Monday, September 15, 2014

“He Fell in the Advance”: The Promotion of Gustavus W. Town, Part 4.

In the previous posts, we learned about the contested promotion of Gustavus W. Town. Here, we end the story by discussing his death.

In late July 1862, Gustavus W. Town received his promotion to colonel, backdated to June 28, 1862. This news brought instant cheer from Philadelphia’s Republican newspapers. The Press commented: “We are satisfied that Philadelphia can be content to leave its fame in the hands of the ‘Ninety-Fifth,’ if allowed to remain in charge of its present able commander.” 

No doubt, Colonel Town felt vindicated. His superiors had accused him of being too young to command. His soldiers, his fellow officers, and his city’s newspapers had come to his defense and won him his promotion. Now, he needed to prove that he was worthy of their trust.

He continued to lead the 95th Pennsylvania throughout the war, participating in the Battles of Crampton’s Gap, Antietam, and Second Fredericksburg. On May 3, 1863, during the Battle of Salem Heights, Colonel Town was killed at the head of his command, while 218 of his officers and men were killed, wounded, or captured all around him.

One soldier, G. Norton Galloway, described Town’s death:

Ammunition now running low, our men began to fall back; quickly our line of battle sprang to its feet to confront the swarms of rebels which now poured out of the woods line upon line, firing and yelling with demoniacal fury as they advanced. Bravely our two little regiments, under Col. Town, strove to resist the overwhelming torrent which now overlapped our right and threatened total annihilation. Finally, after a desperate struggle, which scarcely lasted ten minutes, we were forced to give way[.] . . . Almost 200 of the Ninety-Fifth were left weltering in their gore upon the bloody plain. Among the first to fall was our brave Col. (Town), shot through the head, killed almost instantly.

At every battle since Gaines’s Mill, Town set out to prove himself, and like many other Civil War officers who felt the same way, he led from the front and paid for it with his life. As Civil War veteran St. Clair Mulholland remarked in his book, Heroism of the American Volunteer, Town’s  “splendid Philadelphia regiment held an advanced position where the fighting was desperate and severe.”  Town’s new brigade commander, Brigadier General David A. Russell, lamented the loss of such a talented field officer, remarking in his after-action report, “The Ninety-Fifth Pennsylvania sustained a great calamity in the loss of its colonel, Gus. W. Town, a most efficient, meritorious, gallant, and daring officer. He fell in the advance, while urging on his men against the enemy.”

It is not much of a stretch to say that the conditions necessary for Town’s death had been set into motion ten months earlier. Generals Franklin, Newton, and McClellan had cast their doubts upon him. Although Town had won the colonelcy in spite of their misgivings, the prideful Philadelphian could not forget the meaning of their deception. They preferred a second lieutenant’s leadership to that of his own. How could Town not ruminate on that truth? As so often happens in life, the doubts of others led to self-doubt. Town felt uncertainty. He wondered if the Democratic generals were correct. Was he really too inexperienced? His men had faith in his capabilities, but after the contested colonelcy, Town was not sure what to think. It might be said that his death at Salem Heights was caused just as much by the Democratic generals in the 6th Corps as it was by the Confederates. Truly, the doubters of the world wield incredible power in shaping history.

Presently, Town is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia.

Here is Col. Town wearing his eagles.

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