SUBMITTED BY: Beacham McDougald; AUTHOR: Jane Dickinson Cowan DeRosset (edited and vetted by Cheri Todd Molter)
Col. Robert H. Cowan, Jr. was a grandson of Governor David Stone (1808-1810) of Bertie County, North Carolina. Col. Cowan was also president of the Wilmington, Charlotte and Rutherfordton Railroad—headquartered in Wilmington—which ran through what is now Laurinburg. In 1864 he decided to move the rail yards from Wilmington to Laurinburg to protect them from the Union forces. This action gave real growth to the future town of Laurinburg.
Of historical interest, Col. Cowan’s sister, Martha, married Jesse Hargrave of Lexington, and they also moved to what is now Scotland County, North Carolina. They purchased land from Matthew McNair (father of John F. McNair) for their homes. The Cowan-Hargrave home was built ¼ mile west of the junction of what is now NC 79 and Old Rockingham Road. It’s on the right side of the Old Rockingham Road and has recently been restored.
The following account was recorded exactly as it was written by Col. Cowan’s daughter, Jane Dickinson Cowan DeRosset, as she recalled it in or about 1900:
“My father, Robert H. Cowan, Colonel of the Eighteenth Regiment, North Carolina Troops, was wounded in one of the battles around Richmond in 1862 and left for dead on the field. He was struck on the chest by pieces of bombshell, which shattered his whole system, and the surgeons pronounced him unfit for service, but after a short visit home he returned to his regiment and went with Jackson into Maryland. On returning to Virginia his fast failing health compelled him to resign. As he passed through Richmond on his way home, he found a commission as Brigadier General made out and ready to be forwarded to him.
In the spring of 1863, he was made President of the Wilmington, Charlotte and Rutherford Railroad Company and carried his family to Richmond, now Scotland county, to live. Our home was five miles from Laurinburg, N. C. and twenty miles from Cheraw, S. C.
I shall never forget when Sherman’s Army reached the latter town, during the first week of March 1865. We sat and listened all day to the booming of the cannon, with aching hearts and fervent prayers that the enemy might be driven back—the utter desolation when we knew that Johnston’s Army had passed by and we were left alone to face the dreaded foe! Late that afternoon, I sat on the steps of our front porch at my father’s feet trying to comfort him and to receive comfort from him; for we were in the deepest distress, our whole country devastated, our dear Southern boys retreating, but contesting every inch of ground, falling by the wayside, gladly giving up their life-blood for the land they loved so well. The brave, noble ruminant struggling on, overpowered in numbers, yet full of faith and trust in their leaders, striving to reach Lee and join forces. Then all would be well. Besides this, the Angel of Death hovered over our house.
My youngest sister (now Mrs. Junious Davis) [Mary Walker Cowan Davis] and brother [James McRee Cowan] had been ill for weeks with scarlet fever, and our physician that day had given up hope of saving them. The burden seemed greater than we could bear. While we talked, up rode a Confederate officer and asked where Johnston’s Army was. My father answered, “I do not know.” He asked other questions, to which he received the same answer; then rode off. “That is a Yankee,” I said; my father answered, “Yes, they will soon be here.” He then got up and went into the house and made preparation for their coming, but our hearts were so full of care and anxiety for the little lives that were gradually fading away, our little girl of five and boy of three, the pets of the household, that everything else sank into insignificance.
What a night that was! Not an eye was closed. Every minute we expected our little ones to leave us and the Federal troops to be upon us. Once we heard the trampling of horses and thought it was surely the enemy, but it proved to be our own horses coming back from the swamp where they had been hidden, just in time to be taken by our foes, for as day broke I looked out of the window and from every direction the hated blue uniforms were coming. They seemed to spring out of the ground, and in a few seconds our house was full of them.
The first man to enter was the “Confederate” officer who had visited us that afternoon before. They were everywhere, upstairs and downstairs, rummaging in closets, trunks, bureaus, wardrobes, anywhere until every piece of silver, jewelry, clothing, and everything else including food was gone. We spent the whole day without one mouthful to eat. Our servants came crying and said that they had tried to bring us something, but the men would snatch it from them. My mother had a spoon in which she was mixing medicine for her sick children snatched from her, and she was obliged to mix it in her hands and put it into their mouths with her finger. They pulled the rings from her fingers as she was holding one of the sick children in her lap, and kicked the cradle in which the other was lying, with the remark, “That one is dead already.”
One of the soldiers engaged in this indignity had meanwhile stood up his loaded musket beside the chair in which my mother sat. They were yelling, cursing, drinking, pushing trunks and boxes from the attic down two flights of stairs to the first floor breaking them open and putting all that could be carried in that way about their persons, piling up the rest and making bonfires of them. We had trunks of valuables belonging to General Whiting, which he had sent to us for safe-keeping when the city of Wilmington had fallen into the hands of the foe; also that of Bishop Watson, who was at that time the rector of Saint James’ Church, Wilmington… One of them rushed into the room where we were all gathered together, dressed in the Confederate uniform of my uncle, Captain John Cowan, and going to my grandmother, slapped her face with Confederate money, which he had found somewhere about the house, grabbed at her watch guard, which she thought she had hidden, and pulled it with the watch from her neck.
I was thankful my father was then out of the room. But he came in soon after with a Federal soldier who had promised him to protect us; though he really had no authority for doing so (this man we found afterward was a North Carolinian and a deserter from the Confederate Army.) There were five watches taken from us at that time. Another many came up to me, a girl of sixteen, and told me to give him a ring, which I did not have. My younger sister [Cornelia F. Cowan Metts,] (now Mrs. [James Isaac] Metts) said that if he would leave us alone she would give him one, and as he took it he threw his arms around her, saying he was a Philadelphia boy and had just gotten out of the penitentiary, which we could well believe. My father sprang forward, but the guard pulled him back, and then stepped up to the other fellow saying, “I am put here to protect this family; leave this room,” when the man cursing refused to do and drew his pistol. The guard also drew his, and as my sister and I were in a corner and the men between us, I thought we would all be killed, but Providence watched over us.
The guard was cool and quiet. And just then something in the hall attracted the other man’s attention, and he ran out of the room. At one time my sister and I were dragged to the head of the stairs, and they said that we must go down and play the piano for them, but something happened that drew their attention from us and we slipped back into the room.
I saw a man put a pistol to my father’s head and another knocked it aside just as it went off. We had begged father the night before to leave us and go into the woods with our brother and uncle, for we were afraid he would be killed, but he would not go. He had been at the Convention of 1861 which had carried the state out of the Union, and the soldiers had found one of his speeches and had fastened it upon the wall where it could be read by all, and when our uncle, Dr. McRae, asked for a guard for our house and told the officers how outrageous their men were behaving, they answered that they did not care what they did out at our house, for they had heard of Colonel Cowan all through South Carolina.
As night came on, the guard told my father he must take his family out of that house, for he had to return to camp, and when the rest of the army came up that night he would not answer for the consequences, so after dark we stole quietly through that camp to an old temperance hall about a quarter mile away. It had been roughly fixed up as a dwelling for Dr. McRae’s family, and in the upstairs of that old shanty we remained for a week (while the Union Army was passing,) with nothing to eat, nothing to wear, and nothing to look forward to but death.
Sometimes our servants would steal a chicken or turkey from the soldiers and bring it to us, and we would hold it with our hands over the fire until it was cooked enough for us to eat, and that would be all we would have for a day or two.
At least one afternoon the negro regiments were coming, and they surrounded the old hall yelling that we had gold hid and they were going to have it. I certainly thought then, as I looked out on that sea of black faces, that our time had come, and that death and worse was very near. We barred the doors and windows and my father got out and walked through those regiments until he saw a general, who, after hearing him, ordered the negroes away, and with his staff spent the night in the lower part of the old hall.
While they were enjoying a good supper, we upstairs had not tasted food all day, and when Dr. McRae told the general there were little children in that house who had been at death’s door, but now had passed the crisis and were crying for bread, which we did not have to get them, he sent us a few pieces of dried baker’s bread, which, after giving to each of the little ones, we divided between our two poor boys, who had come into that evening starved, sick, and worn out, almost dead. They had been captured and dragged about from one camp to another without food, and then paroled.
The next day, the last of Sherman’s Army left us, and we started back to our home, which the troops had tried to burn down, but our servants had saved for us. We had nothing but the clothes we had on and a few articles of clothing for the children, and we came to an empty house.
The heavy furniture which could not be carried off was there, and the Bibles, Prayer-books and pictures, torn, broken and covered with mustard and molasses. We had no food but the corn their horses had dropped while eating, which we picked up, washed and ground, a few potato slips, nothing else.
When we found a room that was not full of feathers from the beds which had been torn open, we threw ourselves down and rested, thanking God that we were alive and had a roof over our heads.
Our friends who had formerly come to see us in their carriages drawn by beautiful horses, now came in ox carts, or on foot, and brought us a little of their meal, flour, lard, eggs, chickens, or whatever they had been able to save. From Charlotte and Raleigh came clothing, which was a long time reaching us, for the country was in such an unsettled state. My father told his servants to try to get to Wilmington, where they were known, and could make a living, for he did not know where he would get meat and bread for his own family, and could not help them, though he would do what he could for those who remained with us.
Another of the Federal soldiers who befriended and protected us was a German from Boston, and my mother gave him a silver cup, which she said would be taken from us, as eight had already been stolen. A short time after the war we got a letter from that man asking what had become of us (“did the army leave you alive?”) for he had never seen people worse treated, and he had been with Sherman from the beginning to the end of his march through the South. In this letter he offered to return the cup if we would give him our address, but my father told him to keep it. I regret that we cannot give the name of this soldier and that we do not know whatever became of the letter.
Jane Dickinson Cowan DeRosset
Wilmington, N. C