Mission Statement:

"To advance through research, education and symposia, an increased public awareness of the Cape Fear region's unique history."


Colonel Robert H. Cowan

Merchant, Soldier, Statesman

Cape Fear Historical Institute Papers



Robert H. Cowan

The Cowan clan of Wilmington originates with

William Haughey of County Down, Ireland, born there

in 1694 and passing from this life in 1786 in New Castle,

Delaware.  His daughter Priscilla (1745-1785) married

John Cowan (born Northern Ireland in 1740) in Delaware

in 1765, then moving to North Carolina.  

Their son Thomas Cowan (later Colonel) was born in

New Castle in 1767, and came to the Cape Fear

region about 1800, settling on 200 acres overlooking

Greenville Sound known as the “Shady Hill Trust.”

He lived from 1767 to 1840.

Thomas married Sarah Sage (1774-1866) about

1790 in Onslow county. The Wilmington home of

Col. Thomas Cowan was lost in the great fire

of November 4, 1819. (Sprunt, p. 141)

Sprunt’s Chronicles (p. 209) mentions Col. Cowan

at the head of the Wilmington Light Horse volunteers

escorting President James Monroe and his cortege into

the city from the Scott’s Hill area on April 12, 1819,

about 12 miles north of Wilmington.

They entered the town on the New Bern Road,

Market Street, the town boundary then being about

Fifth Street, thence up Front Street to the Wilmington

Hotel and the Grand Reception. The President

was the guest of Robert Cochrane at his home on

Second Street between Chestnut and Mulberry. 

Secretary of War John C. Calhoun was with the cortege,

and the guest of Dr. Armand J. DeRosset at his home

on the corner of Third and Market Streets.  

Col. Thomas Cowan and wife owned a home on

the north side Market Street between Front and Second,

to the west of and adjacent to present-day St. John’s

Masonic Hall. (McKoy, p. 47)

Of the union of Thomas and Sarah came John Cowan

(1799-1834), a Wilmington merchant and later Cashier

of the Wilmington branch of the North Carolina Bank.

He died in 1834 at age 35.  Both Thomas and son

John Cowan’s names appear on the inner circle

who helped erect Wilmington’s First Presbyterian

Church in 1818.  That congregation was formally

recognized the year before, and had been worshipping

in the Episcopal Church.  

John was an active member of the Thalian Association

theatrical corps and “admirable in genteel comedy.

His fine figure, graceful manner, and correct gesticulations

appeared to great advantage on stage.” (Sprunt, p. 250)

Robert H. Cowan Sr. was born 1801 in Wilmington

and was educated at the University of North Carolina,

graduating with an A.B. in 1821.  A lawyer, he served

in the North Carolina House of Commons 1824-1825,

died in 1843.  His wife Sarah (Sallie, 1800-1874) was

the daughter of Governor David Stone and Hannah Turner. 

The Stone family’s roots were in old New England, and

Sarah’s father Zedekiah Stone came to Bertie county

from Massachusetts. Her father was governor of

North Carolina 1808 to 1810. 

The Cowan home was on the north side of Chestnut

Street between Front and Second Streets, and in the

approximate location of the present-day Copper Penny

restaurant. Their home burned in May, 1844.

Son Robert H. Cowan, Jr.was born August 23, 1824,

educated in local schools and went on to graduate from

the University of North Carolina, receiving an A.B. in 1844. 

He married Elizabeth (Eliza) Jane Dickinson (1823-1883)

on May 7, 1845 at St. James Church in Wilmington, she the

daughter of Platt K. Dickinson and Jane Vance.  Dickinson

was a Northerner who came to Wilmington in the early

1830’s and invested much energy in the lumber business,

and initiating what would become the

Wilmington & Weldon Railroad.

Platt Dickinson

Platt Dickinson’s home occupied the NE corner of

Front and Chestnut Streets, now the old Murchison

building. It burned in 1844 and was replaced with an

“expansive mansion.” (Schenck, p. 71)

Robert H. and Eliza's daughter Mary W. was born

in 1859 and later married Junius Davis, son of the

distinguished Wilmington attorney, orator and

statesman, George Davis) in 1893.

Wilmington Merchant and Civic Leader:

At the 8 November 1841 “Annual meeting of the

stockholders of the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad

Company, Edward B. Dudley was elected to replace

retiring Gen. James Owen as president. The following

gentlemen were elected directors Platt K. Dickinson,

Alexander Anderson, Thomas H. Wright, Robert H.

Cowan, Samuel Potter (of Smithville), and B.F. Moore

(of Halifax).  (Sprunt, p. 151)

Cowan served as a Town Commissioner and was

among the many Wilmington business and political

leaders of the Committee of Twenty-four who officially

welcomed President Millard Fillmore to Wilmington on

the 12th of May, 1854. The Committee included George

Davis, William A. Wright, Robert Strange, Jr., Gaston

Meares, Stephen D. Wallace, Edward Kidder,

and Oliver .P. Meares.

On the 24th of April, 1850, Cowan accompanied the

remains of Senator John C. Calhoun to Charleston on the

steamer Nina as part of the Wilmington Committee

headed by Dr. Armand J. DeRosset.

During the 1840s and 50s he was an active member

of the Thalian Association like his uncle John, “a very

popular member of the association and bore a prominent

part in all their representations.” (Sprunt, p. 251)  

Robert H. Cowan and Donald MacRae were appointed

by the Association in December, 1854 to secure plans for

a new building to house both the town hall and Thalian Hall

and located at the corner of Third and Princess Streets.

The cornerstone was finally laid on December 27, 1855

and the building substantially-completed in April, 1858.

From Sprunt’s Chronicles of the Cape Fear:

“On the occasion of [Gov. Edward B. Dudley’s] death,

Robert H. Cowan was selected by the citizens of

Wilmington to deliver an address commemorative of his

life and character, and performed that public service

on the eighth day of November, 1855. 

“Addressing the stockholders of the W&W RR Company,

Colonel Cowan said: “You must remember that yours

was the  pioneer work in North Carolina, that it was an

experiment, that it was undertaken without sufficient means,

that it was condemned beforehand as a failure, that it

encountered troubles, trials, difficulties of the most

extraordinary character; that nothing but indomitable

energy, the most liberal enterprise, the most unceasing

patience, the most determined spirit of perseverance,

could have enabled it to surmount these difficulties.

[Col. Cowan continued:] Governor Dudley brought all

these qualifications to the task and commanded the success

which he so eminently deserved. He committed a

considerable portion of his large estate to its completion.

When your offices, your warehouses, and all of your

machinery….were laid in ruins by the terrible fire of 1843;

when a heap of smoldering embers marked the spot

where all of your possessions in Wilmington the day

before had stood; when your most ardent friends had

begun to despair; when your own merchants had

refused to credit you….when your long-sinking credit

was at last destroyed and your failure seemed

inevitable – Governor Dudley came forward and

pledged the whole of his private estate as your

security, and thus, with renewed confidence in your

solvency, you were enabled to go on to that

complete success which awaited you entirely

through his exertions.”

(Sprunt, pp. 226-231)

A vestryman at the organization of St. John’s Episcopal

parish in mid-February, 1860, Cowan signed the solemn

declaration along with William Lord DeRosset and Sewall

L. Fremont, and he served as a delegate to the Diocesan

Council held in Charlotte in May 1860. (Sprunt, p. 611)


R.H. Cowan Home on Front Street


War Clouds Gather:

Like many Wilmington political leaders Cowan was

a Unionist Whig who saw no need for withdrawing

from the old Union, and on March 2, 1861

Cowan joined other Wilmington leaders in a formal

request to Washington Peace Congress commissioner

George Davis for a public address to the citizens

of Wilmington on the results of that Congress in

seeking peace between North and South.

The Congress was a failure due to Republican

obstinacy and refusal to compromise to save the

Union. This drove Cowan and other North Carolina

Unionists to embrace the secession of the State –

he was elected to the Convention of May, 1861

which formally withdrew North Carolina

from the United States.


The Daily Journal obituary notice of November 12, 1872

reveals Cowan’s thoughts and states that:

“Being an earnest and thorough Southerner, when

the “John Brown raid” occurred he openly declared

his conviction that the time had come for the Southern

people to act in unison, regardless of old partisan differences,

and thence-forward, with the manly candor which

characterized him in all the relations of life, he stood

forward as one of the boldest and bravest defenders

of our people and section.”

Military Service:

After North Carolina joined the withdrawing Southern

States forming the Confederacy, Robert H. Cowan was

elected lieutenant-colonel of the Third North Carolina

Regiment on 16 May, 1861, serving with fellow

Wilmingtonians and Gaston Meares, William Lord

DeRosset, Stephen D. Thruston, William M. Parsley

and Edward Savage.  Colonel Gaston Meares led the

regiment early in the war and was killed in action

at Malvern Hill; William Lord DeRosset

rose to command as colonel.

Lieutenant-Colonel Robert H. Cowan was elected

colonel of the reorganized Eighteenth North Carolina

at Kinston in April 24, 1862, Lieutenant-Colonel

Thomas Purdie of Bladen County (born near

present-day Tarheel) was his second in command. 

The Eighteenth’s first commander was former

Wilmington military school principal Colonel

James D. Radcliffe, who was defeated for

reelection by Cowan after the reorganization.

Radcliffe later became Colonel of the Sixty-first

North Carolina Regiment.

Cowan was highly-respected by the rank and file

of the Third who “recognized him as one of those by

whom the regiment had been brought to its fine efficiency.

The esteem in which he was held was manifested on his

departure by the presentation to him by the regiment

of a very fine horse.” (Sprunt, p. 299)

The Eighteenth North Carolina rank and file consisted

of Cape Fear-area men and volunteer militia units

from surrounding counties: the German Volunteers from

New Hanover County; Bladen Light Infantry;

Columbus Guards No. 3; Robeson Rifle Guards;

Moore’s Creek Rifle Guards; Moore’s Creek

Riflemen; Scotch Boys (Richmond county);

Wilmington Light Infantry; Columbus Guards No. 1;

Wilmington Rifle Guards; and the Bladen Guards.

Cowan’s Eighteenth North Carolina became part of

the Second North Carolina Brigade and was assigned

to General A.P. Hill’s “Light Division” -- its baptism

of fire occurred at the battle of Hanover Court

House on 27 May 1862.

General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch in his report of

that battle says of it: “Colonel Cowan with the Eighteenth

made the charge most gallantly, but the enemy’s force

was much larger than had been supposed, and strongly

posted, and the gallant Eighteenth was compelled to

seek shelter. It continued to pour heavy volleys from

the edge of the woods and must have done great execution.

The combined volley from the Eighteenth and Thirty-seventh

compelled the enemy to leave his [artillery] battery for

a time, and take shelter behind a ditch bank.”

Orders were then sent to Cowan to withdraw

in order; “Colonel Cowan….attracted my attention by

the perfect order in which he brought out his regiment,

notwithstanding the severe and long-continued fire he

had received from both infantry and artillery.”

The enemy made a stand at Mechanicsville, then withdrew

to Cold Harbor where Cowan’s Eighteenth charged a

strongly entrenched position. Colonel Cowan in his report

of the battle said:

“Friday afternoon at 4 o’clock we were put in the fight

at Cold Harbor. By your order my line of battle was

formed….[and my regiment] advanced through the

dense woods, in which the enemy were posted. Again

and again was that position assailed, and again and

again were we repulsed by vastly superior numbers.

[After reinforcements, the enemy] position was

carried in that last charge which swept his whole

army from the field in perfect rout." 

Cowan’s last official report to General Branch was

after the battle of Frayser’s Farm, fought on 30 June 1862

and apparently where Col. Cowan was severely wounded.

Cowan’s daughter Jane Dickinson DeRosset later

wrote of him being struck by cannon-shell fragments

near Richmond (likely Frayser’s Farm) in 1862, and

left for dead on the field.   She said that the wounds

“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

[General Stonewall] Jackson into Maryland. 

On returning to Virginia his fast falling 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. 

Organized with 1100 men under arms, the Eighteenth

North Carolina had suffered greatly and lost 57%

of the 396 engaged during the Seven Days’ battles. 

General Branch noted that during the Seven Days’ battles

his brigade had 2 colonels killed, two wounded

(including Cowan), one captured, all while the

entire brigade suffered almost 50 percent casualties.

Col. Cowan submitted his resignation on 1 November

due to “congestion of the liver and chronic diarrhea”

and it was accepted on 11 November -- the colonelcy

devolving upon Thomas J. Purdie of Bladen county.

(North Carolina Troops 1861-65, page 305, Volume 6)

Retired from active service, Cowan returned to Wilmington

and became president of the Wilmington, Charlotte and

Rutherfordton Railroad, moving his family to a home

near Laurinburg, North Carolina to oversee rail operations.



According to the Alumni History of the University of

North Carolina, Cowan was elected to the North Carolina

House first in 1866 (Alumni History, p. 134), and in

1869 and 1870, serving as Chairman of the

Committee on Finance.

In November 1869 his daughter Cornelia married

Capt. James I. Metts (1843-1921, native of Kinston),

an officer under Colonel Cowan’s command during the

war.  Metts was in a mercantile partnership with Col.

Cowan with their business located in the St. John’s

Masonic Hall building on Market Street in 1869

(Wrenn, p. 201). 

Capt. Metts was later commander of the North Carolina United Confederate Veterans organization.

Cowan was an early member of the prestigious

Cape Fear Club of Wilmington, organized March 3,

1866 “with a view to promote social intercourse

among its members.” The 1868 roster of members

lists Col. Cowan along with other distinguished

Cape Fear military leaders Col. John Lucas

Cantwell, Col. William B. Flanner, General

William MacRae, Col. J.G. Burr, Col. J.R.

Davis, Col. Alfred Moore Waddell, and Col.

Robert Strange.  Col. Cowan was elected to the

presidency of the Cape Fear Club in 1869.

Col. Cowan became president of the Wilmington Life

Insurance Company in November, 1871, serving in

that position until his death on November 11, 1872.

Buried in Oakdale Cemetery, “No man was more

loved and admired than he. His gallantry was unequaled,

while his charming personality and graceful manners are

well remembered by all who knew him.” (Sprunt, p. 300)


“Obituary of Colonel Robert H. Cowan:

Carolina Messenger, Goldsboro, Wayne County,

NC, November 14, 1872

New Hanover Co.:

Col. Robert H. Cowan

It is our painful duty to record from time to time the

loss of some very worthy and useful citizen[s], whose

form has long been familiar to the public, and

whose name has become a household word among

our inhabitants. Of this class was the late Col.

Robt. H. Cowan of Wilmington, N.C., who died

at his residence in that city last Monday

morning, aged 48 years.

Col. Cowan was a man of great talents and

generally esteemed wherever known, winning

friends by his courteous manners, kindness

and generosity, and retaining them by his integrity

and liberality.  He was of a pure and elevated

character, considerate to the poor, generous to the

unfortunate, and charitable in all his sentiments –

one of the class who adorn and strengthen the

association or society or city of which they are

members, and who leave the world better for

their having lived in it.  His death is a sad blow

to our State and the section in which he resided.”



Col. Cowan's daughter Jane Dickinson DeRosset

later wrote of her family's experiences at the hands

of Sherman's marauders in early 1865 at their

home near Laurinburg:

One Account of Sherman’s Raid

"Severely wounded in Virginia and forced to resign

from service, Colonel Robert H. Cowan of the

18th North Carolina Regiment became president

of the Wilmington, Charlotte and Rutherfordton Railroad

Company in the spring of 1863, and removed his family

to a home about 5 miles from Laurinburg in Scotland

county, and about twenty miles from Cheraw, South

Carolina.  From here he oversaw railroad operations

for the remained of the war.

His daughter Jane Dickinson DeRosset was a young

girl at that time and recalled the following:

“I shall never forget when Sherman’s army reached

[Cheraw, and opposed primarily by General

Wade Hampton’s cavalry forces, under General

Joseph E. Johnston], during the first week of

March in 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 front steps 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

remnant struggling on, overpowered by 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 lowered over our house.

My youngest sister (now Mrs. Junius Davis) and

brother had been ill for weeks with scarlet fever,

and our physician had that day given up all hope of

saving them.  The burden seemed greater

than we could bear.

Every minute we expected [my sister and brother]

to leave us and the Federal troops to be upon us.

Once we heard the tramping of horses [for as the] day

broke I looked out the window and 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.

They were everywhere, upstairs and downstairs,

rummaging through closets, trunks, bureaus,

wardrobes, anywhere, until every piece of silver,

jewelry, clothing and everything else, including food,

was gone.  We spent the whole ay without one

mouthful to eat. Our [black] servants came crying

and saying they tried to bring us something, but

the [Northern] 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 hand and put it

into their mouths with her finger.  They pulled the rings

from her fingers as she was holding in her lap, and

kicked the cradle in which the other one was lying,

with the remark, “That one is dead already.”

One of the soldiers engaged in this indignity had

meanwhile stood with his loaded musket beside the

chair in which my mother sat. They were yelling, cursing,

drinking, pitching 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

[William H.C.] Whiting], which he had sent us for

safe-keeping when the city of Wilmington had fallen

into the hands of the foe; also had all that Bishop

Watson, who was at that time rector of Saint James

Church in Wilmington, had saved when the town

of New Berne, N.C., fell.

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 up 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 soon came in with a Federal soldier, who

had promised him to protect us; though he really had

no authority in doing so (this man  we found

afterwards was a North Carolinian and a

deserter from the Confederate army).

There were five watches taken from us at that time. 

Another [soldier] came up to me, a girl of sixteen, and

told me to give him a ring, which I did not have.

My younger sister…said that if he would leaves

me 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 come out of

the penitentiary, which we could well believe.

My father sprang forward….[and] I thought we

would all be killed, but Providence watched over us.

I saw a [soldier] put a pistol to my father’s head and

another knock 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.

[My father] had been in the [Secession] 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 up on the wall where it could be read

by all, and when our uncle, Dr. McRee, asked for

a guard for our house and told the officers how

outrageously their men were behaving, they answered

that they did not care what they did at our house,

for they had heard of Colonel Cowan all

through South Carolina.

As night came, the [deserter] guard told my father

he must take his family out of that house….[and that]

when the rest of the army came up that night he would

not answer for the consequences, so after dark

we stole quietly through [the enemy] camp to an old

temperance hall about a quarter mile away.  It had

been roughly fixed up as a dwelling for Dr. McRee’s

family, and in that old shanty we remained for a

week (while the Union Army was passing),

with nothing to eat, nothing to wear, 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 in 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 last one afternoon the Negro regiments were

coming up and they surrounded the old hall yelling

that we had gold hid and they were going to

have it. I certainly thought then, as we looked

out on that sea of black faces, that our time had

come, and that death or worse was near. 

We barred the doors and windows, and my father

got out and walked through those regiments until he

found 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. [They enjoyed]

a good supper, we upstairs had not tasted

food all day….[and the Northern] general sent a

few pieces of dry baker’s bread….

The next day the last of Sherman’s army left us, a

nd 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 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, and a few potato slips,

nothing else. When we found a room that was

not full of feathers from the beds that had

been torn open [looking for valuables], we

threw ourselves down and rested, thanking God

that we were alive and had a roof over our heads.

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 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.”

Jane Dickinson DeRosset

(Richmond County, North Carolina Genealogy website www.ncgenweb.us)



Chronicles of the Cape Fear River, James Sprunt, 1916

Nicholas W. Schenck Diary, UNC web collections.

Alumni History of the University of North Carolina, D. Grant, editor, 1924  Clark’s History of NC Regiments, Vol. II, Nash Brothers, 1902

NC Troops, 1861-65, Vol. 6, NCDAH, 1986