This is not a love story ready-made for Hollywood. Rather, it is one more suited for a Shakespearean tragedy. Two newlyweds, on the day after their marriage, were separated by the call for troops in Mr. Lincoln’s War. As was true of so many Civil War couples, only one would survive the war. While you may be thinking to yourself that you’ve heard this story before (and perhaps many of you have), the tale of these two star-crossed lovers does not fit the typical narrative behind the vacant chair.
Francis Barlow and Arabella Griffith met in New York City shortly before the war. Francis, or Frank as his friends called him, graduated valedictorian of his class at Harvard before moving to New York to work as a lawyer and contributor for the New York Tribune. Arabella, nearly a decade older than Frank, moved to the city from rural New Jersey in 1846 to serve as a governess. She was not your average Victorian lady. Intelligent and bold, she soon affiliated herself with the high-class social circles of artists, politicians, and writers among New York elites. She even became good friends with George Templeton Strong, who described her as being “certainly the most brilliant, cultivated, easy, graceful, effective talker of womanhood.”
July 1, 1863. It is the first day of what will come to be known as the Battle of Gettysburg. Union forces, upon firing the first shot in the early morning hours of that Wednesday, were pushed back from their position near Herr’s Ridge and McPherson’s woods towards Cemetery Hill. Following orders given by Schurz, twenty-nine year old Brigadier General Francis Channing Barlow moved his division to the right of Schimmelfennig’s division and placed them on top of an elevated piece of land known as Blocher’s Knoll. The Eleventh Corps had yet to begin their retreat through Gettysburg, but they would soon after Barlow’s men extended the already thin line further north.
Attacking the knoll was Major General Jubal Anderson Early’s division, who arrived on the Eleventh Corps’ right flank in time to force their retreat into town. Seeing George Doles being pushed back, Brigadier General John Brown Gordon received orders to attack Barlow with his Georgians. The fighting became fiercer as Gordon descended upon the knoll, driving the Union troops back past the Almshouse and into the town. Barlow remained on the knoll as his men retreated, rallying them to form another line to attack, allowing enough time for a bullet from Gordon’s men to strike him. Dismounting his horse and desperately attempting to get out of the line of fire, Barlow worked his way to the rear, with two of his men offering their help. One eventually succumbed to a wound and fell, the other ran for safety. Barlow, now alone, was hit again, knocking him to the ground. Bleeding out, he remained there as the Confederates rushed the position on the knoll and pushed his division further and further into the town. Gordon approached Barlow, noticing the severity of his wounds and offered him water, recognizing the life draining from his face. Knowing he did not have much time left to live, Barlow asked Gordon to tell his wife he died in the front lines doing his duty to his country, and to destroy the letters he had on his person. Gordon found Mrs. Barlow near the end of July 1 and relayed the message to her under a flag of truce. His duty to Barlow over, and assuming he died on the field of battle, Gordon forgot about the man. Continue reading “A “friendship . . . born amidst the thunders of Gettysburg”: The Barlow-Gordon Incident”