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Robert Cowan

Union or Secession
Robert Edwin Cowan (1830–1887)
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Related documents:
  • Preston County Election Return
    Preston County Election Return, October 24, 1861
Related Biographies:
  • Charles James Pindall Cresap (1836–1886)
    Charles James Pindall Cresap

ROBERT EDWIN COWAN (1830–1887)

Robert Edwin Cowan (9 November 1830–14 July 1887), member of the third session of the Convention of 1861, was the son of Arthur Cowan and Elizabeth Cowan (maiden name unknown) and was born probably in Staunton. In 1830 the family was living in Monongalia County and by 1840 had moved to Harrison County. From 1851 to 1852 Cowan studied law at Washington College (later Washington and Lee University) and in the latter year was admitted to the bar in Monongalia County. By 1853 he was representing clients in Preston County, where he was also a commissioner in chancery until compelled to relinquish the position by the demands of his growing practice. On 22 December 1853 Cowan married Susan Louisa Cresap, of Preston County. They had at least four children, two sons and two daughters.

In 1857 Cowan won election to represent Preston County in the House of Delegates, where he was appointed to the Committee on Banks. Reelected in 1859, he sat on the Committee of Schools and Colleges and the Committee on Banks. Late in that session he opposed a bill calling for a state convention to consider the issue of secession because it failed to provide Virginians with an opportunity to review the convention's actions. Cowan voted in favor of a defeated amendment proposing a popular referendum on the question of whether to hold a convention and supported an amendment that allowed voters to decide whether to ratify the convention's decision. To keep his constituents informed of the General Assembly's proceedings, Cowan published letters in the Kingwood Chronicle, the local newspaper whose Unionist stance mirrored Preston County's overwhelming opposition to secession.

The Convention of 1861

On 17 April 1861 the convention approved the Ordinance of Secession, and by 27 May Cowan was a major in the 25th Regiment Virginia Infantry (also known as Heck's Regiment) operating against Union forces in the northwestern part of the state. His duties included collecting and transporting arms and supplies and gathering recruits. In June the state convention formally expelled twelve western delegates who opposed secession and had abandoned their seats. The governor ordered special elections to be held at military encampments to fill these vacated positions. On 24 October 1861 at Camp Bartow, in Pocahontas County, Cowan's brother-in-law Charles James Pindall Cresap, Cresap's brother, and two other Preston County men selected Cowan to replace one of the county's convention delegates, and Cresap's brother and the two other men elected Cresap to the remaining seat. Cowan resigned his clerkship in the Auditor's Office of the Post Office Department and took his seat on 20 November 1861. He served only about two weeks in the third and final convention session but added his signature to the Ordinance of Secession.

On 28 January 1862 Cowan was appointed a captain in the regular Confederate service to rank from 18 January of that year and served as an assistant commissary of subsistence in the Commissary Department. His regimental duties permitted him to reside for much of the time in Richmond. Cowan was elected to another term in the House of Delegates that met in four sessions from 2 December 1861 to 31 March 1863, but he did not take his seat until 9 March 1863. His absence no doubt resulted from his military service. Cowan suffered from rheumatism and by October 1862 planned to leave the army, but not until 5 June 1863 did he tender his resignation.

Special elections held at several military encampments and among refugees in Richmond on 28 May 1863 sent Cowan and Cresap to the House of Delegates with sixteen and twelve votes, respectively. Although in June 1863 Preston County became part of the new state of West Virginia, Cowan continued to represent the county in the Virginia legislature in three sessions between 7 September 1863 and 15 March 1865. He served on the Committees for Courts of Justice and on Confederate Relations. When not attending to his legislative obligations Cowan periodically sought various positions with the Confederate Treasury Department and described himself in one 1864 letter of application as a refugee "destitute of the means of Support."

After the Civil War, Cowan went west. He began keeping a daily journal when he left Cincinnati in April 1867. He traveled to Texas, where he practiced law in Dallas, before visiting the Oklahoma Territory. On 12 September he arrived in Independence, Missouri, and recorded his final journal entry. Cowan settled in Jackson County, Missouri, where his father had owned property, and opened a law office in Kansas City. In May 1868 his wife and children joined him. That year he was admitted to the Missouri bar and became a partner in a local law firm. From 1873 until 1880 Cowan served as judge of the Jackson County Special Law and Equity Court. He campaigned on behalf of the Democratic Party and for the 1876 presidential candidate Samuel Jones Tilden.

Cowan was a member of several fraternal and benevolent societies, including the Royal Arch Masons and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. Rising to prominence in the Knights of Pythias, he won election as Grand Chancellor of Missouri in 1877 and later served as Supreme Representative of the Grand Lodge of Missouri. Early in the 1880s he became Supreme Keeper of Records and Seal and moved to Saint Louis. Hailed as the "Uncrowned King of Pythian Jurisprudence," Robert Edwin Cowan died at his Saint Louis home on 14 July 1887 after surgery to remove a tumor. Following a funeral service at Cook Avenue Southern Methodist Church, ranking officials of the Knights of Pythias led the procession that carried his body to the Bellefontaine Cemetery for interment in a lot furnished by the fraternal order.

Contributed by Donald W. Gunter

Quotations in Robert Edwin Cowan to Christopher Gustavus Memminger, 9 Apr. 1864 (first quotation), Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers (1861–1865), War Department Collection of Confederate Records, RG 109, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; and Knights of Pythias memorial resolution, 22 July 1887 (second quotation), Robert Edwin Cowan Papers, Jackson County Historical Society Archives, Independence, Mo.

This biography, with a bibliographical note, appears in John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1998– ), 3:489–491.

Copyright 2006 by the Library of Virginia. All rights reserved.