Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Captain Al Barnitz

Captain Albert Barnitz and His Letters and Journals

Following the Civil War, many officers born and raised in the East found themselves serving their country on the Kansas frontier.  One such officer was Captain Albert Barnitz, born in Pennsylvania in 1835 and reared in Ohio.  He studied first at Kenyon College and later continued his education at Cleveland Law College.  While there, he published a book of poetry titled Mystic Delvings.

Barnitz’s road to the Kansas frontier began after the death of his first wife who died in childbirth in 1860. Barnitz soon joined the 13th Ohio Infantry as a three month volunteer in 1861.  Following that service, he enlisted in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry as a sergeant.  By 1863, Barnitz achieved senior captain rank.

Following his recovery from severe injuries, Barnitz returned to serve under the command of George A. Custer in the Shenandoah Valley and fought his last battle at Appomattox.  He returned briefly to civilian life, but received a captain’s commission in the U.S. Army in 1866.  The following year he married his second wife Jennie Platt, and they began their Great Plains adventure as well as a series of letters and journals that shed much light on military and social life of that time period.

Barnitz served at several frontier forts, including Leavenworth, Riley, and Harker.  His wife Jennie joined him at several of these postings.  When they weren’t together, they wrote one another regularly. Albert also kept a journal of his experiences over decades.   Fortunately for posterity, they saved these documents.

Through these letters and journals, readers visit the years 1866 – 1869 on the Plains.  Robert Utley collected and edited these into the book Life in Custer’s 7th Cavalry.  Barnitz and Jennie write about life in the military, life on the prairie, Hancock’s failed expedition, a battle with Indians at Fort Wallace, Camp Alfred Gibbs (near the current town of Ellis, Kansas), and about Jennie surviving a flood at the first Fort Hays.

Comments in Albert and Jennie’s letters reveal personal information about the Custers, Colonel Alfred Gibbs, Major Joel Elliott, Miles Keogh, and other colleagues.  Through this couple’s running commentary, readers see these historical personages as real people with human strengths and frailties.  In addition, readers see the evolution of Barnitz’s attitudes about these individuals and realize Captain Barnitz and Jennie’s opinions weren’t static.  This couple’s correspondence engaged Robert Utley completely as he read through their decades of text.

Their letters reveal Albert and Jennie’s love story, his desire to be a good officer, and his disgust with fellow officers who drank too much or abused their troops.  He provides excellent accounts of wildlife, plants, and weather in this region as well.

Because Barnitz had the observational and writing skills of a poet, he recorded the essence of military life during one of the most critical periods on the frontier to provide a time machine-like glimpse into a vanished era. 

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