Opinion

Brigadier General Joshua T. Owen: Forgotten Welsh patriot of the American Civil War

09 Nov 2021 5 minutes Read

Joshua T. Owen, U.S.A. [Between 1860 and 1865] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress
Aled Jones

“There is nothing like brave Owens, and his Irish volunteers”

These words were written during the American Civil War by an Irishman, Arthur Fadden, serving in Company B, 69th Pennsylvania Volunteers. They referred to his regimental commander – a Welshman named Joshua T. Owen.

This exceptional man served as a Brigadier General in the Union army where, along with over 6000 of his native countrymen, he fought for the eradication of the Confederacy and American slavery.

Joshua was born just outside Carmarthen, later emigrating to the United States in 1835. In 1845, he graduated from Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, before embarking on a prestigious career in Philadelphia.

He taught at the Chestnut Hill Academy, practiced as a lawyer then became a member of the Pennsylvania legislature from 1857 until 1859.

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1861 this Welshman abandoned his career to risk his life for his adoptive country. He raised his own regiment, the 69th Pennsylvania Volunteers, commanded them as Colonel with distinction, and was later promoted to Brigadier General.

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.

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 throughout the war.

The Wood County Reporter wrote that he had been court-martialled for ‘conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline, and unbecoming an officer and a gentleman,’ when he had drunkenly assaulted his Lieutenant Colonel.

Sentence was rescinded

Fortunately, the sentence was rescinded on the basis of his previous good character and distinguished services during the war. Later on, he was mistakenly reported as killed in action twice by the American press.

On the 18th of May 1864 the Portland Daily Press reported he had fallen near Spottsylvania at the head of his brigade. The next day the Nashville Daily Union also claimed he had been killed in the battle near Spottsylvania Court House.

Moreover, according to the Stroudsburg Jeffersonian, he lost a finger as a result of combat. Fortunately, the mistake of his reporting his death was rectified by the Washington Evening Star.

Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 16 May 1864. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress
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. He evidently led by example. Indeed, Samuel Bates in his History of Pennsylvania Volunteers presented Owen as a more than competent combat officer.

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, fixed bayonets, then charged the enemy, routing them completely.

More revealing

More revealing of Owen’s standing among military circles was General Hooker’s official report of the engagement, who admired how the 69th Pennsylvania were “heroically led by Owen…with almost reckless daring.”

On the Union right can be seen Gibbon’s division, flanked by Smith and Warren. The woods and swamps are immediately in front of their positions, showing how formidable a challenge Owen faced at Cold Harbor. Sneden, Robert Knox. Plan of the Battle of Cold Harbor, June 3rd. [to 1865, 1864] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/gvhs01.vhs00234/>.
The major stain against his military reputation came with his arrest by his Divisional Commander, General John Gibbon after the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864, on trumped up accusations of cowardice and negligence of duty.

Gibbon ordered Owen 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.

Sitting ducks

However, he soon encountered previously unseen swampy terrain that would have made him and his men sitting ducks for Rebel artillery fire. So, he decided on another tack. Instead of advancing as ordered, he inclined sharply southwest through woods, emerging in line on Smyth’s left flank.

Despite this being a prudent decision that saved his men from annihilation, Gibbon was furious and subsequently pressed charges against him, throwing him out of the army in Mid-July 1864. His noble decision cost him his military career, and his reputation has only recently recovered from Gibbon’s smear campaign.

After he was mustered out, he returned to his home in Philadelphia and resumed a successful legal career, founding the New York Daily Register in 1871, a law journal that became the official publication of the New York courts in 1873.

Yet his wartime reputation never recovered. Due to Gibbon’s animosity and jealousy, Owen’s service in defence of his country has been marred and misconstrued.

More than anything, Owen displayed all the characteristics of a man scorned by the newspapers but loved by his men.

This man from Carmarthen deserves to be remembered as a Welsh-American patriot.

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Nini
Nini
20 days ago

He is actually briefly acknowledged in the obituary of a family member in “Cyfaill o’r Hen Wlad” in December 1878, page 22: “Cadfridog Joshua T. Owen, yr hwn a hunododd ei hyn fel milwr yn ystod y gwrthryfel”.

Wolf
Wolf
19 days ago

This article fails to mention that there were Welsh who fought for the Confederacy.

hdavies15
hdavies15
19 days ago
Reply to  Wolf

The article fails to mention that the outcome of the Civil War failed abysmally to improve the lot of freed slaves for best part of 100 years. True it stopped the antics of those who thought that secession was a way of “preserving Southern life” but no point in kidding ourselves that it did much for Blacks and other races regarded as inferior by white races. It took the Civil Rights movement to galvanise the whole issue and achieve some respect in law. It remains an unfinished work in progress with scope for a lot more progress.

Penderyn
Penderyn
14 days ago

A Welsh patriot fights for Welsh self rule.

Not on the land stolen from Native American peoples

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