawed at the ground outside his sleeping quarters tent where he often retreated to divest clothing in the extreme Petersburg heat?
Most likely the horse just had a big sweet-tooth, but maybe—just maybe—she sensed his unhappiness and with equine instinct trailed the martinet general. Modern studies show the sensitivity of horses to human emotion, especially for those living with traumatic memories or deep sadness. Certain horses will willingly seek out struggling humans and offer that wordless companionship and strength. There is no way to say with any certainty that’s what happened with Barlow’s white horse in 1864, but horse sense is horse sense and it’s not an entirely impossible scenario either.
Thus far in research, there isn’t more about the white horse. The mare could have been ridden in campaign or battle. The horse may have been a witness on the day Barlow got the news that his wife had died or been nosing around headquarters a couple weeks later when Barlow was carried on a stretcher to a hospital, too ill to sit or walk. The white mare might have been sold to another officer or perhaps sent to pasture somewhere while Barlow fought a physical and emotional battle to recover. He did briefly return to military service during the Appomattox Campaign in the spring of 1865, but thus far no horse details have surfaced in the primary sources.
Perhaps it is taking it a bit too far to draw solid conclusions from the fragments of primary sources about Barlow and his horses. He had difficulties with his “hard horse”—though some of those problems he created through bad judgment and for once admitted. He liked a solid horse for the days he rode into battle so he could present that image of courage and steadiness to his men and his superior officers. However, evidence suggests that Barlow did not ride into every battle or always stay mounted when he got into closer combat. Then, the white mare brought a hint of mischief to the wearying and disturbing Overland Campaign.
Barlow had a white horse, but his character strengths and flaws—somewhat evidenced in the harsher and quirky stories about his horses—made it difficult for memory and historiography to decide how to judge him. Too complex to fit a hero stereotype and yet too successful on the battlefield for Union veterans to allow excessive character bashing in their post-war writing***, Barlow has yet to ride the white horse in Civil War memory. Maybe that’s better, though. The conquering-posed bronzed idols of both sides are difficult to re-imagine as generals on foot, followed through camp by a curious horse looking for sugar cubes. Barlow is on foot in memory, and I don’t think that’s a bad place to find him. We don’t have to coax him off the pedestaled horse in our minds. Perhaps the bigger question is why he never got on memory’s horses to begin with—and that is the story of his life that is worth tracing and untangling.
Notes & Sources
***I differentiate between post-war veterans’ writings and what was written in private letters or diaries during the war. All in all, the war era writings are fairly mixed in praise and complaining, but Barlow did accrue a lot of hatred (and rather justifiably) from the soldiers of the XI Corps, particularly between May and July 1863.
[i] Joseph Wendel Muffly, The Story of Our Regiment: A History of the 148th Pennsylvania Regiment. (1904) Accessed through Google Books. Page 349.
[ii] Ralph Peters, Hell or Richmond (Forge Books, 2014). Page 113.
[iii] 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 33
[iv] Ibid., 44.
[v] Ibid., 46
[vi] Ibid. 55.
[vii] Ibid., 71
[viii] Ibid., 90
[ix] Ibid., 115
[x] Ibid. 170
[xi] St. Clair A. Mulholland, The Story of the 116th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry. (1899). Accessed through archive.org Page 245.
[xii] 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). Pages 205-206
[xiii] Ibid., 199
[xiv] Ibid., 206
[xv] 116th 245