Memorial Day

· Military


Today is Memorial Day in the United States. This holiday, which honors the war dead for all of the country’s military conflicts, evolved from Decoration Day which began in 1868.  The original May 30 holiday was begun by the Grand Army of the Republic – an organization of Union veterans of the Civil War.  Confederate veterans had their own Memorial Day to honor their dead with dates ranging from late April to early June.  Several older local holidays that honored the dead of previous wars also existed.

Following World War I, the holiday ceased to be Civil War centric and was used to honor the dead of all wars.  The term Decoration Day began to fade into oblivion following World War II with the current name of Memorial Day taking preeminence.  Although observed as a state holiday in many of the states, it officially became a federal holiday with the name Memorial Day in 1967.  The uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 moved the holiday to the last Monday in May.  Occasionally, the holiday falls on May 30 as it does this year.


In keeping with the original intent of the holiday of honoring the Civil War dead, we pay tribute to the three Owston and Ouston men who died during the Civil War.  One died of disease, one died as a prisoner of war, and a third died in action.


Jonathan Ouston of the extinct Older Kirby Misperton Branch of the Sherburn family was born in 1810, the son of William Ouston and Jane Snowball.  By 1860, Jonathan was living in Palmyra, New York where he was living in the hotel operated by Charles Goodnow.  Jonathan was a britcher by trade – an archaic name for those who made pants in a tailor’s shop.


Ouston enlisted on December 16, 1861 and was mustered on Christmas Eve into the Rochester Union Grays, which was incorporated as Battery L of the 1st New York Light Artillery Regiment.  The battery served at Winchester, VA, Harpers Ferry, VA (now WV), and Baltimore, MD.  Private Ouston died on March 7, 1863 at Stewarts Mansion General Hospital in Baltimore from ascites due to cirrhosis of the liver.  He is buried in Loudon Park National Cemetery in Baltimore.  The current grave marker was a replacement that was erected in 1934.


Born in 1843 in Seaham Harbour, Easington, County Durham, England, James C. Owston was the eldest of three sons of William and Elizabeth Owston. It is possible that the middle initial “C” was “Cuthbert,” as a James Cuthbert and his family lived in the same domicile on North Rail Street in Seaham Harbour as the Owstons in 1851.  James’ family was from the defunct South Shields lineage of the Scarborough branch of the Sherburn family. For generations, the Scarborough branch produced countless mariners of which William and his son James were of this number.

It is not known when James C. Owston moved to New York City, but he was present in the US by 1862, as on December 3 that year, he enlisted as a seaman in the United States Navy for a term of one year.  He noted having 18 months of naval experience.  James was assigned to the receiving ship USS North Carolina – an old ship of the line that was harbored in the New York Naval Yard since 1839.


The sinking of the USS Tecumseh from Harper’s Weekly

On April 12, 1864, he reenlisted for a period of two years, and was transferred to the newly commissioned USS Tecumseh – an ironclad monitor. After initially assigned to patrolling Virginia’s James River, the Tecumseh was attached to Admiral David Farragut’s Western Gulf of Mexico blockade in July 1864.

During the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864, the Tecumseh was leading four monitors on offensive maneuvers.  While turning to engage the CSS Tennessee, the Tecumseh struck a mine, rolled over, and sunk.  Ninety-two members of the crew perished.  James C. Owston was of that number. Their bodies lie submerged with the Tecumseh. The ship lies upside down and is nearly 90% covered by the mud of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.


George F. Owston, the son of Michael and Hannah Owston,was born in South Dansville, New York in 1843. He was from the Lockton Sub Branch of the Thornholme family. His father was one of three sons of John Owston and Sarah Merry of Lockton, North Yorks who settled in Steuben County in the 1840s.

Prior to his service, George was a farmer and presumably worked on the family farm. Private Owston enlisted for service on August 28, 1862 at Dansville.  He was mustered into the 141st New York Infantry on September 11, 1862.

While the unit initially served at Washington, DC and Virginia, it was transferred as part of the XI Corps to the western theatre in Tennessee during the fall of 1863. On October 28 or 29, 1863, George Owston was captured during Battle of Wauhatchie at Lookout Valley, TN and was sent to the dreaded Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia.


Within less than a year at Andersonville, George died of diarrhea on either September 7 or 8, 1864.  He was one of ten men from his regiment that died in a Confederate prison. He is buried in the Andersonville National Cemetery.


Although not dying while in service, we would be remiss in not mentioning the seven others from our family who served in the American Civil War. Some of the following were wounded and/or were prisoners of war. The men are listed in preference by rank and type or length of service.

Captain Charles William Owston (1839-1910) (pictured in the masthead) of the Cobourg line of the Sherburn family served as captain in Company A (Pittsburgh Rifles), 9th Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps (AKA 38th Pennsylvania Volunteers). Following the war, he was captain of the Oil City Grays of the National Guard of Pennsylvania. For more on his family, see the End of the Line Series on the Venango segment of the Cobourg line.

Captain Anthony N. Owston (1830-1891) of the extinct Kirkland, NY line of the Ganton family was a captain in both Company R (Artillery) in 53rd Regiment of the New York State Militia and Company K of Infantry Battalion A of the 21st Brigade, Sixth Division of the New York State Militia.

Second Lieutenant William Henry Owston (1840-1913) of the extinct Kirkland, NY line of the Ganton family served in the federal army as sergeant in Battery A, 1st New York Light Artillery. Following his discharge, he was second lieutenant in Company A of Infantry Battalion A of the 21st Brigade, Sixth Division of the New York State Militia. He held this position following the war.

Private William Harrison Owston (1837-1926) of the Delaware, OH line of the Ganton family was a private in Company C, 4th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.  He is the progenitor of the largest group of Owstons in the USA.

Private Henry H. Owston (1835-1895) of the Delaware, OH line of the Ganton family was a private in Company D, 145th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (National Guard).

Private Charles Vickerman Owston (1845-1912) of the Delaware, OH line of the Ganton family was a private in Company D, 145th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (National Guard).

Private James Henry Ouston (1818-????) of the Holderness branch of the Sherburn family was a private in Company K, 2nd New Jersey Infantry. This unit responded to Lincoln’s call for 75,000 90-days volunteers.

Five of the above were closely related.  Anthony N. and William Henry Owston were brothers and William Harrison, Henry H., and Charles Vickerman Owston were brothers.  The two sets of brothers were first cousins. The remaining five were more distantly related to everyone else.

On this Memorial Day, let us not forget those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.


1851 Census of England and Wales. Available from

1860 United States Census, Wayne County, New York.  Available at

1st Artillery Regiment (Light), Civil War: Morgan’s Light Artillery. (2014). Retrieved from

141st Infantry Regiment, Civil War.  (2014). Retrieved from

Bonaparte, C.J., & Stewart, C.W. (1906).  Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 21: West Gulf Blockading Squadron from January 1 to December 31, 1864. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Burial Registers, Military Posts and National Cemeteries, 1862-1960. Available at

Extant US Civil War Monitors Historic Ships. (2012, November 19). Historic Ships. Retrieved from

History of Ships Named for the State Of North Carolina. (2011). Retrieved from

Memorial Day (n.d.). Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Naval Enlistment Rendezvous, 1855-1891. Available at

New York, Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts.  Available at

Ouston, R. J. (2004).  2003 Directory of Ouston/Owston families.  Highbridge, Somerset, UK:  by the author.

Registers of Deaths of Volunteers, 1861-1865. Available at

U.S. National Cemetery Interment Control Forms. Available at

USS Tecumseh: Civil War Union Naval Monitor. (n.d.).  Retrieved from


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