In the second of his two-part guest post about the Welsh-born Irish 69th Pennsylvania General Joshua T. Owen, Aled Jones (Swansea University) explores more about Owen’s troubled Civil War career and image. In this second post, Owen defends his conduct in the wake of doubts over his leadership abilities. You can catch-up on Part 1 here. You can follow Aled on Twitter, and contact him via Swansea University at firstname.lastname@example.org. Aled’s guest posts were written in response to our call for guest post submissions – and we welcome interest and submissions from anyone interested in writing for us. For more details and guidelines on guest post submissions, please read our dedicated section on the website. The editors want to thank Aled again for his posts on the fascinating wartime life of Joshua Owen and his 69th Pennsylvania.
There is nothing like brave Owens, And his Irish Volunteers (1)
So wrote Arthur Fadden of Company B, 69th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment in his ballad composition ‘Col. Owens’ Gallant Irish Volunteers.’ This excerpt subtly encapsulates how Owen, contrary to the allegations of cowardice attached to him by General Gibbon (as discussed in Part 1), was in fact brave, thoroughly competent, and beloved by his men. My previous blog post vindicated his reputation as Brigadier General of the Philadelphia Brigade with the eye-witness accounts of his soldiers. In this post, I will showcase how Owen’s own letters combated his defamation in the press, presenting us with a cautious, but disciplined and talented commander.
Of the innumerable scholarly works on the Civil War, only two truly stand out as defenders of Owen’s character and performance as a combat leader; Francis O’Reilly and Gordon Rhea. The former explored Owen’s leadership of his brigade at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, where he concluded that Owen was cautious yet utterly competent, as well as fearless. He observed Owen leading his brigade in house-to-house fighting, even flanking the Confederate position in the dark, conforming to the Union ideal wanted by volunteers. Indeed, O’Reilly called him ‘Feisty Joshua Owen.’(2) Then, when pinned down by enfilading fire from the stone wall, Owen held a tight control over his men, refusing to let them fire. His decision kept the brigade from wasting bullets, although it disillusioned many of his soldiers. Howard, on the other hand, marvelled at the staying power of Owen’s brigade, dubbing them the Stonewall brigade. (3)
Owen’s command at Cold Harbor in June 1864, where he earned Gibbon’s ire, was examined by Gordon Rhea, who concluded similarly that Owen was competent, courageous, and above all considerate of his men. Gibbon wanted the Philadelphia Brigade to attack in column, and he made that point explicit. Owen was to “assault the enemy’s works with his brigade in column in rear of the right of Colonel Smyth’s brigade.” Owen started out as directed, massing his brigade in eight lines and pushing ahead behind Smyth’s right flank. (4)
When Owen reached the swampy terrain on Smyth’s right however, he decided on another tack. Instead of advancing as ordered, he inclined sharply southwest through woods, emerging in line on Smyth’s left flank. (5) Gibbon was furious that Owen did not support Smyth’s assault, and subsequently pressed charges against him, resulting in his mustering out of service in Mid-July 1864. This links to why Gibbon accused him of cowardice, an accusation that stemmed from a strong personal dislike that escalated and finally provided an excuse to get rid of his subordinate. However, Rhea argued that, in truth, Owen’s decision to shift left of Smyth had been an opportune move. Contrary to Gibbon’s assertion, Smyth and McMahon had made no lodgement, and throwing Owen’s brigade into the Boatswain Creek sector would only have increased Union casualties. (6) He agreed that Owen was a competent officer who led from the front and cared deeply for his men.
Owen’s own official battlefield reports reinforce this supposition. In his descriptions of his conduct under enemy fire, Owen appeared to follow each order to the letter, yet was capable enough to adapt to an unfavourable situation to avoid his men becoming unnecessary casualties. By no means did he appear a coward; only a competent officer who refused to adhere to full frontal assaults on well-defended Confederate positions. His report of his brigade’s conduct at the Battle of Antietam on the 20th September 1862 is insightful in this regard. Owen mentioned taking heavy fire from the enemy’s positions, yet he successfully reasserted discipline and kept his men in line. He witnessed the left flank of Sedgwick’s division fleeing in panic, followed by General Sumner ordering a withdrawal:
‘As speedily as possible I restored the brigade to order and assumed a position in support of the reserve batteries. This position proved to be a most formidable one, and the enemy did not dare to attack it, except with artillery and at a great distance, and with ultimate defeat. I take great pleasure in saying from my personal observation that the regimental commanders and field officers behaved with great coolness and courage, and that the line officers, with rare exceptions, acquitted themselves with credit.’ (7)
Owen reiterated that he had been specifically ordered to withdraw, rather than due to a lack of nerve or courage. Moreover, he questioned the orders he received, indicating he was a competent officer who was able to use his own initiative and refused to adhere to orders with blind obedience. In this function as a critical thinker, he conducted himself much like a typical citizen soldier. His report on Fredericksburg similarly revealed his tendency for questioning orders. His eyewitness testimony of the bloody assault on Marye’s Heights speak volumes as to his character as a competent officer. Early on, his horse was shot from under him:
‘I threw myself in front of the line, and called upon the brigade to come on, which they instantly did, when, from behind a stone wall at the base of the steep declivity; from rifle-pits on the face of the hill; from two batteries on either side of a large brick house at the top of a hill; from traverses on the right and left flanks of my line, and from a line of infantry drawn up on top of the hill, a most terrific fire was opened upon us.’ (8)
Seeing the forward troops he was supposed to be supporting being annihilated, he ignored his orders and made his men lie on the ground. He subsequently engaged the rebels in the houses on his flanks with his skirmishers, then ordered a disciplined withdrawal after a prolonged firefight. (9) He concluded his report with the following:
‘I desire also to speak of the conduct of this veteran brigade, which has borne a distinguished part in nine general engagements. It is entitled to, and I trust will receive, that consideration which its long service and uniform good conduct merits.’ (10)
Owen clearly felt the need to emphasise his men’s dogged professionalism under fire, especially as they had ultimately failed in their objective. He needed to defend his men’s reputation, for they had not failed as a result of their cowardice, but rather by being placed in an impossible situation. He was aware that he had abstained from rushing up the slope in massed formation like other units, which explained why his brigade took comparatively few casualties. From his on the ground testimony, his cautious decision was commendable, yet it is obvious how it could have been construed as willful disobedience of orders by his rivals. Nonetheless, his concern appears not to be with his own reputation, but that of his men, giving further insight into his nature as a respected commander.
After he was mustered out, Owen returned to his home in Philadelphia and resumed his law practice. In 1871 he founded the New York Daily Register, a law journal, which became the official publication of the New York courts in 1873. He served as a member of the journal’s editorial staff until his death at his home in Chestnut Hill on 7th November 1887. (11)
It is not known precisely why Owen and Gibbon had such an antagonistic relationship, and while I have speculated fairly at the contrast between the free-thinking, rugged volunteer and the rigid, professional soldier, more research is needed to ascertain a more accurate picture. While it is similarly fair to infer that Owen’s absence from the Welsh narrative was because of his skewed reputation and association with the Irish, further research may shed more light on the issue. Regardless of the veracity of Gibbon’s claims, Joshua Owen’s wartime service in defence of his country has been marred and potentially greatly misconstrued. More than anything, Owen displayed all the characteristics of a man scorned by the newspapers but loved by his men. He very well may have given a strong example of American patriotism to the Irishmen of his 69th Pennsylvania Regiment and the Philadelphia Brigade who, like him, were fighting for a country not of their birth. But to his fellow Welsh countrymen, not many from outside the vicinities of Philadelphia would have heard of his gallant service. In hindsight, he certainly deserved to be, and hopefully this article will contribute to restoring the reputation of someone that was undoubtedly a Welsh-American patriot.
(1) Col. Owens’ Gallant Irish Volunteers, Tune – “Irish Volunteers”, J.H. Johnson, No.7 North Tenth Street, Phila. Monographic. Online Text. Retrieved from the Library of Congress; (2) Francis Augustin O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock, (Baton Rouge, 2003), p.96; (3) Ibid, 328; (4) You can read more about Smyth and his wartime career on our site here and here; (5) Gordon C. Rhea, Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 6-June 3, 1864, (Baton Rouge, 2002), p.339; (6) Ibid, p.340; (7) ‘Col Joshua T. Owen’s Official Report: Report of September 20, 1862 on the 2nd Brigade, Sedgwick’s Division,’ Antietam on the Web; (8) ‘Report of Col. Joshua T. Owen, Sixty-ninth Pennsylvania Infantry, Commanding Second Brigade.’ Civil War Home; (9) Ibid.; (10) Ibid.; (11) Warner, Generals in Blue, p.354;
Col. Owens’ Gallant Irish Volunteers, Tune – “Irish Volunteers”, J.H. Johnson, No.7 North Tenth Street, Phila. Monographic. Online Text. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
O’Reilly, F.A. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock, (Baton Rouge, 2003).
Rhea, G.C. Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 6-June 3, 1864, (Baton Rouge, 2002).
Warner, E.J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders, (Baton Rouge, 1964).