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General Francis Bartow: Born, Raised and Buried in Historic Savannah

Frances Bartow

“They have killed me, boys, but never give up the field.” (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

This quote may be Francis Stebbins Bartow’s most famous statement, one he allegedly made after being fatally wounded in the Civil War. But, who really was Bartow?

Well, he was born in Savannah on September 6, 1816 to Frances Lloyd Stebbins and Theodosius Bartow, and graduated from Franklin College (now known as the University of Georgia). He left the state to study at Yale University Law School and then learned the practical side of his profession in Savannah, working under John Macpherson Berrien, who served in the United States Senate and as an attorney general.

In 1837, Bartow officially began practicing law and he quickly became a well-known attorney. With his increased success and wealth came an increased number of slaves owned; by 1860, he had 89. Most of them worked on his plantation along the Savannah River, and he became one of Georgia’s largest slaveholders.

His professional success came, in part, because of his marriage to Berrien’s daughter, Louisa. He and his father-in-law both belonged to the Whig Party, although Bartow also formed relationships with well-known Democrats. During the 1840s, Bartow was elected twice to the Georgia House of Representatives. Then, in the following decade, he served a term in the state senate. In 1857, he unsuccessfully ran for Congress.

But, what about his military career? That began in 1856, when he was chosen as the captain of the Oglethorpe Light Infantry, an elite fighting unit. This unit became well known for its taking of Fort Pulaski in January 1861.

Advocate for Secession

Bartow was also chosen to represent the state at a secession convention. As a believer in immediate secession from the United States, he passionately made the case for Georgia to secede, and that’s exactly what happened in January 1861. He was then chosen to serve in the Provisional Confederate Congress, where he chaired the military affairs committee. It is believed that he “selected gray as the color for the Confederate uniforms.” Bartow was not in favor of electing Jefferson Davis as the president of the Confederacy, preferring Howell Cobb. When that didn’t happen, he left the convention.

He became involved in more controversy when, after the Civil War began, he led the Oglethorpe Light Infantry to Virginia, armed with muskets that Georgia’s governor claimed were intended for state defense only. The governor insisted that he return the weapons, and Bartow refused. He ended one letter with this phrase: “I go to illustrate, if I can, my native State.”

In Virginia, Bartow officially served as a colonel and, in July, he commanded a brigade in the First Battle of Manassas. His brigade participated in skirmishes until July 20. His unit was originally supposed to be held in reserve, but was then moved to support General James Longstreet. On July 21, he grabbed the regimental colors to lead a charge, but was shot through the heart. His body was returned to Savannah and he is buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery. Bartow was the first high-ranking Georgian to die in the Civil War, with this distinction causing a town and county to be named after him.

Because he was leading a brigade when he died, he would have been promoted to brigadier general, but no actual record of this promotion can be located. So, “General” Francis Bartow actually died as a colonel. You can find more information about Bartow and his final battle at AboutNorthGeorgia.com, and more about Bartow’s final resting place in our blog post on historic Savannah cemeteries.

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