Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign

By Gary W. Gallagher; Caroline E. Janney | Go to book overview

The Two Generals Who Resist Each Other

JOAN WAUGH

Winslow Homer’s painting Prisoners from the Front conspicuously featured his friend and distant cousin Union brigadier general Francis Channing Barlow (1834–96). Barlow’s figure symbolized the imminent U.S. victory over the rebellious Confederacy represented in human form by the three captives. The painting, not completed until after the war, was inspired by a series of sketches Homer made while observing the movements of the Federal army during the Virginia campaigns from April to August 1864. Some experts believe the sketches were made in mid-to-late May after the battle of Spotsylvania, where Barlow’s unit captured 3,000 Rebels. One contemporary critic described the Yankee officer as “the hard, firm faced New England man, without bluster, and with the dignity of life animated by principle.” When it debuted in April 1866 at New York City’s National Academy of Design, most northern viewers easily identified the baby-faced Barlow, one of the best-known “boy generals” of the Army of the Potomac, as the “moral center” of the picture.1 Strikingly self-confident, General Barlow gazes at the three Rebels—the defiant youthful cavalier, the worndown older man, and the humble yeoman farmer’s son—perhaps imagining how such a war-torn country would turn this trio of present enemies into reconstructed loyal citizens.

What combination of fate, character, and circumstance brought the young, New York-born, Massachusetts-bred, Harvard-educated lawyer and aspiring Republican politician to the Civil War battlefields and eventually to the killing fields of Cold Harbor and Petersburg? This essay will answer that question, providing ballast, background, context, and critical commentary fleshing out the idealized Barlow immortalized by Homer’s masterful work. After examining his family origins, education, and early war career, it will turn the spotlight on Barlow’s lowest point—from Cold Harbor in June through August of 1864 in Petersburg, Virginia. One thing should be made clear. The facts support a praiseworthy if controversial record. Barlow, a volunteer who rose from private in 1861 to major general in May 1865, and the troops he commanded distinguished themselves in

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