American Civil War: Brigadier General James Barnes

James Barnes
Brigadier General James Barnes. Photograph Source: Public Domain

James Barnes - Early Life & Career:

Born December 28, 1801, James Barnes was a native of Boston, MA.  Receiving his early education locally, he later attended Boston Latin School before commencing a career in business.  Unsatisfied in this field, Barnes elected to pursue a military career and obtained an appointment to West Point in 1825.  Older than many of his classmates, including Robert E. Lee, he graduated in 1829 ranked fifth of forty-six.  Commissioned as a brevet second lieutenant, Barnes received an assignment to the 4th US Artillery.  Over the next few years, he served sparingly with the regiment as he was retained at West Point to teach French and tactics.  In 1832, Barnes married Charlotte A. Sanford.

James Barnes - Civilian Life:

On July 31, 1836, following the birth of his second son, Barnes elected to resign his commission in the US Army and accepted a position as a civil engineer with a railroad.  Successful in this endeavor, he became superintendent of the Western Railroad (Boston & Albany) three years later.  Based in Boston, Barnes remained in this position for twenty-two years.  In the late spring of 1861, following the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and beginning of the Civil War, he left the railroad and sought a military commission.  As a graduate of West Point, Barnes was able to obtain the colonelcy of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry on July 26.  Traveling to Washington, DC in late August, the regiment remained in the area until the spring of 1862.

James Barnes - Army of the Potomac:

Ordered south in March, Barnes' regiment sailed to the Virginia Peninsula for service in Major General George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign.  Initially assigned to Brigadier General Fitz John Porter's division of III Corps, Barnes' regiment followed the general to the newly-created V Corps in May.  Largely assigned to guard duty, the 18th Massachusetts saw no action during the advance up the Peninsula or during the Seven Days Battles in late June and early July.  In the wake of the Battle of Malvern Hill, Barnes' brigade commander, Brigadier General John Martindale, was relieved.  As the senior colonel in brigade, Barnes assumed command on July 10.  The following month, the brigade participated in the Union defeat at the Second Battle of Manassas, though for unrecorded reasons Barnes was not present.    

Rejoining his command, Barnes moved north in September as McClellan's Army of the Potomac pursued Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.  Though present at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, Barnes' brigade and the rest of V Corps were held in reserve throughout the fighting.  In the days after the battle, Barnes made his combat debut when his men moved to cross the Potomac in pursuit of the retreating enemy.  This went badly as his men encountered the Confederate rearguard near the river and sustained over 200 casualties and 100 captured.  Barnes performed better later that fall at the Battle of Fredericksburg.  Mounting one of the several unsuccessful Union attacks against Marye's Heights, he received recognition for his efforts from his division commander, Brigadier General Charles Griffin.

James Barnes - Gettysburg:

Promoted to brigadier general on April 4, 1863, Barnes led his men at the Battle of Chancellorsville the following month.  Though only lightly engaged, his brigade held the distinction of being the last Union formation to recross the Rappahannock River after the defeat.  In the wake of Chancellorsville, Griffin was forced to take sick leave and Barnes assumed command of the division.  The second-oldest general in the Army of the Potomac behind Brigadier General George S. Greene, he led the division north to aid in halting Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania.  Arriving at the Battle of Gettysburg early on July 2, Barnes' men briefly rested near Power's Hill before V Corps commander Major General George Sykes ordered the division south towards Little Round Top.

En route, one brigade, led by Colonel Strong Vincent, was detached and rushed to aid in the defense of Little Round Top.  Deploying on the south side of the hill, Vincent's men, including Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain's 20th Maine, played a critical role in holding the position.  Moving with his remaining two brigades, Barnes received orders to reinforce Major General David Birney's division in the Wheatfield.  Arriving there, he soon withdrew his men back 300 yards without permission and refused pleas from those on his flanks to advance.  When Brigadier General James Caldwell's division arrived to reinforce the Union position, an irate Birney ordered Barnes' men to lie down so that these forces could pass through and reach the fighting.      

Finally moving Colonel Jacob B. Sweitzer's brigade into the fight, Barnes became conspicuously absent when it came under a flank attack from Confederate forces.  At some point later in the afternoon, he was wounded in the leg and taken from the field.  Following the battle, Barnes' performance was criticized by fellow general officers as well as his subordinates.  Though he recovered from his wound, he performance at Gettysburg effectively ended his career as a field officer.

James Barnes - Later Career & Life:

Returning to active duty, Barnes moved through garrison posts in Virginia and Maryland.  In July 1864, he assumed command of the Point Lookout prisoner-of-war camp in southern Maryland.  Barnes remained in the army until being mustered out on January 15, 1866.  In recognition of his services, he received a brevet promotion to major general.  Returning to railroad work, Barnes later aided the commission tasked with constructing the Union Pacific Railroad.  He later died at Springfield, MA on February 12, 1869 and was buried in the city's Springfield Cemetery.   

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Brigadier General James Barnes." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Civil War: Brigadier General James Barnes. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Brigadier General James Barnes." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).