Chapter Twelve 3

Hey Ho Raggedy-O


Chapter 12 – page 4


The Barlow/ Gordon Incident


One of the most romantic stories to come out of the Civil War concerns General Barlow. It is questionable in some of its details, unfortunately in the more colourful parts, but it is still worth the telling, especially in its overwrought form. The basic facts are that General Francis Channing Barlow led his troops into the battle of Gettysburg on the 1st of July 1863 with the usual enthusiastic but cool efficiency for which he is remembered. On the first day of this three-day battle, Barlow positioned his men on a little hillock (now named for him as Barlow’s Knoll) well forward of the rest of the Union army, and in the midst of enemy territory. To be fair, it seems that he was misinformed about just how vulnerable this position was.

General Barlow

During the afternoon, the Southern army advanced in an unstoppable wave, and Barlow was left valiantly trying to rally his fleeing men. Within minutes, he was shot from his horse. His main wound was so serious — a ball through his side that passed close enough to his spinal cord to paralyse him — that he was left, apparently dying, in the very midst of the battlefield. Through either respect for his bravery, his rank, or just through good luck, he was helped or carried to the shade of trees by enemy soldiers. Union soldiers who had tried to carry him to safety had to be ordered by Barlow to leave him and save themselves.

After being taken to a farm house, he was treated by Confederate Army surgeons, but was left for dead, or, by one account, exchanged, by the retreating Southern army on the 4th of July. He was transported to a military hospital by his own side and, miraculously, eventually recovered, and survived the War, although sadly his wife Arabella didn’t. She died of typhus (or typhoid) in 1864 at the military hospital where she worked as a nurse.
On the 7th of July, from his hospital bed, Barlow wrote a letter to his mother, dispassionately, and in great detail, describing his escape from death, and naming the enemy officer who helped him.

” ….. Finally the enemy came up and were very kind, Major Pitzera, Staff officer of Gen. Early had me carried into the woods and placed on a bed of leaves. They put some water by me and then went on to the front again.”

An exaggerated and delightfully Victorian version of the tale comes from John B Gordon, who wrote it into his book, Reminiscences of the Civil War. It is noteworthy that the story in this form did not appear until well after the event. It was printed in abbreviated form in the Dublin Post, Dublin, Georgia (not the Irish Dublin) on March the 19th 1879. It appears, mostly, in Gordon’s own words. At the battle of Gettysburg, John Gordon was a General in the Confederate Army. He was of the same rank as Barlow, and had also been a lawyer before enlisting.

General Gordon

After the War, he became a Senator and a keen promoter of reunification of the country. The ornately decorated language of which he was very fond, and the embellishment of his stories, became his trademarks. He went on lecture tours discoursing on his favourite themes of Brotherhood and Unity, using the incident at the Battle of Gettysburg as a prime example. His story was not fully developed as a lecture until after Barlow’s death in 1896.

As John B Gordon tells the story of the “Barlow/Gordon Incident”, he, Gordon, dismounted amidst the hail of bullets, and lifted the paralyzed and apparently dying enemy general up in his arms, and gave him a drink of water from his canteen. Like a helpful, if unlikely, denizen of the World of Faerie, Gordon asked Barlow if he had any last wishes. (Uncharacteristically, I would have thought,) the pale and beautiful dying youth said,
“I shall probably live but a short time. Please take from my breast pocket the packet of my wife’s letters and read one of them to me.”

This the good General Gordon did. No mean feat on the battlefield. Barlow then, for some reason — did he worry that his men might think him soft? — asked that all the letters be destroyed. Gordon tore them up on the spot, and then, true to the tradition of Faerie, he offered to grant the third and final wish. Barlow chose to have his wife Arabella sent for. In some of Gordon’s versions of the tale, Barlow, sure of his appointment with the Death Angel, asked merely that Arabella be told that he died bravely, giving his life for his country and thinking of her.

Barlow was then taken by Gordon’s orders to the shade of the woods. Gordon continued with the battle, pausing briefly to send word to Arabella, and to arrange for her safe conduct through enemy lines. This was achieved, and she was able to nurse her dear husband back to full recovery. It is not recalled how she felt about her tender, naughty(?) declarations of love being sent to the four winds amid the smoke of the battlefield of Gettysburg.

Barlow and Gordon

Many years later, while attending a dinner in New York, the two former enemy generals met again. Gordon had always assumed that Barlow was dead, and Barlow supposedly had heard about the death of Gordon’s cousin — who was also J. B. Gordon — and thought the deceased was his old adversary from Gettysburg. So delighted and amazed were the two men, that they remained closely bonded until the actual death of Barlow parted them, this time forever.

Of the first telling of the story the Dublin Post (in Georgia) said:

“The hearty greeting which followed the touching story, as related to the interested guests by General Barlow, and the thrilling effect upon the company can better be imagined than described.”

And so say all of us !

Aside from the fact that General “Billy” Barlow never made any comment whatsoever, as far as anyone knows, about his Gettysburg meeting with Gordon, or about the subsequent reunion, there are other problems with the Barlow/Gordon tale: Arabella’s part in it all is under suspicion, for example, mainly because it seems strange that Barlow did not mention her in his very detailed letter to his mother, written on the 7th of July. Some confederate soldiers helpfully recalled seeing a lady travel past them at about the right time, in a carriage carrying a white flag.

One David Skelly said he saw a lady he understood to be Arabella on horseback passing through the enemy lines on the 3rd of July, but no conclusive official information has come to light about her movements at around the date of the Battle of Gettysburg.

None of the facts interfere, however, with the enjoyment of this touching story taken as an embroidered anecdote based on fact.

There’s a little Rosewood casket
Resting on a marble stand.
There’s a package of love-letters
Written by my True-love’s hand.

From Little Rosewood Casket by Louis Goullaud and C A White.

There is no evidence that Francis C Barlow took his Billy Barlow nick-name on into civilian life, where he became one of America’s most prominent lawyers. There is no evidence that he ever accepted or welcomed the famous name of Billy Barlow at all. It’s more than likely that he didn’t. If he had a sense of humour, it didn’t show in his official record, unless you count his treatment of stragglers on the march, which has more than a hint of black comedy. Nevertheless, as even a reluctant Billy Barlow, he earns a place in my book for his interesting exploits under the Billy Barlow name.





A Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon
(written by Joy Hildebrand)

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