The American Civil War was a stimulus for many advances in medical and surgical care. These advances included the safe use of anesthetics during surgery, development of techniques for arterial ligation, use of quarantine for the virtual elimination of yellow fever and the establishment of large general hospitals. While assertions were made of surgery often being done without anesthetics and many unnecessary amputations, these may be overstated. Nonetheless, the care was provided in a time before sterile technique and the acceptance of germ theory. It is estimated that during the war twice as many soldiers died of disease as died from actual combat.1
The Civil War was also responsible for the acceptance and professionalism of nursing. At the start of hostilities in April 1861, there were no military nurses. Indeed, the term nurse was used in vague ways to cover a variety of untrained persons. Women’s experiences in nursing had typically occurred in home settings, rather than in hospitals, and, accordingly, the nursing care provided was more intuitive than formal. Members of Catholic religious orders were “trained” through apprenticeships with more experienced nursing sisters and memorization of guidelines for treatment of the sick.2
At the outbreak of the Civil War, hundreds of women responded to newspaper accounts of inadequate medical treatment in military camps and insufficient medical supplies. Despite their lack of education and experience, they volunteered to care for sick or wounded soldiers on the battlefields, in field hospitals and in makeshift hospitals removed from the battlefields. These volunteers included officers’ wives who had accompanied their husbands to the battlefield and also women who came to care for a wounded son or husband and remained to care for others.
One of these volunteers was Arabella Griffith Barlow.
Arabella Griffith Barlow was born in Somerville, New Jersey on February 29, 1824. Her father had trained as a physician but worked as a merchant. He became an alcoholic and experienced a collapse of his business affairs. Arabella’s parents separated and then divorced in 1826. Arabella then relocated to Burlington where she was raised by a relative, Eliza Wallace. She later attended St. Mary’s Hall in Burlington, which was established in 1836 by the Right Reverend George Washington Doane, second Episcopal Bishop of New Jersey. Unlike finishing schools intended to provide girls and young women with instruction concerning “proper behavior” and domestic skills, St. Mary’s Hall attempted to educate girls on an equal basis consistent with the classical academic education available at the best boys’ schools. (St. Mary’s Hall now includes a boys’ boarding school and is known as the Doane Academy.)
“As she grew up she developed remarkable powers. “
The following description of the young Arabella was published in 1867 shortly after the end of the Civil War:
As she grew up she developed remarkable powers. Those who knew her well, both as relatives and in the social circle, speak of her warm heart, her untiring energy, her brilliant conversational powers, and the beauty and delicacy of thought which marked her contributions to the press. By all who knew her she was regarded as a remarkable woman.3
Relocation to New York City
At the age of 22 in 1845 or 1846, Arabella moved from New Jersey to New York City where she became a governess. She quickly demonstrated that she was not an average young woman of the early Victorian age. She became affiliated with circles of artists, politicians and writers among the elite of New York City.4 Among the frequent participants in these gatherings was George Templeton Strong, a lawyer and noted diarist. Passages from Strong’s diary read aloud by George Plimpton were regularly featured in The Civil War, the 1990 PBS documentary series by Ken Burns. In his entry for March 29, 1855, Strong recorded the following observations:
Tea at the Lydigs’ tonight, where were the Rev. Mr. Weston and Miss Arabella Griffith, of whom I’ve heard so much from the Lydigs; certainly the most brilliant, cultivated, easy, graceful, effective talker of womankind, and has read, thought, and observed much and well.5
His diary has recurring references to Arabella over the next several years.
Among the artists in these New York social circles was the young Winslow Homer, regarded by many as the greatest American painter of the 19th century. He left his home in Massachusetts and settled in New York in 1859. In addition to opening his own art studio, he was employed as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly magazine. Through an artist friend, Homer met George Templeton Strong and began to attend the social gatherings and met Arabella. Later Homer was instrumental in introducing Francis Channing Barlow into these functions.
Courtship with Francis Channing Barlow and the Call to War
Known as “Frank,” Barlow was born in New York City on October 19, 1834. Like Arabella, his parents had a troubled marriage and eventually separated. At the age of two, he relocated to his mother’s native Massachusetts. Barlow and his family spent a number of years at the Brook Farm, an experimental Transcendental commune. The Brook Farm community and persons known to Barlow included such leading American intellectuals as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Barlow attended Harvard University and was the class valedictorian in 1855. At Harvard, Barlow was classmates with the older brother of Winslow Homer. He was a distant cousin of that family. Shortly after graduating, Barlow moved to New York and began to pursue a legal career. He was admitted to the New York Bar in 1858.
It is not clear how or when Arabella and Barlow met. Winslow Homer is believed to have played a significant role in the beginning of the relationship that permeated the rest of Arabella’s life by introducing her to Francis Barlow.6 Despite the approximate ten-year difference in age, the two were quickly attracted to each other. Barlow called her “Belle.” The romance blossomed, and on April 20, 1861, they were married at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City.
But the culmination of Barlow’s courtship was short-lived. Fort Sumter in South Carolina had been attacked on April 12-13, and President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers on April 15. Early on the wedding day of April 20, Barlow had responded to the call for volunteers and enlisted as a private in the 12th New York Volunteers. This was for a three-month period of service.
This is the entry George Templeton Strong made in his diary for April 22, 1861: “Barlow married Miss Arabella Griffith at St. Paul’s Chapel Saturday evening, left her at the church door, and went to Washington yesterday.”7
The 12th New York was assigned to a defensive perimeter around Washington, D.C. Its time there was spent in training and dress parades without engaging in any combat activities. Barlow had enlisted as a Private but was soon promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. In July, Arabella was able to travel to Washington for a brief visit with Barlow, which was cut short by the assignment of the 12th New York to the Shenandoah Valley to reinforce Union troops already deployed there. Despite being within a short distance of the Confederate force, the 12th New York was not engaged in any combat and was transported back to Baltimore. Barlow left the 12th New York without firing a shot or seeing any combat.6 He had become exasperated, frustrated and disgusted at army life and the conduct of the war. He did not reenlist when his initial tour of duty was completed.
After mustering out of the 12th New York Volunteers on August 1, 1861, Barlow had a brief period of civilian life, including a return to his law practice. He then re-enlisted in November but with the 61st New York Infantry Regiment. This was a three-year term of duty. He now had the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.6And in contrast to the 12th New York, Barlow was actively engaged in a number of battles, some of which were significant.
Sanitary Commission and Service at Battlefields
Not surprisingly, Arabella, who was described as “an ardent patriot,”8 did not remain unengaged in the war effort for long. Through her friendship with George Templeton Strong, she joined the United States Sanitary Commission, which was created by federal legislation approved by President Lincoln on June 18, 1861. It was a private relief organization that was a predecessor to the Red Cross and was modeled after the British Sanitary Commission, which had been set up by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War. Strong was one of the founders of the Sanitary Commission and remained its treasurer through the end of the war. The women volunteering for work with the Sanitary Commission provided direct service at field hospitals and camps, acting as nurses and performing other tasks. Others who remained at home raised money and helped manage the organization. The Sanitary Commission provided food, lodging and care for soldiers returning home from service.
Like many other women who felt that there must be more that they could do to support the war effort and in order to be near her husband, Arabella began work with the Sanitary Commission in July 1862.3 She was involved in the direct care of wounded soldiers, at times in hospitals but also on the battlefield following the conclusion of fighting. In 1862 through 1864, her Sanitary Commission service overlapped that of Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross.3 After the Wilderness Campaign in 1864, Arabella worked under Clara Barton’s supervision with responsibility for “special diet kitchens.”9
Arabella traveled to Harrison’s Landing in Virginia and arrived during the Peninsular Campaign of the Army of the Potomac, led at that time by General George McClellan, which spanned April to July 1862. The 61st New York had become part of the Army of the Potomac. It got its first taste of combat in the Battle of Fair Oaks also known as the Battle of Seven Pines, which concluded the Peninsular Campaign. This battle was a tactical draw.6
Winslow Homer was also at the Peninsular Campaign on assignment for Harper’s Weekly. He would become embedded with the Union Army and did many illustrations of battles and camp life throughout the war. After the war. he would later turn many of these sketches into oil paintings. This included his famous Prisoners from the Front done in 1866, which depicts Barlow with several Confederate soldiers captured on June 21, 1864, as part of the Battle of Petersburg.10 While Homer was in Virginia in 1862 to do illustrations of the Peninsular Campaign, Arabella was working in that area with the Sanitary Commission, and Homer did a sketch of her11 (see Figure 1).
Barlow’s stature as a combat leader grew following the involvement of the 61st New York in the Seven Days Battles fought near Richmond in June-July 1862. As of September 17, 1862, he was at the Battle of Antietam, which historians identify as the deadliest one-day battle in American military history. He fought at the site of the Sunken Road, now known as the Bloody Lane. During this battle, Barlow was injured. He was hit by artillery shot in the face and groin. A surgeon later removed the metal fragment from the wound, and this was kept by Arabella as a souvenir. She began to nurse her husband.
“Despite the seriousness of the injuries, Arabella showed much presence of mind, skill and devotion to his care.”
Arabella had arrived at the town of Sharpsburg near the Antietam Creek while the battle was still raging. As she put it in a letter to a friend, she arrived at the battlefield “just in time to see Col. Barlow carried off … ‘mortally wounded’ …”12 Despite the seriousness of the injuries, Arabella showed much presence of mind, skill and devotion to his care. George Templeton Strong was also at Sharpsburg. He made this entry in his diary for September 24, 1862:
At Sharpsburg, we found the little church used as a hospital … who should suddenly show up but Mrs. Arabella Barlow, née Griffith, unattended, but serene and self-possessed as if walking down Broadway. She is nursing the colonel, her husband (badly wounded), and never appeared so well. Talked like a sensible, practical, earnest, warm-hearted woman, without a phrase of hyperflutination [sic].13
Barlow received a promotion to Brigadier General after the Battle of Antietam. But his injuries were so severe that he was released to return to New York under Arabella’s continuing care in October 1862. He continued his convalescence there until April 1863. With Arabella traveling with him, he rejoined his troops in time for limited action in the Battle of Chancellorsville.
The Battle of Gettysburg followed. It was at this battle that Barlow was again severely injured. On the first day of the battle, he had been on his horse swinging a saber to urge his men into the fight when a bullet ripped into his side beneath his arm and lodged in his abdomen. Barlow tumbled from his horse and after walking a few steps, collapsed while gushing blood.11 He was captured by the Confederate forces and taken behind their lines. Barlow was the only Union General who was captured during this battle.6
Word of Barlow’s injury reached Arabella who was working with the Sanitary Commission nearby. Going behind enemy lines, she assumed duty as his personal nurse. Barlow was released and returned to the Union side. Arabella continued to provide care to him as well as tending to thousands of wounded and dying soldiers being housed in temporary hospitals around Gettysburg.6
Barlow experienced severe pain in his side from his wound and required several months for his convalescence. He was fit for duty in December 1863 and reported to a new unit within the Army of the Potomac on January 26, 1864. By then the Army of the Potomac had acquired a new commanding General: Ulysses S. Grant.
Barlow served with Grant during the Overland Campaign in Virginia, which extended over 40 days of fighting between May 4 and June 24, 1864, and included the notable battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor. It was followed by the siege of Petersburg between June 1864 and March 1865, which led to the surrender of Lee’s army in April 1865 and the end of the Civil War.
As was the case throughout these several years, Arabella was not far away from her husband and involved in the activities of the Sanitary Commission. During the Overland Campaign, she was working under Clara Barton at a hospital in Fredericksburg.6 She acquired the nickname of “The Raider” because of her energy and resourcefulness. As recorded in a near-contemporary account:
At Fredericksburg she had in some way gained possession of a wretched-looking pony, and a small cart or farmer’s wagon, with which she was continually on the move, driving about town and country in search of provisions or other articles needed for the sick and wounded.14
This firmness of mind and confidence had long been characteristics of Arabella. An acquaintance of Arabella’s from New York City noted in her diary entry of November 24, 1861 a statement by Arabella: “Women rule everything and can get anything.”15
The Library of Congress holds a photograph of the nurses and officers of the Sanitary Commission at Fredericksburg with Arabella standing at the far left holding a hat (see Figure 2).
In June 1864, Arabella relocated to the field hospital near Petersburg. She was exhausted from her constant efforts in caring for the wounded and dying but continued to provide care and comfort to the injured soldiers. She contracted typhus and was transferred to a hospital in Washington, D.C. for better care on July 6. Barlow never saw her again. After a brief rally, she died on July 27, 1864.6
In his diary entry for July 30, 1864, George Templeton Strong noted the report of Arabella’s death in the local newspaper from disease contracted during her hospital work and commented: “She did great service there. She was a very noble woman.”16 The Sanitary Commission included a lengthy memorial comment in its August 15, 1864 bulletin:
The zeal, the activity, the ardent loyalty and scornful indignation for everything disloyal she then displayed, can never be forgotten by those who fortune it was to be with her on that occasion. Ever watchful of the necessities of that trying time, her mind, fruitful in resources, was always busy in devising means to alleviate the discomforts of the wounded, attendant upon so vast a campaign within the enemy’s country, and her hand was always ready to carry out the devices of her mind.17
Arabella Griffith Barton was buried in the Old Somerville Cemetery on South Bridge Street in Somerville. Her gravestone bears her full maiden name of Arabella Wharton Griffith. Carved beneath that, she is identified as “Wife of Francis C. Barlow” (see Figure 3).
Arabella’s death had a devastating effect on Barlow. He was granted a 15-day leave of absence to attend to funeral arrangements and the heartache over his loss. Still suffering from his anguish and sense of loss, on August 13, 1864, he returned to take command of his troops for the Second Battle of Deep Bottom. His leadership during that battle was not exemplary. However, he continued to participate more effectively in Grant’s campaigns through the end of the war. Eventually, he was promoted to the rank of Major General. There is much more to his story as a hero of the Civil War (including having a monument and a portion of the battlefield at Gettysburg named for him) and beyond his wartime efforts.
Throughout her life, Arabella Griffith Barlow consistently demonstrated an incredible intelligence, resourcefulness and resilience. She not only was Barlow’s mate and attentive to his personal needs but also joined him in a life of service to others and her country. She toiled tirelessly in the attempt to provide meaningful measures of healing and comfort to the soldiers who came under her care.