Tuesday, September 9, 2014

“A Young But Gallant Officer”: The Promotion of Gustavus W. Town, Part 1

These next four posts will tell the tale of a Philadelphia officer who fought to win a promotion. We will follow the story of Lieutenant Colonel Gustavus Washington Town, executive officer of the 95th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Town was a quiet, unassuming man, but full of pride, and it injured his fragile ego when, in 1862, he discovered that his superiors wanted to deny his application to become his regiment’s colonel by promoting a second lieutenant from another regiment ahead of him. Stung by this criticism of his capabilities, Town viewed the next year as a personal quest, a test to prove himself as a commander. That quest ended with his death in battle in 1863.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Who was Gustavus Town?

Town was born on August 28, 1839. (This made him twenty-two-years-old when the Civil War commenced.) He was quite tall, standing at six foot, three inches in height. He descended from three generations of printers, and naturally, he followed his ancestors’ footsteps by becoming a printer himself. However, Town had a fondness for all things military, and at age sixteen, he joined the 2nd Company, Washington Blues, a militia unit headquartered in Philadelphia. When the war broke out, the Washington Blues became the 18th Pennsylvania and his company became that regiment’s Company A. Town mustered in as first lieutenant. For three months, he and his comrades served in Maryland, occupying Baltimore City and keeping an eye out for secessionists and saboteurs. When his time expired, he returned to Philadelphia and along with his company commander, Captain John M. Gosline, he helped raise a three-year regiment. On August 21, 1861, Town commenced recruiting, using his brother’s clothing store as a headquarters. By October 11, the regiment (which was eventually designated the 95th Pennsylvania), reached completion, numbering 932 officers and men. Because Town and Gosline had been the most active recruiters, Governor Andrew Curtin elevated them to the ranks of lieutenant colonel and colonel, respectively. Around the city, residents popularly knew the regiment as “Gosline’s Zouaves,” because each soldier wore a Chasseur-style uniform coat and trousers manufactured by the firm Rockhill and Wilson. After serving six months at its camp of instruction, the 95th Pennsylvania joined the Army of the Potomac and participated in the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. There, the regiment received its sanguinary baptism of fire.

Here is Lt. Col. Gustavus W. Town.
That baptism of fire occurred in the midst of the chaotic Battle of Gaines’s Mill, June 27, 1862. At 6:00 P.M. ,the Army of the Potomac stood in a dire predicament. The right wing of the army—Major General Fitz-John Porter’s 5th Corps—was anchored on the north side of the Chickahominy River. All along Porter’s line, defenses began to crumble, especially near the center where a wooded ravine—a terrain feature created by a tributary of nearby Boatswain’s Creek—sliced through the middle of Porter’s defensive perimeter. Immediately, Porter began drawing reserve units from the 6th Corps, whose 1st Division had crossed the Chickahominy over Woodbury’s Bridge just three hours earlier. Brigadier General John Newton’s 3rd Brigade rushed to help. Porter personally led Newton’s brigade to the threatened position, a point of woods where the swampy ravine disrupted the 5th Corps line. Finding the woods full of the enemy, Newton attacked it from two sides. He directed two of his regiments, the 18th and 32nd New York Infantries, to assault the woods from the right, while his other two regiments, the 31st New York Infantry and the 95th Pennsylvania Infantry, assaulted the woods from the left. 

This is a Civil War Trust map showing the Battle of Gaines's Mill. I've put a small blue box around the 95th Pennsylvania to mark its position.
Lieutenant Colonel Town recalled, “The regiment on entering the woods, encountered swamps and dense undergrowth through which they could not pass, and . . . [were] subject to a severe fire from the enemy without the ability to reply with effect.” Nevertheless, the undaunted soldiers pressed on, “cheering as they went, and driving the enemy before them.” They managed to clear the woods and held the position for about one hour until a second Confederate assault, consisting of men from Brigadier General William H. C. Whiting’s division, broke through the 5th Corps line on the 95th Pennsylvania’s immediate left. According to Town, Whiting’s Confederates “poured murderous volleys of musketry into our left and rear, forcing us from our position.” During this engagement, the 95th Pennsylvania lost 169 men, including Colonel Gosline and Major William B. Hubbs. Both officers fell mortally wounded and died on June 29. 

Col. John M. Gosline was the first commander of the 95th Pennsylvania. He died on June 29, 1862.
Command of the 95th Pennsylvania fell heavily upon the shoulders of twenty-three-year-old Town. Despite the poor position held by his regiment, he managed to lead his men off the field in orderly fashion. As the 95th approached the narrow crossing at Woodbury’s Bridge, the men saw the banks cluttered with thousands of panicked 5th Corps soldiers scrambling to safety. Sensing a looming disaster, Town detailed men from his regiment to carry wounded soldiers over the bridge, “this being rendered necessary,” he stated, “by an insufficiency of other means of conveyance.” Additionally, Town wrote, “I assumed the authority to post a guard on both sides of the road [at the bridge], and a battery which was about crossing having upon request willingly stopped, no one was allowed to proceed farther until all the wounded then appearing had been conveyed across [the Chickahominy].” In complete darkness, Town’s quick-thinking had saved the lives of many wounded men who might otherwise have been abandoned to the Confederate pursuit. The 95th Pennsylvania returned to 3rd Brigade headquarters shortly before midnight. Once there, Town discovered that he was the only surviving field officer in his regiment. Writing on July 5, Town remarked that he could not have accomplished the feats of the past eight days without the superb discipline of his men. He wrote, “Of the conduct of such officers as fell under my immediate observation I would say that all behaved in a commendable manner.”

As the Peninsula Campaign sputtered to a halt, the soldiers of the 95th Pennsylvania executed the solemn task of burying their dead. They recovered their dead and buried them on the field. (As an aside, Colonel Gosline’s body eventually was laid to rest in Gettysburg’s Soldier’s National Cemetery, Section 2, Number 706.)

A Philadelphia newspaper noted the Gosline’s death, remarking, “The charge of the regiment accordingly devolves upon Lieut. Col. Town, a young but gallant officer, who is in every way suited to the responsible post which it is now his melancholy duty to fill.”

Little did this newspaper reporter realize that the Town’s superiors did not find him suited to the post at all, not in the slightest.

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