1864: Rufus Billings Cowing to Sedate F. Cowing

Rufus Billing Cowing in later years

These letters were written by Rufus Billings Cowan (1840-1920) to his mother, Sedate (Foote) Cowing (1810-1874)—the widow of John Kirkland Cowing (1810-1845), of Jamestown, Chautaugua county, New York. They pertain to the death of Rufus’ only brother, Private Kirkland Newton Cowing (1843-1863), of Co. A, 6th Ohio Infantry, who was mortally wounded in the first day’s fight at the the Battle of Chickamauga.

Rufus was a Harvard Law School graduate who later served as a prominent New York City judge and Wall Street attorney. The boys’ father died in 1845, and little information is known about the brothers during the intervening years leading up to the war. It seems that Rufus Cowing moved to New York City for schooling prior to the war, and Kirkland relocated to the Cincinnati, OH, area by 1858. This accounts for Kirkland’s enlistment in an Ohio regiment, the 6th Ohio Infantry, aka “Guthrie’s Grays,” which was organized in southwestern Ohio in the spring of 1861.

Writing from New York City just weeks after the outbreak of the Civil War, Rufus painted a vivid picture of his views and the war-time sentiments in the city. “Well Mother we are in the midst of a civil war and never before in the annals of American history have the issues involved been of such vital interest and I hope to God that this struggle shall result in favor of our glorious Union and Constitution and more permanently establish liberty and justice throughout our whole country….” Rufus went on to describe the eagerness with which Brooklyn and New York men prepare for the fight and hearing Henry Ward Beecher speak. “… I wish you could have heard him. I should think there was some 4 thousand people there and I think that he preached the finest sermon that I ever heard.” 

In August 1861 Rufus wrote his mother once again declaring the necessity of the war, the transgressions of the South, and the righteousness of the Union cause. It seems that his mother had been a less than enthusiastic supporter of her son Kirkland’s decision to enlist, and had expressed a desire for Kirkland to get a discharge. To this Rufus responded, “I would ask whose duty it is to see that she [the government] receives that support which she deserves. Should it be foreigners or American citizens? I say American citizens & if you agree with me ,there comes up the question why do or should your children have less duty to perform than thousands—aye, hundreds of thousands—of others. Our government has got to be…maintained though it cost the life of every able bodyed man between the ages of 18 & 45…entertaining these views…you can readily see the advise I should be disposed to give to Kirkland….Again, Kirkland is contented & well & shows from his own letter except so far as regards your feelings he has no regrets as to his course….” Rufus closed his lengthy letter saying, “I feel proud of him & know that you will when you read his letter he shows he has got a noble heart…”

Private Kirkland Cowing lost his life on the battlefield at Chickamauga in September 1863. Following his graduation from Harvard law School in 1864 and admittance to the bar, Rufus Cowing served for nearly thirty years as a NYC Judge presiding over multiple high profile criminal cases and later joining his son’s law firm on Wall Street. [Source: Cowan’s Auctions]


New York
February 20th 1864

My Dear Mother,

Yesterday I received a letter from Uncle Dickinson from Cincinnati and dear mother, the news were not good and I am very sorry to be obliged to write a letter which I know must give you much pain & sorrow—but dear mother, I promised that be the news good or bad, I would let you know and I must keep my promise. But dear mother, let me beg of you to be calm & resigned. You cannot stand much and I am fearful that if you give away too much of your feelings, it will drive you crazy. Now mother is the time to bring your Christian faith to bear on your feelings. Our Heavenly Father doeth all things well. Oh! that we could feel so more. If we only could, how much more contented & happy we should be. And mother, you promised me to try and bear up under the trial as well as possible. I can’t, dear mother, ask you not to have a mother’s affection for that would be most unnatural, but if poor Kirk is in Heaven, is it not better for him than if he was in this wicked world? Would it not, dear mother, be wicked to wish him back?

He is now I trust & believe with his dear father & his brother & sister in Heaven where, in a short time at furthest, we must go to. I believe that my dear brother was a Christian. And I thank my God that he had a Christian mother who when he was young, instilled Christian principles in his young mind. And dear mother, I have during the past two years since he has been in the army wrote him many letters and always in them have told him—yes, urged him—to put his trust in God & pray to Him always and then he would always be prepared to enter into the presence of his Maker. And my dear mother, I believe that Kirk’s heart was all right, and that we shall meet the dear boy in Heaven. Oh! Mother let us try to live so that we may. One so noble, so good, so kind as Kirk were fit for Heaven, as Uncle Dick writes, “none knew him but to love him.”

Uncle Dick has been trying to find out Kirk’s fate ever since the battle in which he was missed and has lately received a letter from Lieutenant Gleason [William H. Glison of Co. D] informing him that Kirk was wounded in the first day’s fight and was taken prisoner and died in the hands of the rebels some days after. This news comes from a comrade of Kirk’s who was also taken prisoner at the same time and Uncle Dick says that it is probably reliable. But he has written and will know all the particulars soon when he will send them to me and I will send them to you.

I am going to write also to Lieutenant Gleason [William H. Glison] myself and hope to hear more of poor Kirk’s date soon. Now, dear mother, let me ask one favor of you and I know you will grant it to your son. The moment you get this, sit down and let me know whether you are resigned for I shall be in so much doubt and trouble for your feelings that I shall be fit for nothing until I know that you are calm & resigned and can say that your God does all things for the best. “The Lord gives and He takes away,” and blessed be the name of the Lord.

Mother, if I can comfort you, I am willing to leave my business and come to you. But Oh! dear mother, for my sake, for the sake of your living son, do not give away to those feelings which may make you crazy. May God in His mercy comfort you and help you sustain this trial is the prayer of your affectionate & loving son. — Rufus B. Cowing


No. 8 Wall Street, New York
March 26th 1864

My Dear Mother,

This is Saturday afternoon and I believe that I have not written this week’s letter which is due you, so I guess I will pay my debt now.

I received a letter from Lieutenant Gleason [William H. Glison] of Kirk’s Company a day or two ago confirming the news which we have already received in reference to my dear brother. The way that Lieut. Gleason gets the news is as follows. He (Lieut. Gleason [Gilman]) received a letter from Sergeant Griffin [Henry Griffing] ¹ of the 1st Wisconsin Regiment informing him of the fact. Griffin[g] was taken prisoner at the same time Kirk was and was near him when he died. He died the 7th of October last on the battlefield and the reason we did not hear of it sooner is that he died in the rebels hands and Sgt. Griffin[g] was not exchanged until about the 1st of January so that there was no way that we could get the news.

I am going to try and find out where Sgt. Griffin[g] of the 1st Wisconsin is and from him we can probably find out all the particulars. The Lieut. of Kirk’s company writes to me as follows:

Camp 6th Regt. O. V. I.
March 9th 1864

Rufus B. Cowing, Esq.

Your letter is at hand and I hasten to reply. I am very sorry that I can give you no satisfactory information of your brother’s capture or his treatment while a prisoner in the hands of the enemy. I was not in command of the company at the time of his capture.

I am not acquainted with Sgt. Griffin[g] of the 1st Wisconsin Regt. who was a prisoner and present at your brother’s death. But I am indebted to him for the information received—otherwise we in all probability would never have learned his sad fate.

I was personally acquainted with your brother before he enlisted and while I as a friend deeply sympathize with you (his friends) in the loss of a son and brother, we as men mourn his loss as a comrade and a gentleman. He received his death wound while gallantly defending the cause of his country.

Yours with respect, — W. H. Glison

I should have been so thankful if it had pleased God to have spared his life that we might have been helps to each other in the world but if it could not be so, I am proud that I had so noble a brother and that he died so honorably. There never was in my opinion a mean act in his whole life.

I have not yet received a letter from Eugene Smith and probably shall not. He, I suppose, don’t like it because I wrote to him that there must be a written lease before any tenant went in.

When does Mr. Harris leave and have you got all your rent from him yet?

When will you return to Jamestown? There ought to be someone there to rent the house. I would myself but I can’t leave my business just now & then too, it would take about 1/3 of what the rent would come to for a whole year for me to go there & back again.

It is going to be very difficult to rent the house and get your rent for that reason and for others among them the certainty of the property diminishing in value and the wear & tear. I think it advisable to sell the house. I presume that your present house would now sell for $1500 and you could take $500 and buy a smaller house for yourself and put $1,000 with the balance of your money which I have & in that way you could have $1500 out at interest which would amount to $105 a year.

Dear mother, I merely throw out the above suggestion as an opinion & you can of course act as you think best. I will write next week again. Please write me soon. I am well.

From your affectionate son, — R. B. Cowing

¹ Henry Bacon Griffing (1841-1888) was the son of Richard G. Griffing (1803-1876) and Julia Etta Bacon (1816-1903) of Pewaukee, Waukesha county, Wisconsin. Henry’s father, Rev. Richard Griffing was sent as a missionary by the Baptist Mission Society to Milwaukee in the late 1830s. Henry was 20 years old when he enlisted in Co. G, 1st Wisconsin Infantry in August 1861. He rose in rank to Sergeant before being taken prisoner at Chickamauga. He mustered out of the service on 14 October 1864.



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