A Pennsylvania Blacksmith Goes to War

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Charles R. Bowen found it fitting to include a brief biographical sketch of his father, Levi A. Bowen, in the Biographical Annals of Cumberland County Pennsylvania. Charles was around thirty years of age when the book was published in 1905. Although Levi was by no means famous as compared to other men of his time, his son felt compelled to leave a written record about him for future generations.

Levi Andrew Bowen was born on February 3, 1839 in Shiremanstown, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania to William and Mary Smith Bowen. By all accounts, William and Mary were of German descent. At this time, it is not known when they or their extended families settled in Pennsylvania. Like many families of the time, they were forced to hire out their children to help make a living and pay whatever debts they had incurred. At a young age, Levi was hired out to a local blacksmith. His work not only helped his family, but it taught him a trade. More than likely, the hard labor in the smithy helped to condition Levi’s 5’5 frame for the rigors and severity of Army life.

Charles Bowen was a staunch Democrat and he probably inherited his political beliefs from his father. Levi probably never spoke of who he voted for in the 1860 election and it probably doesn’t matter, for in the early winter of 1861, Levi left home to enlist in Company H of the Seventh Regiment, Pennsylvania Reserves. Whether he attempted to enlist earlier in the year in another unit and his motivations for doing so are not known.
Levi arrived at the camp of the Seventh while the regiment was in winter quarters at Langley, Virginia. It was during this period that he would learn the art of being a soldier. Beyond learning to properly load and fire a weapon, which he probably had some experience in doing, he participated in picket duty, guard mounting, periodic inspections and dress parades.

On March 10, 1862, the Seventh broke camp and marched to Hunter Mills, in an effort to ascertain the whereabouts of the Confederate Army. Finding the Confederates gone from Manassas, Major General George McClellan set in motion what would become known as the Peninsula Campaign. McClellan would move his massive Army of the Potomac from the vicinity of Washington to Fort Monroe and from there march toward the Rebel capital at Richmond. Two days after leaving their Langley encampment, Levi and his comrades would march to Alexandria for embarkation. Upon their arrival, and probably much to their surprise, the entire Pennsylvania Reserves were assigned to Irvin McDowell’s First Corps and would remain behind in an effort to guard Washington. The Regiment was then marched to Fairfax Station, where it would remain for the next few weeks.

In the second week of April, the Reserves left Fairfax Station. Levi would march through Manassas and Catlett’s Station, finally arriving in Falmouth, Virginia across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg on May 11. The encampment just opposite Fredericksburg was more than likely very similar to Levi’s experiences in the camp at Langley. But it would not be long before the Reserves would be transferred yet again. In a little under a month’s time, Levi and his comrades were once again on the move. Moving to join McClellan, the Reserves landed at White House on the Pamunkey River and moved overland via the West Point Railroad to join Fitz-John Porter’s Fifth Corps. Porter’s Corps was positioned just several miles from the Confederate capital.

Over the first few months of Levi’s service, he had grown accustomed to almost every aspect of Army life, except for one. He had yet to hear a shot fired in anger and this was about to dramatically change.

As June 1862, drew to a close, the new commander of the Confederate Army around Richmond, Robert E. Lee, decided to launch an offensive to throw back the Army of the Potomac. Lee’s target would be the one corps separated by the Chickahominy River from the rest of McClellan’s army: Porter’s.

Levi Bowen would see his first combat at Beaver Dam Creek on June 26, 1862. During the action, Levi and Company H would be detached from the rest of the Seventh and deploy as skirmishers along the creek. Levi and his comrades would remain in this position for a total of six hours, defending the Union line and successfully repelling the Confederate assaults. At the end of the day, the Union line held. However, the Confederate offensive was enough to cause McClellan to order a strategic withdrawal, pulling his Army back to a new base of operations along the James River.

Early on the morning of June 27, Porter began to withdraw his men from the line along Beaver Dam Creek, to a new line just to the southeast along Boatswain’s Creek. At the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, the Confederates had better luck and finally broke through the Union lines. Late in the fighting, Levi and the Seventh took up a position to the right of the Watt House, in an effort to stem the Confederate assault. This was a futile effort and the Pennsylvanians were forced to give up the field and withdraw with the rest of Porter’s men.

After Gaines’ Mill, Porter’s retreat became a footrace to reach the James River. During the march, the Pennsylvania Reserves were tasked with guarding the Federal artillery and wagon train. No doubt that Levi found this work quite tedious. The movement was slow and although there had been a respite in the fighting, the Confederates were closing in.
Lee had decided once again to attack the retreating Union Army. His target would be the crucial intersection of the Charles City and Darbytown Roads. The Federals had been using the Charles City Road as a line of retreat following the fights at Beaver Dam Creek and Gaines Mill. If Lee could move his men fast enough and capture the road junction, he would be able to cut off a portion of the Union Army from the James River.

The Seventh had reached the intersection late on June 29 and had been assigned picket duty. The next morning, Levi and his comrades were relieved and went into camp. However, the peacefulness was shattered early that afternoon by the Confederate attacks. The Seventh would take up a supporting position along the Darbytown Road and there would repulse an enemy advance.

Around 5 that evening, in a battle that has become known as Charles City Crossroads, Frayser’s Farm and Glendale (to name a few), Lee sent his men forward. During the fighting, the Seventh and their sister Regiment, the Fourth Pennsylvania Reserves would be shifted to a position along the Long Bridge Road. There, they supported Battery E, 1st U.S. Artillery, commanded by Lieutenant Alanson Randol. Moving to attack the Union artillery was a brigade of Alabamans commanded by Cadmus Wilcox. Wilcox’ men launched an initial assault that reached to within 100 yards of Randol’s guns. A second assault came to within half that distance.

With the Alabamans moving ever closer, the Fourth and Seventh stepped off and launched an attack of their own. The resultant fighting would see the Seventh lose every man in their color company to casualties. Taking heavy losses, the two Pennsylvania regiments fell back and the Alabamans finally gained possession of the Union guns. However, the Alabamans would not have them for long, as the Fourth and Seventh counterattacked and recaptured the position. The last assault by the Pennsylvanians brought an end to the see-saw fighting as each side, by this time exhausted, withdrew.The Rebels continued their assaults on the Union lines through the remainder of the day, however, the Federals were able to hold on. Following the end of the fighting, the Yankees continued their retreat to a stronger position closer to the James along Malvern Hill.

Woods on the Long Bridge Road in the vicinity of where Levi was wounded at Glendale.

Levi Bowen, however, was not among those who reached Malvern Hill. Sometime during the fighting around Randol’s Battery, Levi would fall with a disabling wound to the shoulder. Fortunately, the wound was not mortal. Unfortunately, though, Levi would spend the night lying on the battlefield, having to endure listening to the cries of the wounded and wondering what the morning would bring. At some point on the first day of July 1862, he would be found by a Confederate soldier and be taken to a field hospital. Rather than being sent to a Confederate prison camp, Levi would be exchanged only five days after his capture. Upon reaching Union lines, he would be put on a steamer and sent to recover in a Washington hospital.

The recovery would take several months. In November, Levi would be declared fit for duty and return to his regiment, just as they were moving toward another confrontation with the Confederates. It would be at a place that Levi was familiar with, Fredericksburg.

4 Responses to A Pennsylvania Blacksmith Goes to War

  1. As a Civil War buff and re-enactor /skirmisher and married in to the family, thanks for writing a good piece on Levi Bowen. I will have Wendy read this. Oliver

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