Civil War Courier

Follow Us On:

The Real Dirty Harry

Posted on Friday, December 8, 2017 at 8:21 am

Harry Barry’s life, from Confederate prisoner to Mississippi Congressman

Harry Barry (a.k.a. Henry W. Barry) was a schoolteacher, a private, a lieutenant, a colonel, a state senator, a brigadier general, a major general, and a United States Congressman. He was also an incompetent officer, a probable deserter, an insubordinate soldier, a liar, a forger, an embezzler, and a drunk. How did he accomplish all this in 35 years of life?

At the time of his death, he was a United States Congressman, representing Mississippi’s Third Congressional District in the 41st, 42nd, and 43rd Congress.

He was born in 1840 in Schoharie County, New York, and by age 18 was a self-educated schoolteacher (other records say principal) at the Locust Grove Academy, near Lebanon, Kentucky. In November 1861, at age 22, he enlisted as a private in Company B (other records say Company H), 10th Kentucky Infantry. He was soon elected 1st lieutenant. The next event of note was on September 7, 1862, when he was a prisoner of the Confederates and was paroled at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Dyer’s Compendium states that the 10th Kentucky was chasing Braxton Bragg around Nashville and Louisville in August and September of that year. Nothing in the records indicates what Barry was doing around Vicksburg.

On November 17, 1862, just two months after his return from Vicksburg, Barry was dismissed from the service because of being “wholly insufficient as an officer and absent without leave.” After a series of complaints and objections, Barry had the stain of dismissal removed, and he was “discharged” on January 5, 1863. Through further maneuvering, and a visit to Gen. Rosecrans, on February 18 his departure was changed to the even more honorable “resigned.” His photograph, at the time of his first military service, shows a fresh-faced young man with a narrow and elegant mustache. His second military venture was in the hands of John H. Taggart, a Union man of sober and productive character.

In August 1861, Taggart was the commander of the 41st Pennsylvania Infantry. He was court-martialed for “brutally beating” one of his soldiers. These troops were new, raw, and undisciplined. When the train stopped, a hundred men jumped off the train and began to plunder a peach orchard. Taggart drove most of the men back to the train, but four openly defied their colonel, and stepped forward in a menacing manner. Taggart knocked the ring leader to the ground. The court-martial not only found Taggart innocent, but praised his quelling of a riot, as did Gen. McClellan. After a few years of service, in which he successfully led his troops in battle, Taggart resigned.

In the summer of 1863, the Union began to organize regiments of African Americans. Very few of the recruits could read or write, and even fewer had military training. Who would be the officers for these new troops? The War Department offered experienced white enlisted men a chance to apply for commissions in colored regiments. However, the very strict examining boards rejected so many applicants that many officer positions remained unfilled. What was needed was an officer candidate prep school. With the encouragement of Maj. Gen. Silas Casey, the Philadelphia Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments put together a curriculum and a faculty, published a prospectus, and opened for business December 26, 1864. The chief organizer and preceptor was none other than John H. Taggart. When the Free Military School for Applicants for Command of Colored Troops graduated its first class in late January 1864, all but four of the 94 passed the examinations and were awarded commissions.

The course of instruction lasted one month. Henry W. Barry received a colonel’s commission from Abraham Lincoln, dated April 7, 1864. This suggests that he was in the OCS class during February or March, about a month after the school opened its doors. Barry was quick to seize an opportunity for a rank far above his apparently disgraced lieutenancy. He was appointed to the command of the 8th US Colored Heavy Artillery. He was now a full colonel, with silver eagles upon his shoulders. Who and what was this regiment?

It came into existence as the 1st Regiment Kentucky Heavy Artillery, African Descent, which was soon changed to 7th US Colored Field Artillery, before settling on its final designation as the 8th US Colored Heavy Artillery. Its troops were recruited around Paducah, amidst often violent protests by the white inhabitants. The regiment served almost all its time in and around Paducah, mostly as part of the garrison of Fort Anderson, which was sited along the Ohio River. The defenses included the usual redoubts, plus a 50-foot water-filled ditch. Its moment of fierce combat came with the arrival of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest in March 1864.

On March 25, Forrest’s men began sacking Paducah and stealing horses and mules. The rebel commander sent a note to the fort’s commander, Col. Stephen G. Hicks, that if the fort would surrender, the men would be treated as prisoners of war, possibly implying that he would not murder the colored troops. Forrest added, “… but if I have to storm your works, you may expect no quarter.” Hicks refused to surrender and Forrest’s men charged the fort twice, but were beaten back by canister and grapeshot, not just from the Union artillery but also from two Union gunboats.

Did Col. Barry participate in this gallant defense by the 8th US Colored Heavy Artillery? Not likely. His commission is dated two weeks later than the battle and his compiled service record shows him in Paducah from April onward, but not before. Later entries of note show him temporarily commanding the post at Paducah in August and September, in arrest February through April 1865, and back in command in June. The regiment had a hand in a skirmish on July 26, 1864 at “Haddix’s Ford.” (This location has proven hard to find. There is a Haddix Fork, near Jackson, Kentucky, 340 miles from Paducah.) Around April 1865, the regiment was transferred to Texas for occupational duty. He was absent a month in July 1865 on temporary duty commanding the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 25th Army Corps, absent again in October 1865, when he was ordered to testify at a court-martial, and was finally mustered out in February 1866, at Victoria Texas.

Adding to the puzzle of Barry’s life is General Order No. 65, issued by the War Department on June 22, 1867, fifteen months after he was mustered out. This order appointed him Brigadier General by Brevet, for “faithful and meritorious services during war.” Even more puzzling was General Order No. 67, issued only three weeks later, appointing him Major General by Brevet, for “meritorious and faithful services during the war.” The addition of stars to his shoulder straps raises two issues. The first is the wording of these orders. Brevet promotions based on actual combat were for “Gallant and meritorious services.” Barry’s was clearly for administrative services. The second issue is that of fraud. Roger D. Hunt’s magisterial Brevet Brigadier Generals in Blue (page xvi) tells the whole sordid story.

William H. Randall was a long-time Kentucky lawyer and politician. In 1867, Barry prevailed upon Randall, now a Congressman, to nominate him for a brevet promotion. To “help” Randall in this endeavor, Barry sent him letters of recommendation by six different Union luminaries – Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, John A. Logan, George H. Thomas, John M. Palmer, and Eleazer A. Paine. In January 1868, James D. McBride, who had been a lieutenant-colonel in Barry’s former colored heavy artillery regiment, wrote to the War Department, presenting evidence that all these letters of recommendation were fraudulent. (Nan Card, Curator of Manuscripts at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, confirms that there was never any Barry/Rutherford correspondence.) McBride described in detail Barry’s method of obtaining “recommendations,” using sleight-of-hand flim-flam “autograph copies.” In March 1868, General U. S. Grant, citing evidence of fraud, recommended that Barry’s brevet promotions be cancelled. Secretary of War John M. Schofield endorsed Grant’s recommendation, but took no action. Eighteen months later, John A. Rawlins, Schofield’s replacement, received a letter from Congressman William Lawrence of Ohio, asserting that “well-known gentlemen” could disprove the allegations of Barry’s fraud. The War Department took no action either way, perhaps because of Barry’s increasing power in the Congress, and he retained his rank of brevet major-general.

A partial answer to his lust for self-promotion may lie in another 1867 event: he graduated from the law department of Columbian College (now George Washington University) in Washington, DC. He now had the technical knowledge of how to work the system. Within months, he opened a law practice in Columbus, Mississippi, entered politics and before the year was out he was a delegate to the state constitutional convention. In 1868 was elected to the Mississippi State Senate. Henry Barry at age twenty-eight was a lawyer, a Major General, and a Senator.

But before his post-war triumphs there was the little matter of his court-martial. The composition of a court-martial board is important. A soldier cannot be tried by persons of inferior rank, hence the board that convened in March 1865 at Paducah, Kentucky to hear his case (and several others) contained Major General David Hunter, Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman, Major General Silas Casey, Brigadier General Henry B. Carrington, Brigadier General William Harrow, Brigadier General John B. McIntosh, Colonel J. Connell, and Colonel William M. Dunn. After the mandatory swearings-in, and the introduction of Barry’s counsel, F. M. Murray, Esq., the court listed the charges and specifications. There was one charge — Conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline, with five specifications.

First specification: “In this that Colonel H. W. Barry, 8th Regiment, United State Colored Artillery (Heavy), did cause procure, and allow extracts from a certain military order, not officially communicated to him the said Colonel H. W. Barry, nor through the regular military channels, to be made out and certified as official by the signature of George W. Cox, Adjutant of the 8th U.S. Colored Artillery (Heavy), which said extracts announced the discharge from the service of the United States of Lieutenant Colonel Richard Cunningham and Major Henry Bartling, both of the said 8th Regiment U.S. Colored Artillery (Heavy), and the appointment of other officers in their stead, and did cause and allow said extracts, so certified as official to be delivered to said Cunningham and Bartling as official orders. This at Paducah, Kentucky, on or about the 30th day of January 1865.”

In the remaining four specifications, the often tedious, redundant, and obtuse language of legal proceedings will be replaced by a more concise paraphrasing, except where the original wording seems essential.

Second Specification: Henry Barry caused the firm of Norton Brothers, Bankers, to receive of one Mrs. Kerr 150 dollars in United States Treasury notes, and to pay to her 150 dollars in gold, when the gold was worth far more than the Treasury notes, this on August 30, 1864. [Calculated on the basis of an 1865 private’s pay compared with a 2014 private’s pay, Mrs. Kerr received $30,000 in purchasing power, plus a probable premium for gold.]

Third Specification. Colonel Barry placed Capt. Charles A. Holmes, Company C, under arrest for thirty days, without preferring charges, beginning November 23, 1864.

Fourth Specification. On February 6, 1865, Colonel Barry said, in the presence of citizens and officers, that his commanding officer, Brigadier General Sol Meredith “is the damndest liar out of hell.”

Fifth Specification. On February 8, 1865, he again used insulting language regarding General Meredith: “He is God-damned old liar.”

Among the various pieces of evidence presented in the long court-martial, one stands out. The general commanding the district which included Paducah appointed a Board of Investigation. On September 21, 1864, Jno. Mason Brown, commanding the 45th Kentucky Mounted Infantry, and acting as recorder of the Board of Investigation, submitted the following report, addressed to Capt. James Graham, A.A.G.

“I have the honor to apprise you officially, and through you the Genl. Comdg. the West District of Ky, that it is proved by affidavits in possession of this Board that Col Barry 8th U.S. Cold. Heavy Arty. addressed an official letter to Norton Bros[.] Bankers, Paducah Ky and therein demanded the fulfillment of a verbal understanding, which was that $150 in gold should be paid to Mary Kerr a lewd woman with whom Barry was intimate. The money was paid in compulsion, though Mary Kerr had no money deposited in [the] Bank. The proof can be obtained from Mr. Jno. C. Steele, & Mr. W. F. Norton [,] both of Paducah.”

Elsewhere in the trial transcript Mrs. Kerr is described as a “lewd and disreputable character,” and a “lewd woman.” One witness claimed that the citizens of Paducah were shocked to see Col. Barry and Mrs. Kerr out riding together.

In a somewhat surprising decision, the court-martial acquitted Barry of the first three specifications and convicted of the latter two, in which he disrespected Gen. Meredith. Barry was sentenced to be reprimanded in General Orders.

With his election to the US House of Representatives in 1870, representing Mississippi’s Third District, Barry’s life entered a new phase. He served for the 41st, 42nd, and 43rd Congresses, was chairman of the committee on post office expenditures, voted in favor of establishing Yellowstone National Park, and nominated Henry E. Baker to the US Naval Academy; Baker became the nation’s third African American naval cadet. Then one night, his political career was over. The Evening Star of June 7, 1875 carried on the front page a notice of his death. The article is worth analyzing.

Gen. Henry W. Barry, member of Congress from Mississippi, died this morning, suddenly, at the residence of the late Mr. Thyson, his wife’s father, No. 43 I Street. He had just returned from Mississippi on Saturday night. Gen. Barry was born in New York, was self-educated; was principal of Locust Grove Academy, Kentucky, for two years, graduated at the Columbia Law College, in this city, entered the Union army as a private early in the war; organized the first regiment of colored troops raised in Kentucky [this is mostly accurate]; commanded a brigade [four weeks of temporary duty] and for a time a division of the army [not true]; was brevetted twice for gallant and meritorious conduct [Not true; it was for faithful and meritorious conduct; gallant is for combat experience], the last brevet being major-general; was elected a member of the state constitutional convention of Mississippi in 1847; was elected to the state senate of Mississippi in 1848; and was elected to the 41st and 42nd Congresses, and was re-elected to the 43rd Congress as a republican, receiving 15,944 votes against [illegible] votes for W. S. Bolding, democrat.

In the end, Barry was undone by – Barry. On June 8, 1875, the Jackson (Mississippi) Daily Times, told its readers: “He was a young man of brilliant talents and much force of character and, but for the insatiable appetite for intoxicating drink, which he seemed utterly powerless to control, he might have won for himself a high and honorable name.” The Columbus (Mississippi) Columbus Press, on June 12, 1875, ran a long front page article on Barry’s death, praising his rise from poverty, his “indomitable will,” his self education, his (fraudulent) command of a division, and his brevet rank of major-general for “gallant” conduct, (a double fraud, unknown of course to the Columbus Press writer), and his “radical [unspecified] views” at the state Constitutional Convention of 1867. Relevant to the cause of death is the final paragraph of this long and rather positive obituary.

It cannot be denied that his energies were greatly impaired during the latter years of his life, by an ever increasing and insatiable desire for strong drink. And, after all, it is a sad commentary on the weakness of humanity that a man, possessed of such tireless and indomitable will, and strong and natural physical organism – who had in so few years, succeeded in putting aside all obstacles, and attaining almost the very goal of his ambition, should, in the vigor of manhood, be conquered and laid low in the dust of defeat by the overmastering force of one evil habit.

What can we make of this, 150 years later? Can we, here, solve the puzzle of alcoholism? Did he carry within himself, as in Buddenbrooks, the “seeds of his own destruction”? Did his secret self recognize that much of his success was built of a series of self-promoting lies? Was he a “hollow man,” pedaling faster and faster so as not to fall down? Did he, as postulated by the noted psychiatrist Eric Berne, make an early decision, creating a Life Script, which he followed blindly, one part of his psyche remaining blind to the other parts? Was his rarely mentioned mother part Native American, injecting a genetic vulnerability into the mix? Of course, we will never know.

He is interred in the District of Columbia’s Oak Hill Cemetery. His wife, Kate Thyson Barry lived on until 1907. His son, Frank, died at age 15.

-By Thomas P. Lowry


If you liked this article and would like to see more, subscribe to our print and/or digital editions. We have the only online library of the best researched reenactor information dating back to 2005. Click here to subscribe