James Barnes, at sixty-one, was an old man. Of all the generals in the Army of the Potomac, only Brig. Gen. George Greene was older, and Barnes acted a lot older than Greene. At Gettysburg, Barnes would be commanding a division in battle for the first time. His preparation was questionable. He had been to West Point, but that had been more than three decades past, and he had spent most of the intervening time as a railroad engineer and executive.
Barnes was a Bostonian. He was educated at the Boston Latin School and been in business for some years before receiving an appointment to West Point. He graduated at the advanced age of twenty-eight, 5th out 46 in the class of 1829, the same year Robert E. Lee graduated 2nd. But after serving as an instructor of tactics and French at the Academy, he did what a great many competent men who were bored with peacetime army life did: he quit and went to work for the railroad. He resigned in 1836, and by 1839 he was superintendent of the Western Railroad, and had his offices in his hometown. He worked there for the next twenty-two years, until shots were fired at Fort Sumter.
With his military connections, he was given the colonelcy of the 18th Massachusetts volunteer regiment in July 1861. Barnes and his regiment went to the Peninsula with the Army of the Potomac, but the regiment didn't lose a man to enemy fire during the entire campaign. Although the 18th was placed in the hard-fighting Fifth Corps when that organization was created just before the Seven Days' Battles, Barnes's was the lone regiment detached to help the cavalry guard the army's rear while the rest of brigade suffered terribly in battle after bloody battle. After the campaign, however, his brigadier, Brig. Gen. John Martindale, was brought up on charges of having proposed surrender rather than withdrawal after Malvern Hill. Martindale was relieved, and Barnes, the senior colonel who had not yet fought a lick, took his place in command of the battered brigade on July 10, 1862.
Barnes was for some reason not present with his brigade at Second Bull Run. The Fifth Corps was held in reserve by McClellan at Antietam, and Barnes again found himself listening to the fighting from a short distance away. However, crossing the Potomac in the vanguard of the pursuit of Lee's army after the latter battle, Barnes suddenly had his first taste of combat, and it was bitter. His brigade was savagely attacked by the Rebel rear-guard, over 200 of his men were shot or drowned in their rush to regain the Maryland bank, and when it was over, the 100 or so who remained on the Virginia side were captives. He must have had well-placed advocates in Washington, meanwhile: in spite of his utterly lackluster record, he was promoted to brigadier general two months later, in November 1862.
At Fredericksburg, Barnes and his brigade took part in one of the last attacks on the impregnable Confederate positions on the hills above the town. He and his men did so bravely, losing 500 men in a futile attack. Barnes apparently distinguished himself. He was the first-mentioned officer in the commendations of Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin, his division commander, who wrote after the battle, "James Barnes . . . is entitled to special notice for his coolness, energy, and marked ability."
At Chancellorsville, Barnes's brigade was only lightly engaged--the Fifth Corps was never put in by commander Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker in that battle. Barnes was distinguished only in that his was the last brigade to retreat across the Rapahannock when the fighting was over.
Griffin went on sick leave immediately after the Chancellorsville battle. Thus it was that, with a record that boasted no successes, Barnes found himself a division commander as the army approached the showdown battle in Pennslvania at the end of June. He was past his prime, had never led a division in battle before, and his West Point training was a distant memory.
| While the battle was being fought west of Gettysburg on July 1,
Barnes's division was marching north from Union Mills to Hanover with the Fifth
Corps's Second Division. That evening, his division started toward Gettysburg
and arrived on Brinkerhoff's Ridge two miles east of town in the early morning
of July 2. They they paused briefly, skirmishing lightly with the Stonewall
Brigade while Meade pondered an offensive against the Confederate left. That
plan was abandoned, and the division was withdrawn southward in mid-morning
toward the Baltimore Pike, crossed the Rock Creek bridge around 11:00 A.M.,
then rested for a few hours near Power's Hill.|
Some time after 3:00 that afternoon, Sykes ordered Barnes's division toward Little Round Top by way of Granite Schoolhouse Lane. They had just reached the Taneytown Road with Vincent's brigade in the lead when Barnes and his men were summoned to action against Longstreet's attackers, who had just struck the Little Round Top area from the west. When the metal started to fly, Barnes did not display any lack of personal courage. The chronicler of the 118th Pennsylvania (a man who, it should be said, was inclined to inflate his accounts of his generals), wrote that he "rode valiantly amid the thickest of the fray, encouraging, persuading, directing with that same courageous judgment which had ever been his distinguishing characteristic." Barnes's performance, however, was ineffectual. During Longstreet's attack, according to Vincent's brigade's bugler and flag-bearer, Barnes was hard to find. He was not at the head of the column, and "if he gave an order during the battle to any brigade commander I fail to find a record of it in any account I have read." The one successful action of Barnes's division that day, Vincent's brigade's timely defense of Little Round Top, was ordered by Fifth Corps commander Sykes, bypassing Barnes.
Barnes's other two brigades, Col. Jacob Sweitzer's and Col. William Tilton's, were sent by Sykes to the aid of Birney's men in the Wheat Field. The miserable showing made by Barnes at this point was the source of subsequent complaint, denial, and recrimination: once they were in place, Barnes withdrew those two brigades 300 yards from the Wheat Field without permission. The New York Herald correspondent on the scene wrote that after Barnes pulled out he refused to order his brigades back into line, while de Trobriand asserted that Barnes's men fell back even before being engaged. Birney stated that when he saw Barnes withdraw without firing a shot he remonstrated, but without effect. When Caldwell's division arrived, Birney gave blunt orders for Barnes's men to lie down, and Zook's brigade passed over their prostrate bodies as they went forward into the firing line.
Barnes's most conspicuous appearance with his troops was poorly chosen--he detained Sweitzer's Brigade to deliver a patriotic speech just before they returned to the fight, at a time when every second was critical. Shortly afterward, when Sweitzer's brigade was again threatened on their right by a fresh Confederate charge, an aide who went to warn Barnes could not find him.
Barnes was wounded in the leg by a large piece of shell later in the day, and when he recovered from his wound, he did not return to the field. Even his own subordinates had criticized his judgment at Gettysburg. His career in the Army of the Potomac was over. He was given administrative duties in Washington until the war's end.