Sunday, February 22, 2015

The 48th/150th: The Regiment's New Commander, Colonel George Washington Gowen

150 years ago. . .the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania continued to wait out the winter while in their trenches and bombproofs outside of Petersburg, spending their time and passing the monotonous days of winter as best they could while inside Fort Hell and doing their best to simply stay alive as the air continued to be filled with the whizzing Minie balls and deep boom of artillery fire. 

A Pre-war Image of George W. Gowen 
By this time, the soldiers had had ample time to become even more acquainted with their new commanding officer, Colonel George Washington Gowen. A capable and hard-fighting officer, Gowen had entered the regiment back in September 1861 as the First Lieutenant of Company C, serving directly underneath his friend and fellow engineer Henry Pleasants who was initially the commanding officer of C Company. Company C was recruited largely from Pottsville and its immediate environs, including Heckschersville and Cass Township, the scene of rising and increasingly violent labor demonstrations that the mine owners would deem anti-war activity and which the newspapers would blame on the Molly Maguires. As Pleasants advanced in rank as the war years ticked by, so, too, did Gowen, and by the time the 48th arrived opposite Petersburg in June 1864, Pleasants was Lieutenant Colonel, in command of a brigade, while Gowen held the rank of Captain, in command of Company C. Like Pleasants, Gowen was a gifted civil mining engineer and he would be among the first to hear of Pleasants's plan to dig under Elliot's Salient in June 1864. According to one account, Pleasants, after overhearing one of Gowen's men remark that they could blow the Confederate fort out of existence if only they could tunnel under it, discussed the idea first with Gowen, who agreed that it could be done. When Pleasants's term of service expired in mid-December 1864, Gowen assumed command of the 48th. He was promoted to lieutenant-colonel on December 20, 1864, while promotion to full colonel came on March 1, 1865. 

Gowen was young--just twenty-four years of age--when he took command of the 48th. Born in 1840 in Philadelphia, Gowen was a first-generation American although he was born into an exceptionally rich and well-to-do family. His father, James Gowen, was a native County Tyrone, Ireland, who, in 1811 at age 21, immigrated to the United States, making his home in Philadelphia. There, he prospered as a shipping merchant, grocer, wine merchant, and, finally, cattle breeder. He was also a member of the city council. In 1827, thirty-seven-year-old James Gowen married Mary Miller, who was just nineteen years of age at the time of her wedding and herself from a prosperous, well-to-do Germantown family. Over the next twenty-two years, Mary would give birth of nine children, the first--Alfred Gowen--being born in 1828, and the last--Emily Gowen--born in 1850. George Washington Gowen came along in 1840. And as Mary raised her family, James Gowen was making quite a large fortune. Indeed, according to the 1860 Census, James Gowen's estate was valued at $100,000. 

By then, George Washington Gowen had left home to make it on his own. He had received a good education and had attended private school in Mt. Airy and by 1860 he, along with his older brother Benjamin Franklin Gowen--a controversial figure who would later serve as lead prosecutor of the Molly Maguires--had left the Philadelphia area and settled in Pottsville, the seat of Schuylkill County. There Benjamin would thrive as an attorney and George as a civil engineer. In the summer of 1861, Gowen decided to volunteer his services and in September, he was mustered into service as 1st Lieutenant, Company C, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. 

Gowen in Uniform
[From Gould: The Story of the Forty-Eighth] 
He took well to the life of a soldier, though he frequently pined for a commission in the Regular Army or for an assignment as a staff officer. While the regiment was encamped at Hatteras in late 1861, Gowen so impressed General Thomas Williams that he named the young officer Provost Marshal of the island. Then, in early 1862, Gowen was detached from the 48th and given a commission in Battery C, 1st U.S. Artillery and, with this battery, he fought admirably in the battles of Newbern and Fort Macon. He returned to the 48th in the summer of 1862 as the Acting Regimental Adjutant and in this position "won the esteem of the entire Regiment, both officers and men, by his gentlemanly deportment," or so said Schuylkill County newspaperman Francis Wallace in 1865.  In September 1862, Gowen returned to his old Company C and became its Captain. Company C was rather notorious in the 48th as a company of troublemakers, a hard lot to manage but Gowen seems to have done well. According to Wallace, Gowen "entered upon its duties with a seeming fore-knowledge of their nature.--Keeping his Company under an excellent state of discipline--always rigorously just and yet kindly foreboding, he could not but win the love of his men." Perhaps. . .but as is clear from an early October 1862 letter Gowen wrote to a friend, he wanted out of the regiment: "I am getting along pretty well," said Gowen, "Yet I often feel that I could be situated more pleasantly and have regretted a thousand times that I did not get a position in the Regular Army a year ago. You cannot imagine the difference between the two branches of the service--the four months I spent with Co, "C" 1st Artillery were by far the pleasantest of the campaign--there are two or three very fine fellows in my Regiment [the 48th] but when that is said, all is said. A position on a Staff is my ambition, as it is of most young officers." The next year, when the regiment traveled west to Kentucky, Gowen was temporarily relieved from command of Company C in order to help construct Burnside's massive supply base at Camp Nelson. As a highly regarded engineer, Gowen also helped lay out a new military railroad that being run to Nicholasville. In this work, Gowen succeeded admirably and his wish would come true when he was appointed Assistant Chief Engineer on the staff of Major General Ambrose Burnside. Another prestigious staff assignment followed when, in the fall of 1863, he was made an Assistant Engineer on the staff of General Robert Potter, a position he held throughout the Knoxville Campaign. 

General Robert Potter & Staff
Gowen is standing sixth from left
[Library of Congress] 

It seems that Gowen was still holding a staff officer's assignment during the Overland Campaign of 1864, as an Aide-de-Camp to General John Parke. Wallace was effusive in his praise of Gowen's conduct during this bloody season of fighting in Virginia: "Shrinking from no danger, but ever ready, Capt. Gowen, in this campaign, won the highest praise. Ever on the alert--the first on the ground at an alarm--his untiring activity rendered him one of General Parke's most trusty agents and reliable assistants." For his conspicuous bravery at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Totopotomoy Creek, Cold Harbor and Petersburg, Gowen was brevetted first a major then a lieutenant colonel. Finally, in December 1864, when Henry Pleasants was discharged from service and sent home, George Gowen returned once more to the 48th, this time to take command of the regiment. His thoughts upon returning to the regiment are not known, but the men welcomed him back by presenting him with the gift of "most noble horse," and a full set of equipment. As commanding officer of the 48th, Gowen settled into his new assignment and readied himself and his men for the upcoming thaw and the commencement, once more, of hostilities. 

[My thanks to Annette Jackson, a volunteer at the Petersburg National Battlefield, for much of the biographical information on Gowen. Additional information was gathered from Francis Wallace's Memorial to the Patriotism of Schuylkill County, and from Joseph Gould's and Oliver Bosbyshell's regimental histories. The October 2, 1862, letter referenced above is held at the United States Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, PA]  

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