One of my favorite quotes from the Civil War comes from Captain Thomas Barker, who, in heated fury after the Battle of Cold Harbor, vowed never to lead his regiment into another such charge, even if Jesus Christ ordered him to do it. I think this outburst speaks to a universal truth among battlefield commanders, that it hurts them immeasurably to carry out orders they believe will lead to the massacre of their men. I think that dilemma was faced by Barker, the youthful commander of the 12th New Hampshire.
Who was Thomas Erskine Barker? Quickly: he was the youngest child born to the wife of a poor Canterbury farmer. Lacking funds, his family could not send him to private school, so he learned his letters with only a common school education. On May 13, 1861, as war fever spread across the North, Barker enlisted in the “Goodwin Rifles,” a unit that eventually became Company B, 2nd New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry. The 2nd New Hampshire engaged Confederate forces at Bull Run, July 21, 1861, and during the bewildering Union retreat, it helped cover the army’s withdrawal. Several men ended up prisoners, including Corporal Barker. For the next ten months, the Confederates held him as a prisoner of war. During five of those months, he was confined at Old Parish Prison in New Orleans, and for several weeks, the Confederate officers threatened to execute him and seventeen others as retribution for alleged criminalities perpetrated by Union troops. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed, and Union authorities negotiated his safe release. This rough prison experience lingered with him, and when he returned to Concord in May 1862, he brought with him a renewed interest in punishing the leaders of the rebellion. He recruited a new company, which became Company B, 12th New Hampshire, and he led it into action at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. He was wounded at the latter engagement, struck in the leg by a ball. He returned home to recuperate, and while there, he married Florence Whittredge, the President of the Women’s Relief Corps. By the summer of 1864, Captain Barker had risen to command the 12th New Hampshire.
(This image depicts Captain Thomas E. Barker in the summer of 1862, shortly after his return from Confederate prison.)
On the morning of June 3, 1864, Barker’s 12th New Hampshire led the attack of Colonel Griffin Stedman’s brigade, 1,800 men strong. According to Stedman’s orders, the brigade had to form in “closed column of division,” essentially, a column, forty ranks deep and two companies wide. (In Civil War terminology, when two companies joined together, it formed a “division.”) Barker protested the formation. Although it had worked splendidly for the Army of the Potomac two weeks earlier at Spotsylvania Court House, Barker complained that the shape of the Confederate earthworks in front of Stedman’s column would create a deadly crossfire, savaging the men in the rear divisions.
The following image—taken from the 12th New Hampshire’s regimental history—illustrated the tactical problem.
(The regimental historian remembered the attack this way. Note the horseshoe-shaped Confederate line and the "closed column by division" formation of the 12th New Hampshire.)
The horseshoe shape of the enemy earthworks created an interlocking field of fire into which Barker’s regiment had to advance. Asa Bartlett, the 12th New Hampshire’s adjutant, later explained:
To advance a massed column of troops into such a semi-circle of destruction as here portrayed, with front and back flanks entirely exposed to the converging fire of eight or ten pieces of artillery and more than half a mile sweep of battle-lined musketry, was something fearful to even contemplate, but how much more so to actually experience none can tell save those who were there. No wonder that Captain Barker who had a heart to feel as well as courage to act, when he saw the field covered with his own brave men and heard the cries of the wounded, some of whom were less fortunate than the dead, stood up before his superiors in rank while the enemy’s shot was still flying around him, and wounding some of his listeners as he spoke, and denounced in righteous wrath the general, high or low, who was guilty of ordering such a murderous charge as that. He was so highly wrought up by his anger and the excitement of the occasion, that he declared with an oath that he would not take his regiment into another such charge, [even] if Jesus Christ himself should order it.
Captain Barker, as hereafter seen, was decidedly opposed to making the charge, massed in column, and so expressed his opinion. Adjutant-General Reynolds referred to Napoleon, as making all his charges in solid column, and thought it the most effectual way. “The most effectual way of murdering men, I agree, and there is the evidence of it,” sharply replied the captain, as he pointed to the field in front, thickly spotted with the dead and wounded. The next moment General Reynolds was wounded in the shoulder, from the effects of which he afterwards died.
It is well to remember where Barker stood in relation to this column of divisions. He stood front and center of the whole thing. Private George Place, a soldier in Company B—one of the companies at the front of the column—remembered, “Colonel [sic] Barker was standing near me, and I heard him remark, that he thought he had experienced some heavy artillery firing at the battle of Bull Run, but none equaled the closeness of that fire, yet strange as it may appear, as far as I could learn, not a man of the regiment was hurt while in that position.”
Place also remembered Barker giving the order to charge:
Finally, the Colonel [sic] drew his sword,— “Forward, march,” and the regiment started. We had not gone ten feet, when a rebel battery on our left flank opened fire. . . .The guns were so arranged that the iron storm swept past us about two rods in front. How it crashed and howled through those pine trees! For a moment, the regiment quailed and halted. As it did so, I turned and looked at Colonel Barker. I shall never forget the expression that came into his face as he beheld that halting. His eyes dilated, and it seemed as if I could almost see the fire flash from them. He flung his sword above his head and shouted with a voice that seemed as if the rebels must have heard,—“Forward!” Instantly the regiment started again, yelling as it went. There was no more halting after that, until, swept down in killed and wounded, it lost all semblance of order, and could do no otherwise than fall back.
Somehow, Barker managed to live through the destructive attack at Cold Harbor—truly a charmed life, if such a thing existed. He remained the 12th New Hampshire’s commander throughout the remainder of the war, rising to the rank of colonel. When his regiment mustered out in July 1865, he wrote a touching farewell address. An excerpt of it is reprinted here:
Head Quarters 12th N. H. Vols.,
Concord, N. H., July 3, 1865.
Soldiers, — The day to which we have all looked forward so long and anxiously has at last arrived. The great work in which we engaged almost three years ago is accomplished, and with the knowledge that we have done an honorable part toward crushing the rebellion, saving the union, and restoring peace, we have been permitted to return to our dear old native State, and are about to resume our peaceful avocations.
You have served your country long and nobly. By your deeds you have won a name that shall live forever. From the bloody fields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Front Royal, Swift Creek, Drury’s Bluff, Port Walthal, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Cemetery Hill, Bermuda Front, and your triumphant entry into Richmond, ages hence will view your deeds, and the generations of centuries to come will honor and bless you for the legacy gained by your valor and bequeathed to them.
Since my connection with you as your commanding officer your conduct everywhere has been a source of pride to me. For bravery in battle you are second to no regiment that New Hampshire has ever sent to the field, and there is no State that can boast of braver troops than our own rock-bound Granite State.
For discipline and drill you have ever excited the admiration of military men. . . . By your ever ready, willing, and cheerful obedience to all orders you have rendered the duties of your commanding officer pleasant, and words are inadequate to express my appreciation of your services.
We have delivered up to the state authorities our old war-worn and bloodstained colors, which have been made dear to us through toil, danger, and sacrifice for their preservation. Nobler blood never coursed in the veins of man, or was sacrificed on a country’s altar, than has been poured out on many a crimsoned field for them. God bless the noble dead—our comrades still—who have fallen in their defense! Our last duties as a military organization have been performed, and as we arc about to separate, perhaps for time, we must say farewell.
As you have been faithful, brave, and true soldiers, I feel assured that you will be good and worthy citizens, and of your duties as such I will not venture a word, except an admonition that you will ever greet the bereaved friends of our comrades that we have buried in a distant land, or sent home to rest beneath their native sod, with kind words and helping hands.
Soldiers, I am proud of your record, and the highest honor that I ask is that, when the history of the Rebellion is written, my name may be recorded as the commander of the Twelfth New Hampshire Volunteers.
With kindest wishes for you in all your relations of life, and that Heaven's richest blessings may be shed upon you all, I bid you a kind and affectionate farewell.
Thomas E. Barker,
Col., 12th N. H. Vols.
I often wonder if, when Barker wrote out his farewell address, he thought of the men he had lost at Cold Harbor and the vow he made, never to lead men into such a charge, even if “Jesus Christ himself should order it.”
After Barker died, a veteran remembered: “[Barker always] appeared on the higher plane of moral excellence[.] . . . But [he never] . . . had a thought that he was any better, or even quite as good as many of the men whom he had the honor to command. And in nothing more than this did he show his real worth as a soldier and a man.” Responsibility, it seemed, humbled Barker, but that humbleness made it difficult for him to order the death of that which he loved the most: his regiment.