We are very pleased to publish our first guest post following our call for blog submissions on aspects of Irish American Civil War history. This fascinating analysis about the career, character, and cultural views of Welsh-born Irish 69th Pennsylvania commander Joshua T. Owen has been written by doctoral student Aled Jones, and is the first of two posts exploring the history of Owen and his relationship with the 69th Pennsylvania. Aled is currently working on his PhD at Swansea University, where he is researching the experiences of Welsh soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War. This work helps showcase the newest scholarship being undertaken which looks more in-depth at wartime stories and other immigrant histories connected broadly to the Irish in the Civil War. We welcome Aled’s contribution in helping shed light on such an intriguing figure, who shares many comparisons with more familiar Celtic general brethren like Thomas Francis Meagher. If you want to follow in Aled’s footsteps, please note that our call for guest post submissions is open – guidelines and details can be found here.
The relationship between Irish-Americans and Welsh-Americans was, in a word, complicated, during the nineteenth-century. The Welsh-American diaspora was predominantly abolitionist, unlike much of the Northern population, yet their affection for African-Americans was far greater than their feelings for their Irish neighbours. Consequently, the Civil War years were crucial in forging bonds of brotherhood between these two distinct cultural groups, as thousands now found themselves fighting side by side in Union uniform for the Stars and Stripes. Both parties defined themselves as American citizens by their military service, and their sacrifices bound them together in a shared identity defined by their status as veterans. A paramount case-study of this new dynamic was embodied in the example of the 69th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment. In an exceptional turn of events, this predominantly Irish unit was commanded by a Welshman – Joshua T. Owen, nicknamed ‘Paddy Owen’ by his subordinates.
Owen was born in Carmarthen, later emigrating to Baltimore in 1835, and eventually settled in Philadelphia, where he became a man of local note and stature. In 1845, he graduated from Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania; he then engaged in teaching with his brother in the Chestnut Hill Academy and in the practice of Law. He was a member of the Pennsylvania legislature from 1857 until 1859, and was a private in the 1st City Troop militia of Philadelphia. After commanding the nine-month 25th Pennsylvania Regiment, on the 19th August 1861, Owen raised and subsequently took over command of the predominantly Irish 69th Pennsylvania Regiment in the Philadelphia Brigade, which he also eventually rose to command as Brigadier General. (1)
Owen is an incredibly rare example, as most Welshmen in the Union Army never attained a rank higher than that of Captain. Strangely, however, his name does not appear in any of the Welsh language American papers; Y Cenhadwr Americanaidd, Y Drych, Y Seren Orllewinol and Y Cyfaill o’r Hen Wlad. (2) Ardent patriotism was the norm, which the Welsh press was pivotal in setting the precedent. It would be expected, therefore, that such a high-ranking individual would be a poster-boy of patriotic propaganda for the Welsh-American community, yet his experience is completely excluded.
This is particularly puzzling, for as we delve deeper in our analysis it does not appear to be merely an egregious error on the part of the Welsh periodicals. It seems the reason he saw no national recognition is because his name was shrouded in controversy. It is reasonable to suggest that it was because of his Irish connection. The 69th Pennsylvania lacked the nucleus of Welsh recruits that would have written to Welsh press, contributing to Owen’s lack of national recognition. Yet Philadelphia had a strong Welsh presence, so the story of a Carmarthen-born high-ranking officer should have made its way to the Welsh media. Consequently, there is an implication that his association with Irish volunteers proved distasteful to his national compatriots, whose relationship with their Gaelic neighbours was highly complicated. As the war progressed, his controversy only grew.Owen had a major stain against his military reputation because he was arrested by his Divisional Commander, General John Gibbon, shortly before the Gettysburg Campaign.
The contemporary claim was that Owen was arrested for cowardice and negligence of duty, yet from a closer examination the real reason behind his arrest is not entirely transparent. At the time Gibbon attested it to his penchant for drinking, but strangely made no mention of it in his memoirs. It is perhaps more than likely that his style of leadership was incompatible with Gibbon’s stricter control issues, being not only a West Pointer but also an popular military manual. (3) Consequently, Owen was disgraced and missed out on commanding his brigade at the decisive battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. Moreover, his conduct during the rest of the war was marred by his enmity with Gibbon, which manifested itself in something resembling a smear campaign. There is even evidence that Owen put in a request to be transferred, such was the disagreement between the two.
Owen proved a controversial figure throughout the war. There are some revealing articles in American newspapers about his conduct as Colonel of the 69th Pennsylvania Volunteers. For example, in November 1862 the Wood County Reporter wrote that Colonel Owen had been court-martialled for ‘conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline, and unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.’ (4) The report claimed that Colonel Owen had been very much intoxicated and, rather than being stationed with his regiment, he had been found late in the afternoon in the streets of Harpers Ferry, engaged in a scandalous quarrel and collision with the Lieutenant Colonel of his own regiment, by whom he was pulled from his horse and thrown violently to the ground. After this point, he was arrested by the provosts. (5) He was found guilty and sentenced to be dismissed from the army. Fortunately, the sentence was rescinded on the basis of his previous good character and distinguished services during the war.
Owen’s apparent fondness for drink may have endeared him more to the soldiers under his command, being seen in this manner as more of an officer with the common touch rather than an aloof, more conservative ‘Gentleman Officer.’ The consumption of alcohol played an important role in developing bonds between officers and enlisted men, so Owen’s non-traditional attitude towards joviality may be indicative of a more populist approach to leadership.
This is vindicated by approaching Charles H. Banes’ History of the Philadelphia Brigade. He had served previously as Lieutenant Colonel in the brigade, and as such his eye-witness testimony of Owen’s character and reputation as an officer is highly useful in redeeming his name. The first impression of Owen that we are presented with is that he was ‘well calculated by his generous and genial spirit in camp and his bearing in action.’ (6) Furthermore, Banes argued that the Sixty-Ninth regiment, under Colonel Owen, became rivals of the other regiments in the brigade in acquiring the knowledge of the duties of a soldier, being noted for its faithfulness on guard and for the tenacity of its men in following orders. (7) Our vision is thus reminiscent of McClellan’s standing within the army of the Potomac, as a popular and competent trainer of men, a far cry from the previous perception of his incompetence and misconduct.
Unfortunately, he remained controversial in the public perception. As if to show even more that Owen was no friend of the newspapers, he was mistakenly reported as killed in action twice by the American press. On the 18th May 1864 the Portland Daily Press reported he had fallen near Spotsylvania at the head of his brigade. (8) The next day the Nashville Daily Union also claimed he had been killed in the battle near Spotsylvania Court House. (9) Moreover, according to the Stroudsburg Jeffersonian, he lost a finger as a result of combat. (10) Fortunately, the mistake of his death-reporting was rectified by the Washington Evening Star (11):
If Owen had indeed survived two horses being shot from under him, it demonstrates that he was not a man to shy away from combat. It was somewhat expected for Union officers to lead from the front during battle and it appears that Owen certainly adhered to this practice. Consequently, it appears that Gibbon’s accusations of cowardice towards Owen may have been embellished. While not definitive, a possible explanation behind Gibbon’s false allegations may have been jealousy. It may have been control issues with Owen’s style of leadership, or it may simply have been a personal enmity based on Gibbon’s envy of the latter’s gallantry and popularity.Indeed, Samuel Bates in his History of Pennsylvania Volunteers presented Owen as a more than competent combat officer, displaying no indication of an unwillingness to fight or any lapse in duty. His conduct at the battle of Charles City Crossroads on the sixth day of the Seven Days Campaign was exemplary by all accounts, and much praised by his colleagues. Bates described how the 69th Regiment was brought up to halt the rebel advance. To give his men assurance Colonel Owen had ordered them to kneel. He waited until the rebel line emerged from the woods within fifty yards, then brought it to a halt by a musket volley:
‘The order to fix bayonets and charge was given, and springing to their feet the men rushed on in the most daring and impetuous manner, driving the enemy in utter rout, pursuing him beyond his original ground, and holding it undisturbed until midnight, and until withdrawn.’ (12)
Bates initial impression of Owen is one of simple yet effective competence. More revealing of Owen’s standing among military circles was General Hooker’s official report of the engagement. Hooker’s account was full of praise for Owen’s conduct at the head of his regiment:
‘After great loss the enemy gave way and were instantly followed with great gallantry by Grover…while the Sixty-ninth Pennsylvania heroically led by Owen, advanced in the open field on their flank, with almost reckless daring…As Colonel Owen has rendered me no report of the operations of his regiment I can only express my high appreciation of his services.’ (13)
These accounts give the perception of a measured, competent and assured commander. This view is shared by Charles Banes in his History of the Philadelphia Brigade, similarly praising Owen’s leadership in battle. He described his experience of the Battle of Fredericksburg, December 1862 in vivid terms, describing that, in the face of the Confederate barrage, ‘without hesitating, the brigade followed its gallant leader, General Owen, and, crossing the bridge, formed front in line of battle on the open field.’ (14) This comment shows that Owen was in fact leading the brigade from the front and was one of the first men across the bridge. Thus, he exposed himself to the same dangers as befell his men, showing not only his coolness in battle, but how his example inspired the men under his command.
Consequently, the image we are presented of Owen does not conform whatsoever with Gibbon’s nor the press’ portrayal of him. Not only did the men of the 69th Pennsylvania attest to this qualities as an officer, but his superior officers similarly recognised his gallantry and competence as a field commander. Joshua Owen comprehensively conformed to the ideal image of a Union volunteer – patriotic, fearless, cool under fire, and totally devoted to his men.
(1) Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders, (Baton Rouge, 1964), p.353; (2) In English, these Welsh-American newspaper titles translate as: The American Missionary/Messenger, The Mirror, The Western Star, The Friend from the Old Country; (3) Gordon C. Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5-6, 1864, (Baton Rouge, 1994), p.205; (4) ‘Gen. McClellan on Delinquent Officers’ in The Wood County Reporter, November 15 1862; (5) Ibid.; (6) Charles H. Banes, History of the Philadelphia Brigade: Sixty-ninth, Seventy-first, Seventy-second, and One Hundred and Sixth Pennsylvania Volunteers (Philadelphia, 1876), p.14; (7) Ibid., p.34; (8) ‘The Death of Gen. Owen’ in The Portland Daily Press, May 18 1864; (9) ‘Gen Owen’ in The Nashville Daily Union, May 19 1864; (10) ‘Gen. Joshua T. Owen’ in The Jeffersonian, May 19 1864; (11) ‘Gen. Joshua T. Owen’ in The Evening Star, May 16 1864; (12) Samuel P. Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5 (1869) Making of America Books, p.699; (13) Ibid., p.700; (14) Banes, History of the Philadelphia Brigade, p.141.
‘Gen. McClellan on Delinquent Officers’ in The Wood County Reporter, November 15 1862.
‘The Death of Gen. Owen’ in The Portland Daily Press, May 18 1864.
‘Gen Owen’ in The Nashville Daily Union, May 19 1864.
‘Gen. Joshua T. Owen’ in The Evening Star, May 16 1864.
‘Gen. Joshua T. Owen’ in The Jeffersonian, May 19 1864.
Banes, C.H. History of the Philadelphia Brigade: Sixty-ninth, Seventy-first, Seventy-second, and One Hundred and Sixth Pennsylvania Volunteers, (Philadelphia, 1876).
Bates, S.P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5 (1869) Making of America Book.
Rhea, G.C. The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5-6, 1864, (Baton Rouge, 1994).
Warner, E.J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders, (Baton Rouge, 1964).