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An incident from Reconstruction Days in Greensboro, Alabama

An incident from Reconstruction Days in Greensboro, Alabama1

Published 1908

During Reconstruction Days after the Civil War, there were three companies, containing three hundred soldiers, camped in the town, with the object of keeping “order,” and seeing to it that affairs were conducted as the general government at Washington thought they should be.


Three Federal Soldiers strolled down Main Street

On the morning of August 31st, 1865, three Federal Soldiers from this camp were seen strolling leisurely up the Main Street of Greensboro. When they came to the general merchandise store of Robert B. Waller, Jr., located two doors west of the present Masonic Hall building—they entered and called for some fruit, which was passed over to them. They stood around chatting with each other and eating the fruit, and when they were about to leave the store, Mr. Waller asked for the price of their purchase, which they refused to pay, and with an oath left the store and continued on up the street. The merchant felt outraged over the treatment, and upon going to the door he saw the Captain of the Company to which the men belonged standing in front of the Tunstall building, and he immediately went to him and reported the conduct of his men.

The Captain asked Waller to point the offenders out to him, which he did. He called them to him, and demanded, in a most positive manner, that they pay for the goods at once; and he further informed them that if he ever heard of their being guilty of like conduct he would have them tied up by their thumbs. The soldiers paid the money rather reluctantly, looked very sullen, but said nothing. Dismissing the matter from his mind, Mr. Waller returned to his store and began to wait on customers who had come in during his absence.

They struck Cowin

Sitting in front of the store, enjoying the bright sunshine, was Robert Jeffries, and in his lap was seated W. S. (Tood) Cowin, a young man who had seen much service in the Confederate army. After consulting together up the street the three soldiers, who had been made to pay the debt they owed Waller, came back to the store, and without a word of warning one of the men, Jos. Adams, of Co. H, 11th Missouri Infantry, struck Cowin a most vicious blow in the face with a slung shot —mistaking him (it is supposed) for the merchant who had reported the men to the Captain. Writhing with pain from the sudden and unexpected blow, and with the gleam of a tiger in his eyes, Cowin sprang from his seat, drew his pistol and fired on his assailant, but missed him.

BUILDING IN FRONT OF WHICH DIFFICULTY BEGAN “Tood” Cowin was sitting near the large door to the left when struck by a Federal soldier. ( HISTORY OF GREENSBORO, ALABAMA From Its Earliest Settlement by William Edward Wadsworth Yerby, Montgomery, Alabama, The Paragon Press, 1908 transcribed by Debra Hudson)

Adams retreated hastily across the street towards Stollenwerck’s drug store, and as he retreated he looked back to watch Cowin. When he had nearly reached the opposite sidewalk, Cowin steadied his pistol by laying it across his left arm, took deliberate aim and remarked, “Now d – – – n you, I’ll get you,” pulled the trigger and sent a ball crashing through the brain of Adams, who fell dead in his tracks.

When Cowin fired the first shot and missed his man, another of the Federal soldiers, S. Bryant of Co. D, 11th Missouri Regiment, who was standing near, quickly pulled his pistol and was in the act of shooting him at close range, when Tom Cowin, a brother of “Tood” shot Bryant down before he could get his pistol in position. The ball entered his side, and he fell in the gutter. The wound, while quite severe, did not prove fatal.

Shots drew a crowd

The pistol shots soon attracted a large crowd to the street, and in a short while the soldiers began to pour into the town from the camp, which was located in the rear of the residence of Col. George Erwin. They raged and swore and were beside themselves with anger when they learned what had transpired, and demanded, in their frenzy, to be shown the man who had killed their comrade.

Cowin saw the storm gathering and walked off down the street, but before he had gone a great many steps he was recognized by some Federals who had witnessed the difficulty, and a number of the soldiers made for him, but Cowin faced them and kept them at bay by presenting the ugly looking weapon with which he had killed the man who was lying in the street a short distance away.

When he had walked sidewise to Powers’ store, keeping the men back with the presented pistol, he noticed a horse hitched in front of the store—a magnificent animal that had been ridden into town that morning by someone from Gen. Cocke’s plantation, to whom the horse belonged. She was a thoroughbred racer, and many times had come down the home-stretch a winner on the race-track.

Now fully realizing his great danger, Cowin sprang from the sidewalk, cut the bridle reins, leaped into the saddle and clapped his heels into the sides of the splendid charger. With a snort of fright at the unexpected treatment, she reared and then bounded away as if on the wings of the wind, while the air resounded with the angry shouts of the soldiers calling to those past whom the horse and rider were sweeping, to “stop him! Stop him!”

Chase on horseback

Seeing that the man they most desired to capture was about to elude their grasp, half a dozen or more soldiers quickly secured horses and started in pursuit at breakneck speed. On and on sped the thoroughbred racer. She was in her element and seemed to enjoy the wild dash down the public highway. And wildly and furiously also rode the pursuers. But only once or twice did they catch even a glimpse of horse and rider as they sped down some long, straight stretch of road, and then the crack of their pistols rang out on the air—but only with the effect of causing the noble racer to quicken her pace just a little.

When about six miles out of town— to the westward—Cowin checked his horse and looked around to see if he could catch a glimpse of his pursuers, but no trace of them could be discovered. He then left the main road and went into a thicket on a hill overlooking the surrounding country. From this position, a short while afterward, he saw his pursuers, with horses under whip and spur, pass on down the road, and also saw them when on their return from their fruitless effort to capture or kill him. The next day, Cowin was in Mississippi.

Back in Greensboro

Pandemonium reigned on the streets of Greensboro. Tom Cowin, who had wounded the soldier who had undertaken to shoot his brother, passed rapidly through Waller’s store—the doors being shut behind him by some one within—went into the back yard and came out to Main street near Powers’ store. He was recognized by the Federals and was immediately taken in charge by an angry mob, who swore they would hang him at once.

A proposition was submitted that if they would wait until Sundown, an effort would be made to have his brother “Tood” come in and give himself up, which proposition was agreed to; but the half dozen soldiers who had returned from the pursuit had but little hope that he would ever be overtaken, for they reported that they had ridden hard and furiously after him, but to no avail—that all traces of him were lost.

Ultimatum was given the town of Greensboro

Then Captain Kelley stepped to where the dead soldier was lying in the street, placed his sword across the body, and with a terrible oath swore that if the man who had slain his comrade was not delivered up to the soldiers by the going down of the sun, then, by all the gods, he purposed to hang Tom Cowin, and burn and sack the town.

Squads of soldiers were deputized to go to every house in Greensboro and take therefrom all weapons and to disarm all the citizens. Realizing the extreme gravity of the situation, and that the town was entirely at the mercy of the frenzied Federals, some of the citizens slipped a runner out of town on a fleet horse to Marion, Ala., where the colonel of the regiment (Lieut.-Col. Green), was stationed at that time.

The Greensboro Hotel (HISTORY OF GREENSBORO, ALABAMA From Its Earliest Settlement by William Edward Wadsworth Yerby, Montgomery, Alabama, The Paragon Press, 1908)

While awaiting the delivery of “Tood” Cowin to them by the citizens, the soldiers broke open Waller’s store, where the difficulty began and threw all the goods into the street. As the hours passed by the soldiers drank more freely of whiskey, grew more turbulent, and it seemed to those who had sent the messenger to Marion that he would never return. Minutes seemed hours.

The Sun began to sink in the west, and still, the man the soldiers so much desired to get into their possession did not appear. They placed a rope around Tom Cowin’s neck led him in front of the hotel—which his father kept—threw one end over a sign board, and stood facing the west, watching for the going down of the Sun. Cowin’s father stood by and urged him to die like a man, and he replied that he proposed to do so. Not a tremor passed over him, and not a trace of fear could be discerned in his face as he looked defiance at those who had him at their mercy.

The sound of horses’ feet was heard

When hope had gone, and the citizens thought the very worst would happen, the sound of horses’ feet was heard, and looking eastward, they saw approaching at breakneck speed, two horses with distended nostrils and flecked with foam, drawing a buggy in which were two men—one of them proving to be the Colonel of the Regiment.

Hastily alighting from the vehicle, he pushed his way into the midst of the vast crowd of angry, turbulent soldiers, and went to where Cowin was standing with the rope around his neck. With fire in his eye and anger in his tone, he demanded of the Captain what he meant by allowing those under his command to be guilty of such conduct. The Captain related the circumstances of the killing of one soldier and the wounding of another by the Cowins and said he thought he was justifiable. The Colonel replied that it was contrary to military law to hang a man without giving him the benefit of a court-martial and that he might consider himself under arrest.

Turning to the troops, he ordered them to fall into ranks. Some of them began to murmur disapproval. The Colonel stepped into the street, drew his pistol, and again commanded them in a loud voice to “fall in,” and swore that the first man who refused to obey the command would be shot dead in his tracks. This seemed to restore their reason; they fell into ranks and were marched back to camp.

The rope was removed from Tom Cowin’s neck and he was also taken to the camp, where he was held as a prisoner. Frank Peterson (Dr. Francis M. Peterson, former President of the Girls’ Industrial School at Montevallo, who died March 21, 1908) went out to the camp and was permitted to spend the night with his friend. The next day, Cowin was taken to Tuscaloosa under heavy guard, and placed in prison, to await trial for shooting the federal soldier (from which he subsequently escaped.)

A bit of romance

There is a bit of romance connected with his escape from prison, which shows the devotion of the Southern woman to the Confederate soldier. A beautiful young lady, who was a staunch friend of Cowin’s, set herself to work to liberate him.

She was very pretty and most charming and fascinating in her manners. The young lieutenant, who was in charge of the prisoners, fell in love with this sweet Southern girl, and as the two strolled about the streets of classic old Tuscaloosa or watched the placid flow of the river hard by the city, she would plead with him earnestly to allow Cowin, the friend of her childhood, to escape from prison. For days and days, and time and again the young officer refused to grant the petition—stating that his honor and his position would not permit him to do so. Finally, the young lady told him that she would never consent to marry him until her friend was a free man, and reinforced the statement by telling the officer never to see her again. A short time after this, Cowin was missing from prison. How he escaped or whither he went, no one knew.

It would be a pleasing close to this bit of romance to be able to state that the young lady married the young officer—or at least that she married her friend for whom she pleaded—but the truth of history requires it to be said that she did neither, but in the after years married another man.

Neither of the Cowins was ever captured by the Federal officers. As the years passed on, and affairs quieted down, both of them returned to Greensboro, and resided here for quite a while—“Tood” Cowin died in the town a few years after the killing of the soldier; and Tom Cowin, after keeping the Greensboro Hotel for some time, went to Birmingham, where he kept a hotel. From there he went to Anniston, where he died June 27, 1890.

Tom Cowin grave 1845- June 27, 1890 (Greensboro Cemetery Added by JFJN 7-1-2011 to findagrave.com)

Both the men were Confederate soldiers and were brave and courageous at all times. They are buried in the Greensboro Cemetery. It was never known certainly what influence was used to Secure the safety of the Cowins after they had shot the soldiers, as related above, but it developed, in the course of time, that their father, who was quite well-to-do at the time of the trouble, had parted with nearly all his worldly possessions—and it was whispered about that he had let somebody have in the neighborhood of twenty thousand dollars—possibly in the nature of a loan.

Different scene in 1908

As the last words of this bit of tragic history are penned, we pause for a few moments and look out upon the streets where, nearly half century ago, men were crazed, and, in their fearful passion, raged and surged like the mighty waves when the wind is at war with the ocean. But a far different scene from that presents itself to view. True, there stands the self-same building in which the awful tragedy begun; and there, too, stands the self-same hotel before which the angry soldiers stood with halter around the neck of their intended victim, watching for the going down of the Sun; the same blue sky bends above, and the same Sun they watched has continued to make his rounds through all the many days that have gone to swell the mighty volume of the past since that far-off time.

But no discordant note is heard—no soldiers’ tread, no clang of arms nor shrill note of bugle call. Only a scene of beauty and quiet activity greets the gaze. The trees are just awakening from their long winter’s sleep and are putting on their garb of green; the birds make merry in the boughs, heedless of the ebb and flow of the human tide beneath; men go about their business, or stand here and there in groups and chat pleasantly together; bevies of beautiful girls, with smiling faces and queenly step, pass up and down the streets where once tumult and riot reigned supreme; while childhood’s merry peals of laughter come in at the open window.

And then it is that we fully realize that a new generation has appeared upon the stage of action— a generation that is the successor to the noblest and truest of which the South can boast in all its glorious history—one whose deeds of valor and patriotism will live in song and story for ages yet unborn. And with the ushering in of the present generation, sectional strife and bitterness have passed away. It is a generation (while doubting the wisdom of the course pursued by the authorities at Washington in their treatment of the Southern people during those half-dozen dark and gloomy years immediately succeeding the close of the war) who rejoice in a reunited country, and would seal its devotion to the Stars and Stripes by defending the honor of the Flag on the battlefield; yet, it is a generation that looks with pride and approval upon the conduct of their forefathers in their noble defence of the Stars and Bars, and a generation that will ever treasure that conduct as the richest heritage to which it has fallen heir.

1Excerpt from HISTORY OF GREENSBORO, ALABAMA From Its Earliest Settlement by William Edward Wadsworth Yerby, Montgomery, Alabama, The Paragon Press, 1908 transcribed by Debra Hudson

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Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and www.daysgoneby.me All her books can be purchased at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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17 comments

  1. Charlie Powell

    Typical Reconstruction by entitled Yankees

    1. Amen, brother!

  2. William Proctor

    A long read, interesting and informative of the times of the 1860s. Of interest also is the style of prose in the report which was published in 1908.

  3. Brandon Ivey

    I urge all supporters of historical monuments in Alabama to contact the Governor and other politicians to pass a stronger bill that increases fines and penalties for destruction or removal of all monuments 40 years or older. http://216.226.177.218/forms/contact.aspx

  4. Episodes like this perpetrated by low-life union soldiers during Reconstruction, is the reason the strong dislike felt toward today’s yankee carpetbaggers. I wish they’d stay up north where they belong.

  5. Phil Cronan

    My wife’s father was from Alabama. She still has family there. We had bought the Alabama Footprints series.

  6. Jo Kail

    Why was Tood sitting in Jeffries’ lap?

    1. Richard Hancock

      I’m wondering about that as well.

    2. Alabama Pioneers

      I did too when I transcribed it so I double-checked the wording. I believe that may be a way they phrased sitting nearby in 1908 but I’m not sure. It could be a typo in the book, but I honestly don’t know the answer.

  7. For all intents and purposes, the “Reconstruction Era” ended after the political Compromise of 1877. There is no justification given for calling this a “Reconstruction days” incident. How is that characterization justified?

    1. Read intently, the incident happen in the mornining of August 31, 1865. The despicable Yankee Reconstruction was in full swing. Technically it still exsist today. Read the book “Punished In Poverty” by the Kennedy Twins as proof.
      Believe me, it will open your eyes as to what “Our Glorious Federal Government has done to the Southern People” and it was intentional.

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