Mapping his way through the Carolinas: A profile of Major Robert M. McDowell (Part 1)

Hand-drawn map from journal of Maj. Robert McDowell

(Part one of two)

Recently while doing research at the Chemung Historical Society in Elmira, NY, I was delighted to discover the Civil War diary of Robert Morris McDowell in the collection, which revealed a new view of Gen. Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign.  A recent donation, the journal included a leather cover and many hand-drawn maps.  It was an exciting discovery.

Born near Elmira in February 1833, McDowell was the son of John and Laurinda (nee Lowman) McDowell.  After obtaining an education at the Elmira Academy and later Oxford Seminary, McDowell found a career in civil engineering.  When the nation swung to war, the young engineer volunteered as a private in the 141st NY Infantry. 

The talented Southern-Tier native was soon highly valued for his cartography skills and he rose through the ranks rapidly.  In fact, by 1865 he would achieve the rank of Major.  His war career included service in the Peninsula Campaign, Atlanta Campaign, March to the Sea and the Carolinas Campaign – serving first under Gen. Hooker and later under Gen. Slocum.

McDowell’s journal begins January 1st, 1865.  It is unknown if there were journals for previous years.  He and Sherman’s army were then at Savannah, after finishing the famous March to the Sea just before Christmas.  Although he was kept busy with mapping projects, it is clear that McDowell and company were enjoying their time in Savannah.

Passage from journal of Maj. Robert McDowell recounting life in Savannah

They were certainly eating well.  “We had wine, oysters and several kinds of cakes,” McDowell recorded on New Year’s Day.  A few days later he complained about the prices one sutler had the temerity to ask, “oranges $3.00, potatoes $20.00 per bbl., Onions $60.00.”  A gift of “some very fine apples” brightened the New York major, “the first,” he said, “I have had since I was home last March.”  On January 14th McDowell bragged in a letter home, “We luxuariate on rich old wine and Habanna cigars.  Oysters, fresh and fat cease to be a rarity.”[i]

Soon the delicacies and warm breezes of Savannah ended and McDowell and the First and Third Divisions marched out, crossing the river into South Carolina is a cold, driving rain.  The new campaign had commenced and South Carolina trembled at the thought of the terrible Sherman bringing the war to their doorsteps.

After overcoming obstacles Mother Nature threw their way – incessant rain which drowned low-lying lands for miles around – and forcing much of the army back to Savannah, the army once again moved out.  After crossing the Coosawhatchie River, the weather and roads improved.  On February 4th, McDowell recorded, “we have marched today thro’ some delightful country, undulating and well tilled.  Splendid residences all forsaken.  The families seem to have ran away leaving their homes without taking anything.”  Such homes conveniently made fine headquarters for the many officers of the army, who often did not leave things as they found them.

It appears that the major experienced a fit of conscience over the pillage and plunder he witnessed on the march – leaving one to wonder what he thought of the campaign through Georgia.  After watching the destruction of a home and outbuildings, McDowell wrote,

I can never forget the old man and his wife on bended knees implored for mercy and protection, but why should I record this instance, this are daily transactions and is our business.  Tho’ painful it is to witness, the innocent and helpless in South Carolina all have to suffer for the sins commited by the wicked pro slavery rebels who have for years trying to bring this accursed war upon the people.  May God forgive them.  I am now thoroughly satisfied that slavery is a great sin & is the real cause of all this suffering.  South Carolina must do penance in ashes if not in sack cloth for the entire deeds of the past.

Amidst McDowell’s soul-searching, the army slogged along burning and wrecking generously as it went.  Still, there was time for leisure time amusements.  “A furor for cock fighting seems to have seized our army,” the young cartographer wrote.  “It seems as if every 4th man while on the march has a rooster standing proudly erect on his knapsack.  Every evening in camp crowds of troops assemble to witness cock fights.”  Even the commanding general apparently got in on the action.  In late February, McDowell recorded attending an event where “the genl was an interested spectator in as much as the genl owns one of the cocks named “Billy Sherman.”  His antagonist called Genl H. Thomas was vanquished.”

On February 17th McDowell and company celebrated the capture of Columbia.  Still ten miles away from the state capital, the major was nonetheless pleased at the news when it reached him.  “It is known…that the right wing now holds Columbia and the stars and stripes wave in triumph over the building where secession and treason was first hatched, the result of which has flowed the ensanguine fields of America with blood.”  The next day McDowell rode into the city and discovered wide-spread desolation caused by a great fire.

McDowell and the other staff officers he rode with were shocked at the ruins of Columbia.  “The sight was sickening,” he wrote.  “Acres of charred masses of brick and mortar met the eye with heart rendering scenes.  Houseless and homeless men, women & children of every age wandering in wild despair amid the blackened walls and chimneys of their once happy homes.”

(to be continued…)


[i] To retain the character of McDowell’s writing, I have chosen to retain his spelling and grammar as recorded in his diary.

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