“Who does not remember the leader of the assault of the mine at Petersburg? The solitary horseman in front of Port Hudson, whom a foeman worthy of him bade his soldiers spare, from love and admiration of such gallant bearing? Who does not still hear the echo of those eloquent lips after the war, teaching reconciliation and peace?”
-Oliver Wendell Holmes describing
William Francis Bartlett, 1884
Every now and then, a historical figure attracts my attention with an irresistible and inexplicable sort of gravitational pull. Lately, I’ve taken up an interest in Major General William Francis Bartlett. Born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, he was one of the youngest generals during the Civil War, and a true hero.
When I learn of strong leaders from Massachusetts such as Bartlett, I am continually frustrated that the two Bay State generals who get the most ink in the history books are Butler and Banks. Scratch the surface a little more and you will find that the Commonwealth had far better leaders with outstanding records…leaders who have unfortunately been neglected by history.
Frank Bartlett was 21 and a junior at Harvard College when the war began. He was a mediocre student and did not seem to have any particular drive. A fellow officer (and an earlier Harvard grad), Francis Palfrey, wrote that Bartlett was “a little young for his years…rather fond of billiards, suppers, college clubs, and the society of young ladies.” …In modern terms, a partier.
He was sympathetic towards the South and wrote that secession was, in his opinion, constitutional. On that point he and I disagree. Regardless of his politics, he still chose to fight for the Union. On April 17, 1861, five days after Fort Sumter was fired upon, he enlisted as a private with the 4th Battalion Massachusetts Militia. I can only suspect that a bit of peer pressure was involved in his decision to become a soldier.
The battalion garrisoned Fort Independence on Castle Island in Boston Harbor for a month. There they set the neglected fort in order and drilled vigorously. At the end of his month of service, Bartlett felt he had learned more at Fort Independence than during all his years at Harvard.
Now thoroughly enthusiastic about the war effort, Bartlett accepted a captain’s commission with the 20th Massachusetts Infantry–the so-called “Harvard Regiment.” The 20th Massachusetts saw their first combat at the calamitous Battle of Ball’s Bluff on October 21, 1861. Subjected to a horrific hail of fire, the men were obliged to lie prone. Bartlett however, as he wrote, “…felt that if I was going to be hit, I should be, whether I stood up or lay down, so I stood up and walked around among the men, stepping over them and talking to them in a joking way, to take away their thoughts from the bullets, and keep them more self possessed.” That was a clear demonstration of what sort of leader Bartlett was going to be.
Six months later, the 20th Massachusetts was with the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsular campaign and camped in a swamp, one of the many units participating in the siege of Yorktown, Virginia. On April 24, 1861, while on the outer lines and examining the enemy’s position through his field glasses, Bartlett was shot in the knee. The wound required the amputation of his leg.
Bartlett was sent home to Massachusetts to recover. He was able to receive his degree from Harvard that spring and was much admired. Though he suffered terribly from the pain of amputation, by many accounts he kept a good humor, and wrote a wry comment, “Ask the Colonel if they gave my leg a Christian burial, for my foot torments me as if ill at rest.”
Captain Bartlett might then have called his war career finished, and done so with honor. But Bartlett was not done with the war. In September 1862, he accepted a promotion to colonel and the command of the 49th Massachusetts Infantry, then forming. He was fitted with a prosthetic leg, and when the regiment departed, he rode with a crutch strapped across his back.
The 49th Massachusetts became part of the Army of the Gulf and took part in the siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana…at that time the town was one of the final two Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River. On May 27, 1863, General Nathaniel Banks ordered the first of two disastrous assaults on Port Hudson. Obliged to lead his regiment on horseback due to his condition, Bartlett knew that he would make a conspicuous target, “I knew that my chances for life were very small,” he later wrote. “But I had to go horseback, or not at all. So prayed that life and limb might be spared, and went in.” Again, tremendous bravery.
Sadly, Bartlett did indeed make an easy target. He was shot by two bullets simultaneously, one glancing off his only ankle, the other severely shattering his wrist. This nearly cost him his hand. He recuperated in Baton Rouge for six weeks, the wound periodically spitting out pieces of bone. Then he returned home during the summer of 1863.
Again, Colonel Bartlett might have resigned honorably and stayed home. But instead he accepted the command of the 57th Massachusetts Infantry. On April 18, 1864, the new regiment left Massachusetts, becoming part of the Army of the Potomac and arriving just in time for Gen. Grant’s relentless Overland Campaign. During the first major engagement of the campaign, the Battle of the Wilderness, Bartlett was struck by a bullet which glanced off his temple. The head wound laid him low and he was again sent home.
But still Bartlett was not finished with the war. In June 1864, he received his commission, signed by Lincoln, promoting him to Brigadier General. He was only 24. In July he returned to the Army of the Potomac as the commander of the 1st brigade, 1st division, IX Corps. The brigade consisted of six Massachusetts and one Pennsylvania regiment, all them war-torn and much diminished.
One of the saddest episodes of Bartlett’s career, indeed of the entire war, took place on July 30, 1864 during the Battle of the Crater. This was an ingenious attempt by the Union army to dig beneath the Confederate siege lines at Petersburg, detonate a tremendous amount of gunpowder beneath the enemy’s position and blast an opening into Petersburg. Unfortunately, the division that had been trained to lead the charge, consisting of African-American troops, was side-lined by Gen. Meade and Ledlie’s division (including Bartlett’s brigade) led an ill-prepared charge.
After the mine was exploded, Bartlett’s brigade led the way into the fray. And promptly became trapped in the crater. During the fight, Bartlett’s prosthetic leg was crushed by a boulder thrown by an exploding shell. Unable to retreat with his men, he was captured by the Confederates. He spent two months in a Confederate prison, suffering severely from disease. He was paroled in September 1864 and sent home.
It took somewhat longer for Bartlett to recover this time. But he still was not done. Two months after the Confederate surrender, Bartlett returned to command the 1st division of the IX Corps, then serving garrison duty outside of Washington. He remained in this command but a short time, the division being mustered out in July 1865. At that time, he was recommended for a brevet promotion to Major General which was passed by the Senate in March 1866 when he was 26 years old.
After the war he became a manager of various manufacturing companies, including the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia. He frequently spoke at large gatherings on the politics of Reconstruction, urging reconciliation and fair treatment of the South. In this regard, he castigated the Radical Republicans, repudiating some civil rights legislation…something that in hindsight puts him on the wrong side of history. But he was at the time much respected for his centrist position and his message of peace.
During the 1874 Harvard commencement dinner, the first to take place in Memorial Hall (dedicated to those from Harvard who died in the war), General Bartlett gave an address that would long be remembered in Massachusetts. “…I think that the natural instinct of the people everywhere,” he said, “is toward peace and good will, and were it never thwarted by party intrigue, we should be much nearer to a perfect union, such as these men fought for, than we are today…It was to make this a happy, reunited country, where every man should be in reality free and equal before the law, that our comrades fought, our brothers fell…They died for their country — for the South no less than for the North….”
I’m not sure I know of any Massachusetts general who exhibited such bravery and suffered so much, regardless of his political views, to help preserve the Union.
[Sources: Francis W. Palfrey, Memoir of William Francis Bartlett, (1878); Richard Sauers and Martin Sable, William Francis Bartlett: Biography of a Union General in the Civil War, (2009); James Bowen, Massachusetts in the War, (1889)]