Barlow's Knoll Revisited
Chaplain Chuck Teague
It was "idiotic." It was "a terrible blunder." It was "strange"
and "disastrous." It was "unspeakable folly." Such has been the
popular appraisal of Barlow’s decision to move forward with his
division and take the little knoll north north-east of Gettysburg
that would forever after bear his name.
The conventional wisdom remains that the move was foolhardy, but I
would like to offer a contrarian perspective. What do we make of
Barlow in his controversial advance at Gettysburg?
Francis Channing Barlow looked less like a general than anyone in
the American Civil War who wore the stars. At first glance he
appeared to be a mere teenager, and a slender and delicate one at
that. His entry into the war had been as a private in the New York
Those who knew Barlow soon changed their impressions. He was
hard-driving, brilliant, and tough. By Antietam he leading his own
well-disciplined regiment, heroically out ahead of his men waving
his sword to stir their advance at the Sunken Road before being
After recovery from his wounds, he was given the challenge of
firing up a division of German Americans in the XI Corps who had
wilted at Chancellorsville when suddenly struck on their blind
side by the daring Stonewall Jackson. He was only 28 years old
when he found himself a brigadier general headed for one of the
crucial battles of the war.
July 1 was a warm, sultry day—though the heavy rains had ceased,
the humidity remained high. The First Division of XI Corps, having
marched steadily northward for several hours, began to arrive at
Gettysburg shortly after 1:00 p.m. It was then that Barlow met
Maj. General Oliver O. Howard near Cemetery Hill, while Von
Steinwehr’s Division of XI Corps was busy fortifying that high
ground as the fall-back defensive position for the Army of the
Howard’s assumption of command of the Army of the Potomac left
wing following the death of Maj. General John Reynolds had a
cascading effect, as Brig. General Carl Schurz, in turn, took
command of the XI Corps, Brig. General Alexander Schimmelfennig
now led what had been Schurz’s Third Division, and Colonel George
Von Amsberg rose to briefly command its First Brigade.
With little time to consider options and uncertain when
reinforcements would arrive, Howard initially sought to continue
the tactics Buford, then Reynolds, then Doubleday, had used: a
defense in depth. He felt it crucial at all costs to slow the
Rebel advance while holding Cemetery Hill behind Gettysburg until
the 20,000 soldiers in the corps of Slocum and Sickles could
arrive. To preclude the I Corp from being enveloped on its right
flank, Howard intended to extend the Union line to include the
high ground at Oak Hill beyond the Mummasburg Road. Howard so
instructed Schurz "to seize and hold a prominent height on the
right [note: north] of the Cashtown road and on the prolongation
of Seminary Ridge."
Schurz in turn directed Schimmelfennig forward to support the
Second Division of I Corps, perched on the ridge line. Schurz also
issued orders for Barlow upon his arrival to form "on the right of
the Third Division, its First Brigade to connect with the Third
Division west of the road leading to Mummasburg," with the Second
Brigade to be held en échelon behind the other east of that road.
Schurz then worked with Schimmelfennig to position Von Amsberg’s
Brigade to the right of Robinson’s Division situated on Oak Ridge
(also referred to as North Seminary Ridge). The situation was
rapidly changing, however, as Howard received word from Buford
that Maj. General Ewell’s II Corps of the Army of Northern
Virginia was approaching from the north.
Von Amsberg pushed three regiments forward, beating back
Blackford’s Alabama sharpshooters. But the arrival of two
batteries of Confederate artillery on Oak Hill immediately changed
the equation on the field. Facing hot fire therefrom, the three
regiments not only were unable to reach the ridge, but were forced
to form their line at a point starting 200 yards short of
connecting with Robinson. These 950 men formed what amounted to a
heavy skirmish line extending from the Hagey orchard on Mummasburg
Road reaching east-northeast across farmland to the Carlisle Pike.
A fourth regiment formed a reserve at the Hagey house and a fifth
supported Dilger’s Ohio Battery, which had positioned itself
behind Von Amsberg’s line to engage the Confederate cannons on Oak
Howard led Barlow through town as he explained his objective in
bolstering the high ground south of town for the Union defense,
but needing to delay the advance of the ANV until reinforcements
arrived. Howard was understandably concerned that the right flank
of the Union line might be turned. They paused briefly near the
brick kiln as Howard completed in instructions.
In the meantime, the orders Schurz had issued for Barlow had
become nonsensical due to the arrival on Oak Hill of artillery and
infantry from Rodes’ CSA Division. Schurz himself had become
consumed in his attention to the cannonade from that hill and the
threat from the advance of O’Neal’s Brigade. He gave no immediate
attention to Barlow, and there is no evidence of a corrected order
having been issued.
Howard, almost as if he had not relinquished command of the XI
Corps to Schurz, apparently directed Barlow to lengthen the Union
defensive line. Howard then hastened to confer with Doubleday on
Seminary Ridge, leaving Barlow to extend the infantry line
according to his best judgment. Prior to doing so, Barlow directed
Wheeler’s Battery to advance and join Dilger about a half mile
north of town in challenging the Rebel artillery on Oak Hill.
Barlow, observing the field for the first time from the north edge
of town, saw that the Second Brigade (1400 men) of the Third
Division, led by Colonel Vladimir Krzyzanowski, had stopped to his
left awaiting further orders. They were ready to move and
obviously uncomfortable in that their concentration posed such a
tempting target for the Rebel batteries.
Barlow also saw troopers of Col. Thomas Devin about three quarters
of a mile out the Harrisburg Road. Earlier that morning they had
done exceptional work in locating Ewell’s Corps of the ANV several
miles to the north of Gettysburg and screening an advance guard of
those Rebels from awareness of the developing Union line. They had
held the Union right flank for two hours in a curved line of
videttes, gradually shifting east in a reduced arc which they now
held from the Harrisburg (or Heidlersburg) Road crossing of Rock
Creek to the toll house on the York Pike.
Barlow Positions His Division
To assess the situation and allow his men briefly to rest, Barlow
stopped his two brigades en masse in parallel columns on opposite
sides of the Harrisburg Road just beyond the Almshouse. It was
apparent that he had but minutes to position his men, but where
and how? After an assessment of the situation, he chose to form
his line forward seeking to take what advantage he could of Blocher’s Knoll and Rock Creek.
Schurz positioned himself at the Hagey house on what he deemed the
"extreme left," giving most attention to his old division now
technically commanded by Schimmelfennig. He grew anxious about
reports that the enemy might also be approaching from the
Harrisburg Road. The possibility that his line on the right might
be enveloped was real and threatening. Now shifting the focus of
his attention eastward, his mind was alerted by several immediate
First, Barlow had just advanced to the high ground some 700 yards
beyond where he had first paused his division and where Schurz
later said he had expected him to be. Schurz’s official report
said he had instructed Barlow to form "on the right of the Third
Division," which Barlow had indeed accomplished. But Schurz’s
further explanation that this was to be "west of the road leading
to Mummasburg" reveals either a confusion on his part of when this
command had been issued or which road was in question. By the time
Barlow arrived, the Third Division (Schimmelfennig now commanding)
was stretched east of the Mummasburg Road extending to the
Carlisle Road. Moreover, rather than being positioned en échelon,
the Barlow’s two brigades had formed a double line with
skirmishers to meet the anticipated arrival of the enemy. These
brigades were only thinly connected to Schimmelfennig’s (now Van
Amsberg’s) line by skirmishers of the 2nd German Rifles (68th New
York Volunteers) and two companies of the 153rd Pennsylvania
Of particular alarm to Schurz was his sighting of advance elements
of Early’s Division of the II Corps now arriving in the distance
on the Harrisburg Road. Skirmishers were firing upon one another
and the artillery of Jones’ Battalion had started booming.
Schurz also realized that the four regiments of Krzyzanowski’s
Second Brigade, Third Division, were still waiting and eager to be
deployed. These soldiers, comprising nearly a third of the XI
Corps assets available to Schurz, were still waiting in reserve
though the line of defense was sorely overextended. He belatedly
directed them to advance and form their line in the vulnerable gap
between Schimmelfennig and Barlow.
Realizing the likelihood that his two divisions would likely be
overrun, Schurz also dispatched an aide to Howard requesting
reserves from Von Steinwehr’s Second Division be brought forward.
If Schurz was observant he would also have noticed that Devin’s
troopers had in the meantime pulled back from the right flank.
Considering himself relieved by the arrival of the XI Corps of
infantry, Devin had disengaged his skirmishers and retreated. They
now clustered at the east edge of town between the York Pike and
Hanover Road, midway between Cemetery Hill and the advance of
As it turned out, Devin’s Second Cavalry Brigade were there
subjected to friendly fire. Howard had directed Weidrich’s Battery
on Cemetery Hill to fire on Early’s developing line of battle. The
distance of a mile and a half was not a problem for the 3 inch
rifled guns, but what Howard deemed "the poor quality of the
ammunition"—faulty fuses?—caused two or three of Devin’s horses to
be struck. The cavalry commander immediately pulled his troopers
to the rear of town, away from the heat of battle. The benefit of
these veteran soldiers would indeed be missed. They suffered only
23 killed or wounded (contrasted with over four times that many in
Gamble’s Brigade fighting on the left flank), most of them
presumably falling in the two hours (roughly around noon) when
Devin’s men effectively checked Early’s advance from Heidlersburg.
The Rebel Onslaught
Doles’ Brigade of Rodes’ Division and Gordon’s Brigade of Early’s
Division timed their assault on Barlow’s men with devastating
effectiveness. At about 3:00 p.m. these 2700 Georgians raised
their Rebel yell and coordinated their attack from two directions.
Hays’ Louisiana Brigade with another 1300 troops stood in support
of Gordon to his rear left, though were not immediately needed.
The fighting was described by one observer to be severe as the men
of Von Gilsa’s and Ames’ Brigades found themselves enveloped on
both sides, doubtlessly feeling like they were reliving the
nightmare of Chancellorsville. Though Krzyzanowski’s Brigade was
soon in motion, it did not form in battle line on Barlow’s left
until his men were already falling back.
The momentum was with the Rebels, and they would maintain it for
the next two hours as they steadily pushed the Union troops back
into and through town. Though there were several points at which
XI Corps efforts slowed the onslaught, the retreat was admittedly
done in great disorder.
Gordon later expressed respect for a stalwart defense put up by
Barlow’s men, but they disappointed their own commander. He was
twice shot and seriously wounded attempting to rally them, then
was left on the field to be captured. It was a humiliating moment
for the young general. Observers spoke of the division as being
routed and casualty rates were indeed high, especially for those
Issues Facing Barlow
In assessing the decision of Frank Barlow to position his division
on Blocher’s Knoll (now known as Barlow’s Knoll), several factors
need to be weighed. Envision what he knew at about 1:45 p.m., the
time when he was to make his critical decision.
First is the mission as Howard would have explained it. Barlow’s
immediate task was to intercept the anticipated advance of the
enemy as it expanded from a westerly attack to include an assault
from the north. Of prime concern was that the Union line not be
enveloped. Moreover, Robinson’s Second Division of I Corps was
positioned in an important but precarious position on Oak Ridge
and must be supported by the XI Corps, lest the I Corps line be
rolled from the north. Barlow’s ultimate objective was to slow the
Rebel advance so as to enable Howard to have time to fortify and
reinforce Cemetery Hill as the key Union line of defense. It would
prove to be a daunting task.
Second was an appreciation of the enemy. The only enemy forces
immediately visible as Barlow entered the field would have been
artillery on Oak Hill, Blackford’s sharpshooters aligned along
Blocher’s Run, and the arrival of Doles’ Brigade behind them.
Devin had informed Howard that there was a large Confederate body
of infantry proceeding from the north, apparently approaching on
the Carlisle and Harrisburg Roads. Though Barlow would not have
known the size of this opposing force, it was composed of major
elements of Ewell’s Corps: Rodes’ Division (5 brigades plus
artillery), the advance units of which had already arrived, and
Early’s Division (4 brigades plus artillery). As it turned out,
Barlow’s men would be confronted by some 3,100 enemy soldiers,
directly supported by another 1,200 with more behind them. Of
further consequence would be twelve canon (Jones’ Battalion)
effectively firing upon him from the Harrisburg Road, plus another
eight from the two batteries on Oak Hill.
The third key factor was an understanding of his allied troops.
Barlow himself commanded only some 2,100 men. He would have six
Napoleon’s from Wilkeson’s Battery to position (plus the able
support of another six from Dilger’s Ohio Battery when they would
shift to a position behind his lines about 2:30 p.m.). As he gazed
on the already-formed Union line he would see Robinson to his far
left on the ridge line, the heavy skirmish line formed by
Schimmelfennig, and the cavalry videttes to his right front. These
three units formed a large arc, though a gap had formed between
the Carlisle and Harrisburg Roads due to Devin’s shift.
Krzyzanowski’s Brigade had not yet been moved into position but
was waiting en masse (posing an enticing target for the ANV canon
on Oak Hill). On the back side of town was Von Steinwehr’s Second
Division with three batteries formed on Cemetery Hill. Barlow
shared Howard’s hope that Sickles’ III Corps and Slocum’s XII
Corps would be arriving on the field later that afternoon,
providing important reinforcement.
A further important concern was the terrain. Buford and Reynolds
had a distinct advantage in forming a defense in depth to delay
the assault of Hill’s Corps from the west of town. There were a
series of ridge lines (Herr, McPherson, Seminary) running
north-south plus some wooded land as an aid to defense. North of
town, however, the land was consisted of undulating fields with
little cover and no obvious defensive position. The highest point
was Oak Hill to the northwest, already taken by Rodes. The only
other elevation worth noting was Blocher’s Knoll to the northeast.
Another feature of consequence was Rock Creek, swollen from
drenching rains, traversing a line in a south-southeasterly
direction a mile or so northeast of town. The significance of the
creek is evident through Gordon’s later comment that the "banks
were so abrupt as to prevent passage excepting at certain points."
The fifth critical element was time, of which there was little.
Barlow had about one hour to position his two brigades before the
onslaught began. Any evaluation of his command decisions must
factor in this short period. And while he was maneuvering his
troops they were under artillery fire from one, then two
Though Barlow demonstrated effective command on other occasions in
the war both before and after Gettysburg, his decision to position
his men on the knoll has brought him widespread censure. But was
it so obviously an act of foolishness?
From a simple perspective, Barlow "connected the dots" of the
Union line as it existed upon his arrival. Draw the curve from
Robinson’s line, through Schimmelfennig’s line, and extend it to
include Devin’s vidette line, and you incorporate the so-called
"advanced" position he in fact took.
It was Devin who exposed the Union right flank when he withdrew
his men from their key defensive position to form the massed
column south of the York Pike. Devin claimed that he was ordered
to withdraw his men, although his superiors Buford and Howard were
determined to maintain the defense in depth. Would either
commander have likely directed these 1,100 troopers away from the
battle at such a crucial moment? I have found no evidence of such
an order other than Devin’s own explanation for withdrawing his
men from the line of fire.
Moreover, it is likely that Barlow would have assumed that
Krzyzanowski’s brigade was preparing to move forward even as his
own men had passed them at the north edge of town. The men of both
divisions using parallel roads had arrived within minutes of each
other. Krzyzanowski’s four regiments were positioned and standing
as if ready to move out and, indeed, that was their own hope.
Remaining massed as they were made them an easy target for Page
and Reese’s Rebel batteries on Oak Hill.
Since Schurz was confused during the writing of his official
report, it can be assumed that he was likewise confused early that
afternoon. He apparently never reissued an order to Barlow after
his first order became untenable. It appears that the advance of
O’Neal’s ANV Brigade at 2:00 p.m. against Baxter and Von Amsberg
had captured his attention to the exclusion of any immediate
concern for Barlow and Krzyzanowski. When the booming of canons
from Jones’ battalion then alerted him to action on his right
flank, he was genuinely taken off guard.
The particular positioning of regiments by Barlow is worthy of
further assessment, but here we are concerned simply with the
question of whether he should have taken the knoll. As he moved
out the Harrisburg Road, Barlow had few terrain features of which
to take advantage. The Almshouse was on relatively low terrain
with a small stream behind and high ground out ahead. With little
time to ponder, Barlow apparently decided to bite the bullet and
take the higher terrain.
His alternatives were two. Staying at the Almshouse, however,
would limit his sight lines and the field of fire for his
artillery and infantry to a 1000 feet or less. Positioning his
line at Stephen’s Run (where Coster later made his stand), another
option, would have created a huge and vulnerable salient for
Robinson and Schimmelfennig. And once the position of Oak Ridge
was lost, the entire I Corps line would be threatened in being
Blocher’s Knoll had a distinct disadvantage. Though the swollen
Rock Creek itself was a barrier of sorts, the trees along that
stream as well as Blocher’s Run would give cover to advancing
soldiers. Barlow sought to balance that by sending four companies
of the 17th Connecticut across the bridge to the Josiah Benner
homestead on the far side of Rock Creek. They were there as
skirmishers to blunt the advance of Gordon’s troops and alert
Probing Barlow’s mind is impossible from this historical distance,
but one further factor that likely played most heavily in his
decision. Blocher’s Knoll had marginal value as an artillery
platform of his own, but would prove devastating if held by the
enemy. The other significant high ground north of town (Oak Hill)
was already the source of case shot being poured out against the
Union infantry. If Ewell’s artillery also held Blocher’s Knoll,
there would have been no viable defense for the Yanks north of
town. In particular, Robinson’s I Corps Division, so effectively
positioned against Iverson’s advance, would have been sitting
ducks fired upon from behind. Once they collapsed, the entire I
Corps position would have faced the same demise. Barlow’s taking
of the knoll was thus crucial to protect the three I Corps
brigades poised in their vulnerable position on Oak Ridge.
A Fresh Evaluation
What Barlow did was heroic and daring. Schurz later acknowledged
that Barlow directed "the movements of his troops with the most
praiseworthy coolness and intrepidity." The young general had
exposed himself and his men in what proved to be a desperate
attempt to slow the Rebel advance. He may well have expected
Schurz to be more alert and Devin to be more stalwart.
What Colonel William Gamble’s men had done on the Union left
flank, inspired by Buford to boldly support the I Corps, should
have been mirrored on the right flank. But Devin chose to
disconnect himself from the infantry. (Devin says he was ordered
"to mass my command on the right of the York Road"— though neither
Pleasonton, nor Buford, nor Howard mention issuing such an
order—before pulling entirely back from the battle on his own
initiative. The minimal involvement of Devin during the afternoon
is apparent in that Edward Longacre in his 275 page study of The
Cavalry at Gettysburg spends less than a dozen lines referencing
what happened to the 2nd Cavalry Brigade during the time of the
Confederate assault on July 1.)
It is also important to recognize that Barlow positioned his men
as an extension of the only defensive line existent. The
"skirmishers" Schimmelfennig sent forth were positioned at
intervals of 2½ feet and constituted the only defensive line with
which Barlow could have connected! To have remained back at the
Almshouse, or worse yet Stephen’s Run, would have left the Third
Division line flying in the wind.
Moreover, Barlow denied Ewell the option of using Blocher’s knoll
as an artillery platform for Jones’ Battalion, a prospect that
would have been horrifying to Robinson.
Barlow’s main problem was that the Confederates enveloped his men
from both ends, causing panic. Yet recognize that would not have
happened had Devin not withdrawn 30 minutes earlier and had
Krzyzanowski, upon a prompt order from Schurz, moved forward 30
minutes sooner. Neither adjacent unit was under Barlow’s command,
but he probably expected support from both. Had they done so,
there would not have been a rout.
Krzyzanowski cannot be faulted for, as he noted, Schurz’s
instructions to him had been "carried out to the letter." Whether
Schurz intended to keep such a large contingent in reserve or
momentarily forgot about them is puzzling. In fact, he had kept
twice as many soldiers from his third division in reserve as had
been placed in line of battle! Barlow, seeing Krzyzanowski’s
brigade at 1:30 p.m. halted in the orchard north of town, probably
assumed that they too would be moving into line of battle beside
him. Alas, it happened too late.
Even with the collapse of his position on the knoll, did Barlow
fail in his mission? If in fact his objective was to so obstruct
the advance of Early’s forces that Howard might succeed in
fortifying Cemetery Hill, then Barlow succeeded by a whisker. In
what is another debated aspect of the battle, Early felt that his
brigades had so suffered in their assault that they were in no
condition to continue to attack. In his judgment, it was simply
not practicable to advance on the heights of Cemetery Hill after
two hours of hard battle.
Perhaps Barlow could have accomplished that mission with fewer
casualties by not taking the knoll. That is a subject still worthy
of debate. But a fair reevaluation can conclude that Frank
Barlow’s decision was brave and, yes— far from being idiotic—it
was reasoned and calculated.
Copyright © 2001 Charles Teague