Event recalls soldier's heroism

New statue honors Confederate veteran who fended off troops

Example of `true bravery'

June 20, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

More than a century after he stood alone on a bridge, fending off the advance of 6,000 Union troops with a single cannon, a Confederate soldier from Anne Arundel County was honored yesterday for his bravery.

A 12-foot-high bronze statue of Pvt. Benjamin Welch Owens was unveiled in the rural south Anne Arundel town of Lothian to the chirping of the penny whistle and the thunder of Civil War artillery. More than 200 people gathered -- many in period costume -- to pay tribute to a common man who displayed uncommon valor.

"This man represents the ideal of the citizen soldier," said O. James Lighthizer, a former county executive and avid student of Civil War history. "There are very few more remarkable examples of true bravery in our history."

Modern politics and the passage of time have made such tributes to Confederate veterans not only rare, but controversial, because the ugly shadow of slavery looms large. Many of the county's black leaders declined invitations.

County Executive Janet S. Owens, who is distantly related to the soldier, attended and called for a substantial police presence at the small grass field along Route 408. Her primary concern, according to police and other county sources, was that ranks of the Ku Klux Klan would turn up at the private ceremony.

But those fears proved unrealized. The dozens of Confederate flags that flapped lightly in the breeze were meant as symbols of heritage, not hate. And the prevailing theme in a half-dozen speeches on the lawn of Mount Calvary Southern Episcopal Church was heroism.

According to Gregg S. Clemmer, a historian who wrote about Pvt. Owens in a book that recounts Confederate acts of heroism, the young private from Anne Arundel was defending a bridge at Stephenson's Depot as his fellow troops began falling around him. Ultimately, he stood alone, continually firing his cannon until the Union forces retreated.

Owens went on to survive the battle at Gettysburg, and returned to serve as a clerk in the Anne Arundel Courthouse. He died in 1917.

For the many Confederate descendants attending, the focus on battlefield courage was more satisfying than mulling about the realities of slavery.

"You could take anything and pick it apart," said Richard J. Imboden of Upper Marlboro, who was dressed in the gray wool uniform of his great-grandfather, a Confederate brigadier general. "But this is about bravery and heroism, pure and simple."

One of the speakers at the tribute was Leonard A. Blackshear, a black Anne Arundel businessman who has been campaigning for a statue to honor Kunta Kinte, the central figure in Alex Haley's book "Roots."

"This event should remind us that every group has a history they can be proud of," Blackshear said. "That's an important message for everyone."

Pub Date: 6/20/99

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