Captain Barker and the Dragoons from Chicago
by William Kooser
On Sunday April 21, 1861, seven days after Fort Sumter surrendered to the Confederacy, the City of Chicago saw the first Illinois troops move into the field when close to 600 militiamen were dispatched to Cairo, Illinois, to establish and maintain control of the strategically important confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The following day, 300 more embarked for Cairo while 600 were directed to Springfield. The latter group included the Chicago Dragoons, a cavalry company recruited and commanded by thirty-eight-year-old Charles W. Barker, an auctioneer by profession. No stranger to command, Barker had organized the Chicago Dragoons as a militia company in 1856 shortly after moving to Chicago from Rochester, New York. However, as was the case with most Chicago companies, by January 1861, the Chicago Dragoons had lapsed into a state close to dormancy for lack of funds. Consequently, when Governor Yates, on April 17, granted Captain Barkers request that he be authorized to take the Chicago Dragoons to war, it was necessary for Captain Barker to actively solicit volunteers to accompany him. As it turned out, recruiting was not a problem. By the evening of April 19, the Captain had more volunteers than he needed.
After several weeks of training at Springfield, the Chicago Dragoons moved to Cairo and served there until the third week of June, at which time the company was ordered to Clarksburg, West Virginia, for duty as General McClellan's escort, arriving there June 23. Service in West Virginia included participation in the skirmish at Buckhannon on June 30 and the Battle of Rich Mountain on July 10. In August, after the three-month enlistment term had expired, the Chicago Dragoons was reconstituted with men enlisted for three-years of service and the name changed to McClellan Dragoons. In October 1861, a McClellan Dragoons squadron came into being when a second company was recruited. After General McClellan was relieved of command of The Army of the Potomac in November 1862, the McClellan Dragoons became companies H and I of the Twelfth Illinois Volunteer Cavalry.
The Chicago Tribune followed the activities of Captain Barker's Dragoons very closely, mentioning the unit almost daily, beginning in late April and continuing on through the summer of 1861. Certainly, as one of the first Chicago units called to serve, one might expect a Chicago newspaper to have an interest in the Dragoons' activities, but the coverage went beyond that for two reasons. First, William Medill, brother of Joseph Medill, Editor and Publisher of the Tribune, was a Private in the Dragoons. Second, Charles W Barker, as the founder of the Chicago Dragoons and Captain throughout the unit's five-year existence, probably enjoyed some stature in the Chicago community and, if not thought of as a prominent citizen, was probably well known. Whatever
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the reason, absent the Tribune's coverage, the story of the Chicago Dragoons would have been lost.
With his eager Dragoon volunteers safely in camp and beginning to undergo the transformation from civilians to soldiers, Captain Barker was in Chicago attending to a number of important matters. One task was overseeing the production of the uniforms which were to include a special pocket in the left breast of sufficient size to accommodate the testament which had been presented to every Dragoon by the Chicago Bible Society. Another matter was the occasion during which several of Captain Barker's friends presented him with "a splendid mare, of fine action and blood" and still another when George and William Wright "made him the handsome gift of a fine saddle and horse equipment." On the evening of Friday, May 3, Captain Barker accepted from the hands of John V. Farwell, President of the Young Men's Christian Association, "a beautiful stand of colors." The flag was of blue silk, five feet wide by six feet long with a heavy red, white, and blue silk fringe. One side contained the figure of a mounted dragoon and the motto "We will pray for you." The reverse contained an eagle surrounded with thirty-four stars beneath the motto "In God is our trust." Captain Barker's acceptance remarks were tinged with emotion and reportedly "did the gallant soldier high credit." He spent several days buying horses. During two days, Captain Barker purchased the horses needed for his command at the rate of $100 to $115 per head except for a fine blooded sorrel of excellent style and action for which $225 was rumored to have been paid. The colors were generally dark, and all were at least fifteen hands, or five feet, high. Arrangements were made to have the animals shipped to Cairo to await their riders. In the meantime, the Dragoons' ranks had swelled to 172 volunteers, enough for two companies - a squadron. However, in the early days of the Civil War, there was a general reluctance to accept volunteer cavalry because it was expensive to outfit, train, and maintain, and it was a well-known fact that the war would be of short duration with action in wooded country not suited to cavalry operations. Consequently, when the time came for the Dragoons to move from Springfield to Cairo, the authorities would only authorize one company, so seventy-two enthusiastic young men, who aspired to become cavalrymen and "kill traitors," were told they were not wanted and that they could go home. The full story describing the build-up of the Dragoons and the reduction in force which followed is complicated. At the outset, Barker thought he had authorization for 125 men. He accepted forty-seven more recruits expecting to secure approval to muster in two companies. He was then told only eighty would be accepted but was ordered to take one hundred men to Cairo. According to the Cincinnati Commercial, 110 men later sojourned in Cincinnati while en route to Clarksburg, so confusion abounded. As a result, a list of complaints about Barker and his handling of the situation was published in the May 23 Chicago Post. The Chicago Tribune responded by publishing, on May 27, a resolution confirming the Chicago Dragoons' full, unconditional support of Captain Barker. Privates William Medill and George Forsyth initiated the support resolution.
By mid-May, the Chicago Dragoons were in Cairo and mounted at last, each armed with a "Sharpe's carbine, two Colt's Navy revolvers and a dragoon sabre." While on furlough in Chicago during the first week of June, Second Lieutenant Edwin Webber reported that the boys were well, in good spirits, and enjoying a four-hour "bare-back" drill every morning. He further reported that all were making excellent progress and would become excellent troopers in a short time. On June 15, the day the company received orders to move to West Virginia, the Chicago Tribune's Cairo correspondent, identified only as "K," wrote:
"It is needless to say that this splendid corps received the order with the greatest enthusiasm; and that they will do their duty to their country. A finer set of muscular powerful men cannot be found. And their horse flesh is magnificent. Their discipline and drill is, I may say, almost perfect, and if called on, "they will ride into the jaws of death" as quickly and as eagerly as did "the six hundred" at the fearful charge of Balaklava."
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The Chicago Dragoons' roster contains 110 names plus that of Captain Barker. Embury D. Osband was First Lieutenant, and Edwin A. Webber was Second Lieutenant. Osband had served as Second Lieutenant before the war and was the only pre-war officer to opt for war service with the Dragoons. In a number of ways it was an exceptional group of young men. During the fifteen-week period from April 19 to July 31, 1861, the group experienced no losses. In contrast, during the same period of time, the Plainfield Artillery, an eighty-seven-man unit dispatched to Cairo on April 22, counted two deaths, six discharged due to disabilities, four absent sick when the unit mustered out, and three desertions. The average Dragoon at 26.1 years was slightly older than the average Union soldier who was 25.8 years old and at 5'- 8 3/4" he was one-half inch taller than the average soldier. Forty-eight percent of all Union soldiers had been farmers, twenty-four percent mechanics, sixteen percent laborers, and twelve percent from other pursuits while thirty-seven percent of the Chicago Dragoons company had been clerks or bookkeepers, sixteen percent farmers, and ten percent carpenters, blacksmiths, and bricklayers. The remaining thirty-seven percent included two printers, an auctioneer, a tobacconist, a salesman, and others engaged as: engineer, fireman, lawyer, jeweler, and postmaster.
The Chicago Dragoons clearly had a strong religious orientation and ties to the Young Men's Christian Association of Chicago, an association devoted to "the improvement of the spiritual, intellectual, and social condition of young men." In addition to the testament presented each Dragoon by the Chicago Bible Society, Captain Barker had received a "beautifully bound Bible" and the company had been provided "a choicely selected Religious Library of 200 volumes" by the Second Presbyterian Church. The Dragoons' colors were a gift of the Chicago YMCA. John V. Farwell, the presiding dignitary at the May 3 color presentation ceremony and "a man of intense religious and moral conviction," was a principal founder of the Chicago YMCA and a former employer of Dragoon Private George A. Forsyth. Other evidence that the Chicago Dragoons had a more pronounced spiritual orientation than other units consists of Tribune reports on May 3 and 4 that several Dragoons were among the "best esteemed" members of the YMCA; an April 22 article in which church attendance as a group is mentioned; and a post-war story recounting how the company declined an invitation to a theater benefit to raise funds for equipment and voted to "have the daily prayer meeting instead."
On the evening of Wednesday, July 31, 1861, the Chicago Dragoons arrived back in Chicago en masse, sans horses and accouterments. However, something had gone terribly wrong. On April 19, the Tribune reported: "They are all enlisted for the war, Capt. Barker determining to lead no 'three month' volunteers." However, the enlistment agreement signed by each member of the Dragoons required only three months service and when most chose not to re-enlist while in Virginia, they were sent home. Captain Barker, under orders to recruit a company of "three-year" men for service in the East with General McClellan, proceeded to open a recruiting office at James Duffy's cigar store, 37 Clark Street.
The reasons why the Dragoons would not re-enlist were made public with the distribution of the Chicago Tribune's issue of Monday, August 5, 1861.
A Card from the Chicago Dragoons
To the Chicago Public:
That the Chicago Dragoons are now in this city, and not with Gen. McClellan, is the fault of but one person, and he is their Captain - Charles W. Barker.
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months and ten days, in the field and in camp. We ought to know the man. We pronounce him incompetent as an officer, and habitually dissipated.
The authors of the "Card" went on to castigate Captain Barker severely by citing examples of his shortcomings as an officer and alleging that he was also insensitive, uncaring, and a liar and a thief. The Card continued:
There was a time when eighty odd men declared with wild cheers their willingness to go for three years. But, as they came to know the man better, to feel his indifference to their welfare, expressed, on one occasion when our line of tents was by his orders, pitched in a wet ditch, and he declared that he did not "care a d— for the men;" to endure his abusive language, and to know that he was not preparing them for encounters in which their lives and the glory of the nation were at stake - a change came over the spirit of their dreams — they determined to serve no longer under him.
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We bear no malice against Capt. Barker. The majority of us will again enlist, but not under him. If others wish to do so we have no objections to make.
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Some of the men did not agree and in rebuttal said:
To The Public
We, the undersigned, members of the Chicago Dragoons, being aware of an attempt to injure, traduce, and calumniate the official character of Capt. Barker, and others connected with the Dragoons, on the part of a number of discontented and defunct members of the "home squad" recently attached to the company; and knowing their sole aim to be to bring the company and its officers into disrepute, for the purpose of gratifying petty personal spites, and avenging fancied wrongs, even at the expense of dishonor to the whole company and to Chicago, hereby protest against their scandalous proceedings and base misrepresentations.
Sixty-four Dragoons (58%) signed the accusing letter. William H. Medill and George Forsyth were among them. Sixteen Dragoons (15%) signed the rebuttal letter. Thirty (27%) abstained. Second Lieutenant Webber signed the rebuttal. First Lieutenant Osband did not sign either. Only twenty-one of the one hundred and ten three-month Chicago Dragoons (19%) decided to stay with Captain Barker. Even so, by August 17, the company's rolls had once again been filled and officers elected. Charles W. Barker was Captain; Thomas Bracken, First Lieutenant; Edwin A. Webber, Second Lieutenant; and George W. Shears, Brevet Second Lieutenant. On Sunday, August 18, the McClellan Dragoons attended services at the First Baptist Church. On August 22, the company departed Chicago for Bellaire, Ohio, en
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route to Washington, D.C. and service to General McClellan.
Despite the defection of William Medill from his command, Captain Barker continued to enjoy favorable relations with the Chicago Tribune as evidenced by the issue of October 15:
Capt. Charles W. Barker
It is stated that C. W Barker of the Chicago Dragoons, constituting McClellan's bodyguard, is to be made a Major and invested with the command of a battalion. Apropos of the Captain, our Washington correspondent, writing of the late great review of Artillery and Cavalry at Washington, says:
"Here on the extreme right of the volunteers, and next to the regulars, are a troop in which all here say our Chicago folks should take pride, the McClellan Dragoons, Capt. Barker, than whom on this field of review today not another company showed more precision and accuracy of drill than they. Finely mounted and good riders, they stood in line like statues and afterwards rode by the staff with the effect of winning high commendation, both from military and civic on-lookers. Gen. McClellan himself turned to his officers saying 'There, those are my Chicago boys.'"
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The McClellan Dragoons, our Chicago boys, have by far the best mount of any troop in the city in their new and handsome uniform, blue with the orange trimming that marks their place as dragoons. They are especially attached to the staff and person of the Commander-in-Chief, and he takes no pains to conceal his vast pride in them.
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It is not too much praise of Capt. Barker to say that he has made them the best drilled volunteer cavalry corps in the service. We shall have occasion to speak of them again.
Major Barker returned to Chicago once again on October 18, and by October 24, had recruited enough men for the second company of the proposed McClellan Dragoons Squadron. By November 9, the Squadron organization was in-place with Charles W. Barker, Major, Squadron Commander; George Shears, Captain, Commanding Company A; and David Brown, Captain, Commanding Company B. First Lieutenant Thomas Bracken was no longer with the Dragoons, having resigned his commission to avoid a court martial.
On Tuesday, November 19, the Chicago Tribune printed the following:
BABKER'S DRAGOONS - Barker's Dragoons, acknowledged by the best military authorities at Washington as one of the finest squadrons in the cavalry service, are preparing to go into winter quarters, and to this end are erecting their barracks and stables in the vicinity of Washington. They have received their uniforms and are thoroughly supplied with equipment of every description.
At least sixty-two of the 110 men on the original Chicago Dragoons roster enlisted for further service. Of the sixty-two, thirty-five (56%) became commissioned officers before the war was over and of the thirty-five at least fifteen (24%) commanded company-size or larger units. No other Union unit of comparable size produced troop leaders in such numbers and the principal reason was the break-up of the original company caused by the contro-
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versy which surrounded Captain Barker. Four former Chicago Dragoons deserve special mention.
Private William Medill recruited the Fremont Dragoons which became Company G of the Eighth Illinois Cavalry. Captain Medill was promoted Major in the Eighth Illinois Cavalry on September 10, 1862. He was mortally wounded in the battle of Williamsport, Maryland, and died July 16, 1863, at the age of twenty-seven.
This would be a good place to conclude the story of the Chicago Dragoons. The unit apparently did its job to General McClellan's satisfaction, and although there was some publicly aired controversy, it quickly dissipated. Charles W. Barker continued to demonstrate his talents and abilities by recruiting not one, but two companies of McClellan Dragoons. But there is more to the story. On July 22, 1862, fourteen McClellan Dragoons signed court-martial charges alleging misdeeds by Major Barker. The charges were conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline and conduct unbecoming an officer. The specifications supporting the charges cited the filing of false reports, selling government property, and being intoxicated while on duty. Of the fourteen complainants, nine, among them Captains Brown and Shears, had served with Captain Barker since April 1861. Once again Charles Barker was accused of being a liar, thief, and drunk. A Court Martial was never convened. Major Barker resigned his commission August 2, 1862, "to accept another position in the service of the United States."
Charles W. Barker died April 5, 1877, at the age of fifty-four while on board a train en route to Rochester, N.Y. At the time his home was on West Forty-first Street in New York City. According to his New York Times obituary, "Major Barker was not only a successful auctioneer, but one of the most expert pool-sellers in the City. His reputation for fair dealing and trustworthiness gained him the support of some of the most prominent men in the community."
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