During the Civil War, especially in Missouri and Kansas, there was a fine line between soldiers simply following orders or letting vengeance or retribution take over. As bushwackers continued to stymie Union forces in the state and both sides embracing the “no quarter” philosophy (that is, not taking prisoners, but upon capture, the prisoner would be executed), both sides were determined to break the other. Such is the story of Confederate Major John L. Owen. Owen had been a Major in the Missouri State Guard under the command of General Sterling Price and his actions in Missouri vary depending on whose account is told. However his capture and death also balance between getting what he deserved by the rules of the military or being murdered.
Owen’s wife, Mary submitted her account of events, as well as detailing Owen’s military service and his motives:
About the 1st of September my husband, John L. Owen, then captain of a company of six-months’ men (sworn into the State service about the middle of June), started to General Price. He was promoted to major and returned home the 6th of December. Since that time to my certain knowledge he has had no company nor part of company; neither has he been connected in any way with a company. And I do know and can say with truth that he never either before or since his return from the arms has been engaged in what is termed bushwhacking and that he has never shot into the cars. On the contrary I known he was always opposed to that kind of warfare. I have frequently heard him speak on the subject, therefore I know his opinion…
On the 8th day of June before we had risen in the morning we were surrounded by Federal troops knocking at the doors for admittance. My mother, her two sons who live with her, Amsley and William, myself and child were all who were in the house. The soldiers came in, searched the house, took both Amsley and William prisoners and took them away, while others came and surrounded the place. Persons who saw them estimated their numbers at about 300. They had their pilots with them. They dashed through the fields like so many fiends, and into the meadow where my husband had slept the night before (and no doubt he had been watched to his sleeping place), and oh, they found him in a little cluster of bushes not more than 200 or 300 yards from the house and in plain view of the house. They found him alone, unarmed and defenseless; one poor man, without any resistance at all, gave himself up to his savage captors. Resistance would have been vain and he knew it. Oh, the savage yells they sent up when they found him; they ret.
They brought him to the house. We saw them coming. I was greatly troubled to think they had him prisoner; but oh, I could not conceive that persons calling themselves men and Christian men could have hearts cruel enough to murder him in the brutal manner in which they did. They all halted at the fence and got water. While here they questioned him as to who stayed with him, and several other questions, among the rest where was his company. He told them he had no company. His mother and myself told them the same. They called us all liars and said they knew he had a company for they had been told so, and that he had to tell where it was. We all assured them that he told the truth, but they would not believe us. They said, “Take him away from these women, and if he does not tell us we will hang him. ” He said just as they started from the house if they would treat him as a prisoner of war and according to the honors of war he had no fears.
I feared from their savage appearance that they might abuse him or do him some harm, and I followed them about a quarter of a mile entreating them to spare his life; that he was innocent of the charges they had against him, and not to take an innocent man’s life. They assured me they would not kill him, and told me to go back home now and come down to Palmyra the next day and see him. That satisfied me. I turned and came home.
They did not go over half a mile farther till they killed him.
A letter in the Quincy Whig in 1862 claimed to hold the facts to Owen’s case and disputed his wife’s account. This was written by the Provost-Marshal of Palmyra, Missouri, William R. Strachan, an ardent supporter of the Union. The letter begins with,
SIR: I am led to thank you for your happy answer to a letter purporting to have emanated from Mrs. J. L. Owen describing the manner of the death of her husband. Whilst every person can sympathize with the wife in her affliction and regret she was so unfortunate in having so guilty a husband, still every loyal right-minded citizen must be satisfied with the merited punishment of so notorious a traitor as John L. Owen.
I wish to give points in the career of this “Major ” John L. Owen which may expose the outrage of publishing such a letter as that in the Herald. J. L. Owen was the first man who inaugurated bushwhacking in this portion of the State of Missouri. His company by his orders burned some eight or ten passenger coaches on the Hannibal and Saint Joseph Railroad, burned a depot building at Monroe Station, tore up the railroad track, destroyed culverts and fired into passenger cars. On one occasion they met a man by the name of Hotchkiss who never had carried arms and was particularly inoffensive, being engaged in trading with the farmers in the vicinity of Monroe City for butter, eggs, &c., and in return delivering them coffee, sugar, cotton, &c. He had never committed any higher crime than that of voting for Abraham Lincoln, yet this man while watering his horses was deliberately shot down; eight balls were put into him and he was left for dead. The man, however, was taken care of by the Sixteenth Illinois’ surgeon and I believe is now alive in Hannibal.
Again, John L. Owen has been hiding from justice since Christmas, lying concealed, sleeping in the brush, and was found in his bed in the brush, and armed.
General orders from headquarters are imperative that this class of men caught under arms in this part of the United States are to be shot on the spot. These orders have been published to the world. Mr. Owen was not shot in the presence of his family, he was not tied, he was not abused; but the general orders that commanded him to be shot were read to him, and he was regularly executed in accordance with military usage.
However, another version clearly presents a case where there is some discrepancies in the actual shooting of Owen. Joseph Mudd was an unapologetic secessionist, slave holder and served with the Army of Northern Virginia later in the war. During his time with Colonel Joseph C. Porter in northeast Missouri, Mudd was witness to the events surrounding Owen’s death. In his book With Porter in Northern Missouri, he tells the story of the event as such,
On the 8th of June a scouting party of the Eleventh Missouri State Militia, commanded by Captain W. W. Lair, made a prisoner of Major John L. Owen, who lived near Monroe City, in Marion County, and shot him… Returning home in December, 1861, he found an indictment for treason hanging over him, and so he could not come in and surrender. He continued to hide out until he was captured… Captain Collier and the Shelby County company made him prisoner and took him to his family. Here they assured his wife they would take him to Palmyra and would not harm him. Half a mile from his house they set him on a log against a fence and put eight bullets through him-caliber 54… Captain Collier states that when he left Palmyra, he had strict orders to enforce the terms of General Schofield’s ‘Orders No. 18,’ enjoining the ‘utmost vigilance in hunting down and destroying’ all bushwhackers and marauders, who, the order said, ‘when caught in arms, engaged in their unlawful warfare,’ were to be shot down ‘on the spot.
Newspapers were also guilty of either supporting southern sympathies or supporting the Union. The following is from the Hannibal (Mo.) Hearld of June 10:
Information was brought into camp at Palmyra on Saturday last that Colonel John L. Owen, a notorious rebel who has made himself conspicuous in burning bridges, cars and depots, firing into passenger trains, last summer and fall, was secreted at or near his farm in Monroe. A detachment from Company A, Eleventh Regiment Missouri State Militia (Colonel Lipscomb), under command of Lieutenant Donahoo, was immediately sent out from Palmyar to hunt the outlaw. On approaching the farm of Colonel Owen on Sunday about 12 m. the squad discovered a negro running rapidly from the house toward a piece of brush. The lieutenant and his company immediately started for the brush and going into it discovered the game and soon bagged it. At first the colonel showed a determination to resist his capture, but finding such a proceeding useless he yielded. Preparations were made for his execution. He begged the soldiers to take him prisoner. They informed him that “Taking prisoners” was played out. They then placed him upon a stump in front of a file of soldiers and at the word of command eight bullets pierced the body of the rebel, killing him instantly.
Thus has ended the career of a notorious bushwacker and outlaw. He has met the just retribution of his damning crimes.
This leads us to try and determine what really happened with John L. Owen and presents a case that historians struggle with when trying to piece together an event from primary sources, that is, it all depends on who you ask. The facts that are readily clear are that Owen was indeed a southern sympathizer, he did take up arms against the Union while under Price’s command, and he was killed by Union soldiers after being captured. The details, however, will always be at the mercy of the historian piecing together the tale. Was he innocent? Was he indeed unarmed? Was a promise to keep him as a prisoner given and then reneged on?
The list goes on, and the truth is left to the minds of those who attempt to piece the puzzle together, knowing there will always be missing pieces and a true picture is nearly impossible to find.