1862: Thomas Cowen McIlhenny to Thomas Cowan

This letter was written by Thomas Cowan McIlhenny (1825-1901), the son of Thomas McIlhenny (1776-1835) and Sarah Eliza Cowan (1808-18xx). Thomas C. McIlheny was married to Margaret Dudley (1829-1881) in 1847.

Thomas wrote the letter to his Uncle Thomas Cowan (1803-1883) of Pittsboro, Chatham County, North Carolina. Thomas was married to Margaret Matilda McIlhenny (1812-1833) in 1831. After Margaret’s death in 1833, Thomas married Mary Ashe London (1814-1879) in 1834.

The letters pertains to the status of Thomas Cowan’s son, Lt. Thomas Cowan, Jr. (1839-1862), of Co. B, 3rd North Carolina Infantry, who was mortally wounded at the Battle of Antietam on 17 September 1862 – most likely in the tenacious fighting in front of the Dunkard Church on the Sharpsburg-Hagerstown Pike. He received a severe head wound and was removed by federal authorities to Washington D. C. on the day following the battle. One source says he died on 21 September 1862 but his records associated with Arlington Cemetery state that he died on 4 or 5 October 1862. He is buried in the Confederate Section, Site 225, at Arlington.

Before the war, Thomas Cowan, Jr. graduated (1858) from the University of North Carolina, read the law, passed the bar (1860), and practiced law (likely in Wilmington). He enlisted in the Wilmington Light Infantry (militia) in April 1861, and was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant, Company B, 3rd North Carolina Infantry on 16 May 1861. He was promoted to First Lieutenant in early 1862.


Fayetteville, North Carolina
November 4th 1862

Dear Uncle,

I arrived here this evening and called to see Mrs. Walker and learned from her the following information which I hope may be true, and if so, will be happiness to you and Aunt Mary. I will “tell it as it was told to me” and add that I think you can hope something from it. I think Tom was wounded and is a prisoner in Washington City. There was a letter received here from a Mr. William Bell ¹ who is a North Carolinian and in Washington City containing the following, viz: “A great many North Carolina prisoners are around here in hospitals. The Patent Office ² contains many — one, Tom Cowan who is badly wounded, but may recover.” I went to see tonight the lady who received the letter with Mr. Bowles. We saw the letter and the above and the very words it contained. Thinking you would like to try and communicate through the “under ground railroad” from Richmond with Mr. Bell, I send you his address. It is, William Bell, Washington City, Corner of L and 10th Street, I would get Capt. [Claudius Baker] Denson ³ to go on with this information and a letter to Gen’l [John H.] Winder and get him to help you to communicate (which of course will have to be very secretly) with Mr. Bell or with someone else he may suggest, and you can find out more from Tom and his situation.

I hope it is Tom he saw and think it certainly was, but fear his wound is very serious. I would not be too certain or hope too much until I could hear and know more. There is no doubt Mr. Bell saw Tom — or a Tom Cowan — and I know of no other T. C. in the State. If Capt. Denson goes to Richmond to see Gen’l Winder, tell him to call on a Mr. Fuller who is a clerk in one of the Departments in Richmond. He was the person who received in Richmond the letter and sent it on here to Mrs. Sanford, the aunt of Mr. Bell. He may help him to get more information. The letter was dated October 1st 1862 but was only received here on Saturday last. Mrs. Whiting would have written to you but was waiting to see the letter herself before she wrote so that she might give the very words of the letter. I hope for the best and think there is reason to hope, but my dear Uncle, don’t be too sanguine. There [are] many things that could have happened to Tom since. From my heart I hope you may see him well and at home again.

Mrs. Walker and family send love to Aunt Mary. I write in haste. Yours truly, — Thos. McIlhenny

Mr. Thomas Cowan, Pittsboro, N. C.

I open this to say Mrs. Sanford says Mr. Bell did not know Tom personally but knew some of the Cowan family, and did not know that Tom was even in the fight which is conclusive that he certainly did see a Tom Cowan and I know of no other of the name in the State. I only hope he may have recovered and there was a chance for that from the letter.

¹ The 1864 Washington City Directory [Boyd’s] gives a W. B. Bell, clerk, residing at 10th West, corner of L Street. 

² The Patent Office covers the entire block defined by F and G Streets, and 7th and 9th Streets. During the Civil War, the building was turned into military barracks, hospital, and morgue. Wounded soldiers lay on cots in third-floor galleries, among glass cases holding models of inventions that had been submitted with patent applications.

³ Claudius Baker Denson (1837-1903) was the captain of Co. E, 20th North Carolina Infantry.  


4 thoughts on “1862: Thomas Cowen McIlhenny to Thomas Cowan

  1. Col. Thomas Cowan McIlhenny was an officer in the CSA. His parents are John Keenan McIlhenny, (d. 13 Apr 1835) and Sarah Eliza Cowan (1808-1873), who are my 4th great-grandparents. This information is also supported by the Last Will and Testament of Thomas Cowan (1761-1831) father of Sarah, which states the name of Sarah’s husband as John K McIlhenny. Col. Denson (aka Capt. John Claudius Baker Denson) mentioned in this letter is the husband of Margaret Matilda Cowan, daughter of Thomas and Mary Ashe London Cowan, and brother of the wounded and later deceased, Thomas Cowan. Another letter written by Robert H. Cowan, dated 10 Oct 1862 states that he believes Thomas to be “missing in action.” On 19 December 1862 the family received a letter notifying them of the death of their son on 5 Oct 1862, after the battle at Sharpsburg, MD. These particular letters can be found in the Cowan and Denson Family Papers, New Hanover Library, Wilmington, NC, some of which are available to view online.


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