Chapter Twelve 2
Chapter 12 – page 3
As soon as Francis Barlow became an officer, he wore his own version of military uniform: checked lumberjack-shirt with an unbuttoned uniform-coat over it, and, as seen in the various drawings, paintings and photographs of him, several different hats on different occasions. In 1864, Staff Officer Theodore Lyman said about Barlow:
“As we stood there under a big tree, a strange figure approached. He looked like a highly independent mounted newsboy. He was attired in a flannel checked shirt, a threadbare pair of trousers, and an old blue kepi.
From his waist hung a big cavalry sabre. His features wore a familiar sarcastic smile. It was General Barlow, commanding the 1st division of the 2nd corps, a division that for fine fighting cannot be exceeded in the army.”
The large cavalry sabre worn in place of the usual standard-issue officers’ sword was used by this mild-seeming general to good effect — on his own men. It was for whacking stragglers — using the flat edge, so as to cause great pain, but not lasting incapacitating injury. That this long, and very heavy sabre was nick-named “Old Wristbreaker” says something about its inefficiency as a battle-weapon.
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The problem of stragglers on the march had become an obsession with this brave and fearless leader, who seems to have been completely mystified by any man who did not share his love of battle. In what looks like the ultimate in compulsive behavior, Barlow finally had a company of men bring up the rear with bayonets fixed and orders to drive the division forward. He wasn’t reckless with the lives of his men, (although possibly he was with his own,) training them to find hiding places among bushes and rocks to save themselves until he gave the command to follow him into the fray, but he certainly seems to have been indifferent to a soldier’s everyday suffering. He was regarded by at least one of his men as a “petty tyrant”.
This same soldier thought that, “With Barlow banished to the Antipodes,” (no doubt the farthest distance this man could contemplate) “our happiness would have been complete…… As taskmaster he had no equal. The prospect of speedy deliverance from the odious yoke of Billy Barlow filled every heart with joy.”
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Captain Charles Francis Adams wrote however, “I am more disposed to regard Barlow as a military genius than any man I have yet seen.”
Francis Channing Barlow was a distant cousin and close friend of Winslow Homer, who was one of America’s greatest 19th-century artists, and one of a small number of artists and photographers who recorded in picture form the scenes from the Civil War. Barlow and Homer’s brother had been classmates at Harvard. When Barlow’s regiment set off from New York at the beginning of the War, Winslow Homer went with them as an artist. His paintings in the main depict scenes of camp life subtly reflecting the loneliness and misery around him.
It is suspected that Barlow is in Homer’s Skirmish in the Wilderness but it is hard to be sure. Prisoners on the Front however, features Barlow as the main character. The occasion was the capture, by Barlow, of several thousand Southern troops at Spotsylvania, Virginia. The painting depicts General Barlow standing handsome, arrogant, and haughty before a small group of Southern captives. One of these prisoners faces Barlow, echoing his arrogant stance in obvious defiance. One stands meekly with his hands clasped, resigned to his fate. He is an older man, well in control of his feelings. A third soldier behind him is a very young country boy, who seems bemused. He is bent over slightly, making him appear shorter than he actually is. His uniform is ill-fitting, as if he has grown out of it, along with his recent childhood. Barlow’s uniform is immaculate, coat correctly buttoned, and long riding boots polished and shining.
The obvious departures from regulation issue are the long heavy sword hanging at his side and the strange little coachman’s low-crowned small-brimmed hat that is perched on his head. Winslow Homer, by one of those strange little coincidences that surround Billy Barlow, was the same artist who produced the lithograph of Sam Cowell, in what appears to be his Billy Barlow character, that features on the cover of the song, The Rat-Catcher’s Daughter. This means that Winslow Homer had the privilege of drawing two very different Billy Barlows.
IN THIS SECTION:
HEY HO RAGGEDY-O:
A Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon
(written by Joy Hildebrand)
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