Mapping his way through the Carolinas: A profile of Major Robert M. McDowell (Part 2)

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A photo of inside the leather cover of Maj. McDowell’s Civil War journal

Maj. Robert M. McDowell was an engineering officer on the staff of Gen. Slocum during Sherman’s Carolinas campaign.  His diary recounts the adventure.

(Part two of two)

Part of the army’s rear echelon, the staff major was not ordinarily in the line of fire, but on February 20thhe found himself on the wrong end of a rifle.  Apparently McDowell came upon an act of wanton pillage that he could not abide.  When he attempted to end the pillaging, “The private cocked and leveled his rifle at me,” McDowell recounted.  The Union rebel was immediately arrested and the major was unharmed – though undoubtedly a bit bemused by the close call.

Near Fayetteville, North Carolina, on March 15th, McDowell and other staffers retreated to an old cooper’s shop when a rainstorm passed through.  There they found a letter addressed to Gen. Sherman.  The note explained “that their men were not regularly armed with the “Spencer repeating rifle” and they were in need of rubber blankets, etc. for the summer campaign and urged Genl Sherman to trot out Mr. Corpl Kilpatrick [who was actually a Union general]  in order that they (the rebels) might procure these articles.”  The letter was signed “a Rebel.”  This provided much amusement to the sheltering group, but the letter was forwarded.  Interestingly, McDowell noted in his journal, “We considered it quite an animadversion on Kilpatrick who is alike held in contempt by ourselves & the enemy.”

While Sherman’s army ran into occasional skirmishing, mainly with cavalry, during the campaign, it was not until they neared Averasboro, that anything resembling a full scale battle took place.  In this Confederate general Joe Johnston tried to get between Sherman’s army wings and destroy a portion of the Union army.   It was a heated encounter with plenty of bloodshed, though the Union force was able to frustrate Johnston’s plans for its destruction.  “It was the prettiest battle I ever beheld,” McDowell wrote.  It “seemed more like a panoramic view than a current fearful reality.  The nature of the country; woods, fields & roads & spirit of the corps all added to complete a perfect picture of war.”

Despite the danger to the army, presented by what McDowell estimated to be 40,000 men in Johnston’s army, the major was in high spirits.  In an entry dated March 20th, the engineer wrote, “I captured a rebel prisoner.”  Unfortunately, that was all.  Unexplained, we are left to speculate how a staff cartographer accomplished the feat.

Once Sherman’s army reached Goldsboro, NC, the general called a halt while the army was provisioned and refit.  Essentially the end of the campaign, Sherman met at Goldsboro an army under Gen. John Schofield, bringing the strength of his command up to near 90,000.  While he soldiers rested, he took a steamer up to City Point, Virginia, to visit Gen. Grant and map out the end of the war.

Meanwhile, Maj. McDowell kept busy with various map projects and expressed boredom with his situation.  Contributing to his low spirits may have been thoughts of home.  In Goldsboro, he boarded with “and old and young lady,” he wrote.  “Both [are] strong rebels and they talk secession whenever there is an opportunity.  A son of the old lady is a prisoner of war in Elmira, NY.”

Early April found the Elmira native trying to organize a formal Topographical Department in the army.  With Gen. Slocum’s support, McDowell was much encouraged in his efforts.  As if that did not help his spirits enough, things were much improved further by two developments.  First, the major recorded, “In eve escorted a young lady home.  The first instance of my playing the gallant in more than six months.”  But the news got better still when word reached Goldsboro of the fall of Richmond.

As might be expected, there was much celebration among Sherman’s troops over the capture of the capital of the Confederacy.  “A great deal of shooting was done in the camps,” McDowell observed.  “Sky rockets were sent up on all directions.  Hurrahs and cheering could be heard in every direction.”  But, as it turned out, it was nothing like the ecstasy of a week later.  It was April 12th when Lee’s surrender was verified, after rumors swirled.  “I never witnessed such demonstrations of joy as was manifested by our soldiers on the receipt of this glorious intelligence,” McDowell proclaimed.

With the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia accomplished, soldiers of Sherman’s army were itching to finish the business and go home.  They were certain the war was over.  Anticipation on that score made for some anxiety for both officers and men.  “Negotiations pending with Sherman and Johnston relative to the latters surrendering his army in the same terms that Lee did to Grant,” McDowell wrote on April 15th.  Somewhat of a philosophical frame of mind, the topographical engineer observed, “War stirred the bitter fountains of the soul, but its sweet waters swirl up at the welcome sound of peace.”  But dreams of a new day were soon marred by disturbing news on April 17th.  “The news of Pres. Lincoln’s assassination reached us this morning and created the most intense gloom and bitterness throughout the army,” McDowell lamented.

Bennet Place

Bennett Place – Scene of negotiations between Gens. Sherman and Johnston

Negotiations between Sherman and Johnston dragged on and on and McDowell expressed impatience.  On April 24th, the major wrote of a new development, “Lt. Genl Grant visited us today…[he] is here to advise with Genl Sherman in regard to the surrender.”  Finally, two days later Johnston surrendered.  “The event signalized by drinking too much spirits all night.  Bands of music playing, sky rockets sent up from Genl Sherman’s Hdqtrs…everybody happy.”

End of the war meant the preparation of equipment and maps for deposit with the War Department and wrapping up the work on the final campaign maps.  The Army of Georgia marched to Richmond and thence on to Washington where a Grand Review was planned for eastern and western armies.  On May 24th, McDowell wrote, “Today Sherman’s Army reviewed in Washington by the Pres. & Cabinet, Gen’l Grant and other high military officials, members of Congress, governors of states, corps diplomatique and a very large concourse of citizens…the review was a very brilliant one.”

Like most of his comrades, Maj. McDowell was anxious to return home to family and put the war behind him.  His post-war career featured a return to civil engineering and private enterprise.  For a time he was the U.S. Mineral Surveyor for Idaho and later was vice president for Gould Coal.

McDowell died on July 4th, 1909 at the age of 76.  He was predeceased by his wife Arlina, who died in 1894.  They had one son, John G. McDowell who became an Elmira City Judge.  Maj. Robert M. McDowell is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira.

Grave of Robert M McDowell

Grave site of Maj. Robert M. McDowell – Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, NY