Friday, May 6, 2016

Thomas Deye Owings, Military and Civic Leader

Colonel Thomas Deye Owings, 28th US Infantry
The War of 1812 is regarded as America’s Second Revolution.  The British Government had restricted trade during their war with France and had captured several thousand American merchant sailors and hundreds of ships loaded with goods.  They also opposed the annexation of America into the remaining British held territories of the Northwest, which is now the upper Midwest near the Canadian border.  In return, the United States opposed British support of the Native American tribes who fought the pioneers expanding westward past Kentucky.  In June 1807, the British ship Leopard engaged the USS Chesapeake, a frigate with deserters from the Royal Navy, at Norfolk, Virginia.  While on blockade patrol, Salusbury Humphreys, captain of the Leopard, ordered the Chesapeake to submit to a search.  Captain James Barron refused the order from the British naval officer, prompting the Leopard to fire on the American frigate.  The crew of the Chesapeake only managed to fire a single shot before being nearly decimated by the furious cannon fire.  Three of the Chesapeake’s crew had been killed with 18 wounded, including Captain Barron.  Realizing the gravity of the situation, Barron lowered his flag, signaling surrender.  Humphreys ordered the Chesapeake to be boarded regardless of the surrender, and four men were taken off the stricken ship, three of which were American sailors who had previously served on British ships.  This act sent shockwaves across the Untied States and a cry for retaliation was sounded.  President Thomas Jefferson responded with the Embargo Act of 1807; choosing to treat the issue diplomatically rather than with force.  This incident, known as the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, helped spark the declaration of war five years later.

During this time, Kentucky was the known as the far western territory. The Mississippi River was the westernmost point in the United States, with territories in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan being mainly frontier occupied by natives.  American expansion into these territories and into Canada was hindered by native tribes who were supplied by the British.  Kentucky was a young state of only twenty years at the time war was declared in June, 1812.  A vast majority of those who would fight against the British and Natives came from Kentucky, including Owingsville’s namesake, Thomas Deye Owings.  Owings was the owner of the Bourbon Ironworks and successful businessman, securing a government contract in 1807 to supply the newly formed US Navy with cannon balls, grapeshot and canisters.  The war material was taken by oxcarts to a shipping point in Maysville, then loaded onto boats and floated down the Ohio River to the Mississippi to New Orleans.  When the War of 1812 broke out, Owings raised a regiment of 377 soldiers; mostly soldiers from Bath and surrounding counties.  On April 3, 1813, Owings was commissioned as a colonel of the 28th US Infantry and attached to General Isaac Shelby, who, consequently, was Kentucky’s first governor and Revolutionary War veteran.  Shelby was again governor at the outbreak of the war, and was asked to supply troops to support the Northwest campaigns.  He was personally asked by future president General William Henry Harrison to join the fight and lead more volunteers in June, 1813, raising a force of 3,500 soldiers to fight the British and Native Americans.  Thomas Deye Owings’ regiment, under General Shelby’s force, was part of the recapture of Detroit in September 1813 and in October, participated in a significant battle that would help change the course of the war.

Shawnee Chief Tecumseh led a Native American tribal confederacy and was allied with the British Army commanded by Major General Henry Procter during the war.  Tecumseh opposed the treaties between the Federal government and the native nations, and wanted to reclaim the territories as their own.  With the coalition of the British, the confederacy was well equipped to match the Americans and had gained significant victories early in the conflict; notably the capture of Fort Detroit and control of Lake Erie.  A fierce naval battle on September 10, 1813 resulted in the British losing Lake Erie and cutting vital supply routes the British needed to sustain Detroit and other occupied territories.  Colonel Owings and 28 others from the 28th Infantry joined Commodore Oliver Perry’s fleet as sharpshooters hidden in the rigging of the frigates during this crucial battle.  Immediately after this battle, General Procter began a retreat to a position near Lake Ontario at Burlington Heights; an act that would threaten to leave the native confederacy to fend for themselves.  Tecumseh objected to the retreat and argued to stay and fight the Americans, but relented and joined General Procter. 

General William Henry Harrison, with a force of around 3,500 infantry and cavalry which included a detachment of the 28th Infantry including Colonel Owings, pursued the fleeing British a few days after the Battle of Lake Erie.  The army captured several abandoned boats and encountered several stragglers that were taken prisoner along the way.  The British army consisted of around 800 troops from the 41st Regiment; Tecumseh’s warriors numbered around 500, both greatly outnumbered and outgunned.  The armies would finally meet along the Thames River near Moraviantown in present day Ontario.  Around daybreak, October 5, 1813, General Procter formed a battle line in an attempt to surprise and trap the American army.  Tecumseh positioned his warriors along a swampy area to the right of the British position to try to flank Harrison’s troops.  Unfortunately, Procter failed to fortify his position and left the field of battle unbroken.  James Johnson was ordered to make a frontal attack with his mounted Kentucky riflemen, breaking through the line under a hail of bullets from Tecumseh’s warriors.  The British were overrun; General Procter and 250 men retreated while the rest surrendered.  Tecumseh and his warriors stayed to fight, inflicting flanking fire into the Americans.  A charge led by Colonel Richard Johnson into the natives’ position was quickly stopped by intense firing, with fifteen of Johnson’s soldiers killed or injured; Johnson was reportedly hit five times.  The main force became bogged down in the swampy marsh during the fight, and at some point, a bullet fatally struck the great Shawnee Chief.  American reinforcements began to assist Colonel Johnson’s troops, and soon the native’s flank began to fail.  The warriors became disheartened after Tecumseh’s death and began a hasty retreat from the battlefield.  This victory was a crushing blow to the British and natives; securing the Northwestern front and Detroit in favor of the Americans.

After the war, Thomas Deye Owings returned to Owingsville, and welcomed as a war hero.  Word of his bravery and indirect assistance in the killing of Tecumseh fueled that sentiment among those around the already successful man.  He elected into the Kentucky House of Representatives from 1815 until 1818, and as State Senator in 1825.  In 1835, Texas sought to gain independence from Mexico, and Colonel Owings pledged 1,500 troops to support the Texas Revolution.  His own son, Robert Smith Owings, joined Captain Burr Duvall's army based in Bardstown and was sent to New Orleans to await orders to march into Texas.  From letters sent to various parties during this time, it seems Colonel Owings was financing the recruitment and munitions for the Kentucky army's Texas campaign.  On March 27, 1836, the Goliad Massacre took place when over 400 US prisoners of war were killed by the Mexican Army, including 75 Kentuckians an Owings' son.  In April, Colonel Owings and a regiment of troops numbering around 1,500 left Maysville on a steamer bound for New Orleans.  From there, the regiment planned to move into Texas, but the Texans' victory at San Jacinto ended the fighting before Colonel Owings' regiment could see battle. 

Thomas Owings was awarded land grants in Texas and settled in Brenham for the last sixteen years of his life.  He was prosperous as a land owner and businessman, but only returned to Kentucky for occasional visits.  His home in his namesake town of Owingsville became an inn and hotel and is still standing today as the Owingsville Banking Company.  The Bourbon Iron Works, the first iron industry west of the Alleghenies, made its last blast in 1838 and left to abandonment.  The stack for the furnace stands as a roadside park and is on the National Register of Historical Places. It is said that Owings was nearly bankrupt and at one point had over 250 lawsuits either as plaintiff or defendant due to his business ventures and land disputes.  At the end of his life on October 6, 1853, Thomas Deye Owings was given a Masonic burial in Brenham, Texas and still hailed as a hero of the War of 1812.
His family lineage stretches far and wide, with ancestors still living in the area around Bath County, Texas, Missouri and Maryland.  While it is commonplace now for those in military service and wartime campaigns to be awarded medals and ribbons, the War of 1812 only bore the award called the Congressional Gold Medal.  It is unknown if Colonel Owings received such a medal, but his service record is of remarkable distinction.  The First Division, 28th Infantry that Colonel Owings served under was deactivated and reorganized as 2nd Battalion, 19th Infantry during the Indian Wars in 1866 and lasted until 1869, when it was finally reflagged wholly as the 19th Infantry.  A third version of the 28th Infantry went into service during the Philippine War from 1901 until 1904, and fought with distinction in all major US conflicts through Vietnam.  Although not part of the original 28th Infantry Thomas Deye Owings was a commanding officer of, the 28th Infantry was my Army Basic Training unit at Fort Jackson, South Carolina (Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry).  While most Bath Countians only know what is written on the bronze historical marker outside the Owings House, the history of Colonel Owings' military and civic leadership is one that reflects well on the town that bears his name some 212 years later. 

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