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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 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, 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 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
One Account of Sherman’s Raid in North Carolina: