Duncan McLaurin’s nephew Owen was probably the most like him in curiosity and in his enjoyment of books. The first of ten letters penned by Owen that survive in the Duncan McLaurin papers is enough evidence.
Imagine the seventeen-year-old Owen writing to his Uncle Duncan on 9 May 1860 from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania just as he is finishing a term of school. At age 17 he will earn his diploma by the 22nd of the month and wishes to confirm his travel arrangements home to Laurel Hill, NC. He will not return home via Charleston since his family wishes him to avoid that place. However, he will come home by way of Washington D.C. if the Japanese are there. The Bay Line Steamer would allow him a comfortable rest. The steamer will take him by Cheraw in Marlboro, SC from which he can walk home to Laurel Hill.
Owen’s interest in seeing the Japanese delegation, on a mission to ratify a Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation, is reminiscent of his Uncle Duncan’s eagerness to witness the Burmese missionary preach in his own language at Fayetteville, NC in 1834. The sermon would be translated by the Reverend Jonathan Wade. The Baptist Rev. Wade and his wife Deborah Lapham were on furlough that year in America from their mission in Burma, teaching Burmese to new missionaries. Evidently, they had brought a Burmese Christian to America, where he could probably best learn English. Though Duncan could not attend, he made his brother John promise to see them and give him a detailed account. No evidence exists that Owen got his chance to see the Japanese in the nation’s capital, but the same intellectual curiosity appears to have resided in the characters of both uncle and nephew.
In addition, Owen has had the good luck to be in Philadelphia in early May of 1860 for what was probably a local election. In 1860 Mayor Alexander Henry of Philadelphia was a staunch Republican, who suppressed secessionist sympathies. Even local elections across the nation likely reflected national politics in which a sectional party, the Republican Party, would soon prevail. The election of Abraham Lincoln in November of 1860 would become a catalyst for the war that was about to change the course of Owen’s life:
Not much news of interest since the election
which passed of [off] very quietly in the day time
but night was made hideous by the howls
of the Politicians rejoicing in their election
and disappointed ones mourning over their unsuccess. — Owen McLaurin
Owen describes the “all-absorbing” topic in the city — the Heenan and Sayers fight. This boxing match evidently created the most excitement. Owen claims to have purchased a “bogus extra” newspaper for 5 cents, “containing full particulars of the fight before it came off.” The Heenan and Sayers fight was the first ever international boxing match and was held at Farnborough, Hampshire England on April 17, 1860. The contenders were the famous Tom Sayers of England and the much taller John Carmel Heenan from San Francisco. The illegal fight was broken up by police after about two hours and 27 minutes. Afterward, the two men shared winnings of 400 pounds.
Owen’s newsy letter includes also an account of a fire near his boarding house that “destroyed about $25,000 Dollars worth of property.” Just finishing his dinner, the ever-curious young man walked to the scene of the livery stable fire, “in which were 43 horses as the loft was filled with hay the fire spread with astonishing rapidity.” According to Owen, 15 of the horses were saved, but he is horrified at the sight of the burning stable containing, “28 of as fine horses as were in the city and no means to save them from the devouring element, it was truly an awful sight.” Though the wind blew, the surrounding houses were saved. Evidently, a dozen of the firemen got into a fight after the fire was out but were not arrested, being a “privileged class.” Benjamin Franklin had established the first “bucket brigade” in Philadelphia over a century before. The remainder of Owen’s letters in the Duncan McLaurin Papers, were written between 1861 and 1864 during his participation in the Civil War.
The voyage in 1790 that brought sixteen McLaurin related families from Argyll, Scotland to North Carolina included the Hugh and Catherine Calhoun McLaurin family. Among the voyagers in Hugh McLaurin’s family were four year old Duncan and his brother John, an infant. As his young family grew, Hugh would establish a successful farm at Laurel Hill, NC near Gum Swamp. He would use enslaved labor on his farm and school his sons in managing his property, which he would leave to them upon his death in 1846. Duncan and John probably shared management of the property until John married. While Duncan was also an educator, postmaster, legislator, and civic leader; John was the farmer. Duncan, who never married, provided a home in his father’s house for his unmarried sisters, Effy and Mary. In about 1847 he would become legal guardian of another sister, Isabella Patterson, and her three sons.
Owen McLaurin was born on November 30, 1844 in Richmond County, NC to John McLaurin and Effy Stalker. The couple had married March 28, 1842. Owen was born, probably following the loss of an infant child. The family would welcome siblings Elizabeth on May 31, 1846 and Catharine on April 27, 1848.
Two letters reference John and Effy’s marriage. On March 4, 1842 Christian Calhoun, having heard news of the wedding from Duncan, writes from Alabama her thanks that Duncan has written information from home, “particularly your brother John marrying in a good honest family.” In April of 1842 Duncan McKenzie writes from MS, “we saw in the Fayetteville Observer an notice of John’s marriage to Miss Effie Stalker.”
In a letter dated February of 1844 Duncan Calhoun mentions the birth of John’s infant son who died. Later, in an 1845 letter, Duncan Calhoun references the birth of John’s son, “Owin.” Apparently, Effy’s second pregnancy followed soon after her newborn infant perished. Owen was born in November of 1844. To confirm there was likely a fourth sibling, the Stewartsville Cemetery headstone of Mary McLaurin, John and Duncan’s sister who died in 1868, also includes the “infant son of John and Effie McLaurin.” Since no name appears on the headstone, it is likely the child was stillborn or died very soon after his birth.
Duncan McLaurin lived very near his brother John’s family, his sister Jeannette McCall’s family, and from about 1847 was legal guardian of his sister Isabella Patterson and her three sons. His two other married sisters lived in South Carolina (Duncan and Sarah Douglas family) and Mississippi (Duncan and Barbara McKenzie family). Proximity was not the only reason Duncan may have, at first, planned making Owen part of his will. Owen would be the sole bearer of Hugh McLaurin’s surname. I am speculating that this was important to Duncan, in addition to the kindred spirit affinity between the two. As fate would have it, Duncan outlived Owen by about three years and in his own will, Owen directed his uncle to leave any property meant for him to Hugh McCall. With the death of Owen, the McLaurin surname “daughtered out” in Hugh’s family line. Hugh McLaurin’s family line is designated the “F” family in Banks McLaurin’s genealogy published in the Clan McLaren Society Quarterly.
“The Scotch Boys”: Owen’s 1861-1862 Civil War Letters
Owen could not have been home from his Philadelphia school very many months when South Carolina seceded from the Union on 20 December 1860. His native North Carolina was the last state to adopt articles of secession, 20 May 1861. Very little in this collection of letters reveals Owen’s political persuasion. Despite owning slaves, his Uncle Duncan was politically inclined to be Southern Whig during the 1840s. He, along with many, probably reluctantly supported secession. Few, no matter what their political stripes, entertained the vision of a war as lengthy and destructive as the American Civil War would be. This is apparent in the correspondence written by Owen McLaurin and his McKenzie cousins in Mississippi.
Thus, Owen readily joined the Richmond County “Scotch Boys,” Company F of the 18th North Carolina Infantry Regiment. He was enrolled as Fourth Corporal on June 1, 1861 by Captain Charles Malloy and mustered into service on June 15, 1861 at Wilmington, NC for one year’s service. Owen was 18 years old, a farmer, and 5’9” tall, just a tad above the average height of a Confederate soldier and just within the average age range of 18-29. Nearly a year later on June 16, 1862, he entered the hospital at Camp Winder, Virginia with diarrhea. He returned to duty June 19, 1862 and was discharged from duty on the same date, “for disability.”
During his first year of service, Owen wrote four letters that survive in the Duncan McLaurin Papers. Two letters are addressed from Camp Stevens in South Carolina and two are addressed from Hanover, VA and Richmond, VA. The first of these letters reveals very little anxiety about his life as a soldier. On December 15 of 1861, Owen wrote from Camp Stevens that he is doing well, though the death of comrade in arms Gib McKinnon has saddened the “Scotch Boys.” More than likely McKinnon died of an illness. Coming from very rural areas, many were exposed to a variety of diseases for the first time during the first year of war. Owen continues to lament that D. Stuart is ill, though he is expected to recover.
Owen continues in his usual newsy style to offer his opinion on the “great fire in Charleston.” He blames spies. He writes glowingly of their new general, a native of Pennsylvania and 1833 graduate of West Point, John C. Pemberton. Pemberton has them “digging trenches and throwing up embankments.” He says that since the Yankees took Beaufort they had only once tried any aggression. That action was under cover of their artillery when they burned a sentinel box and destroyed some rifle pits. In rather lighthearted fashion he tells of an encounter between SC pickets and a group of Yankees. Three shots each were fired before the South Carolinians fled, “faster than the Yankees did from Bull Run or Manassus.”As for an imminent fight, Owen says there is very little danger:
“as the Yankees
are afraid that their, ‘on to Charleston and
Savannah’ may turn out as their on to
Richmond did. I believe Sherman and Dupont
are not desirous of relinquishing the laurels they
won in the Port Royal affair which they will
without a doubt loose if they try a land route
to either place. — Owen McLaurin
The wife of one of the Captains stays in camp with them in her own tent. The noncommissioned officers are, “being instructed on the Zouave style of fencing with the Bayonet.” He says it is their most difficult drill yet and after an hour a day they are so tired they, “can hardly walk.” Though they are in the winter season, their weather has been pleasant enough to see a few mosquitoes.
His Uncle Duncan was well-acquainted with Owen’s company leader, Captain Charles Malloy. Owen says his Uncle can hear all the camp gossip directly from Malloy as he is going home for a visit the first of January. Owen reports Captain Malloy was blamed unjustly for the death of John F. Gilchrist. Others in the company have had some “false report” against them. Owen has been blamed for stealing sugar from officers when they were at Ft. Fisher in NC. He calls it a “base lie.” He ends his letter with love and the return address of “Co. F 18th Regt. N.C.V.; care H. P. Russell & Co.; Charleston, SoCa.”
Owen’s letter dated 5 March 1862 seems a bit more serious regarding the war but still hopeful. He says he will not reenlist after his first year is up. He begins by saying the health of the “Scotch Boys” is excellent, though they have been issued, “an extra supply of vinegar,” to combat sore tongue and mouth. A comrade, W. H. Gibson, is ill but not seriously.
On a starker note he tells the story of a young man from Company E, by the surname of Highsmith, who attempted suicide, “by cutting his throat.” While hospitalized he tried to remove the bandages and jump from a window but was prevented in time — all of this, “becuse his lady love gave him the mitten,” which may have contributed to the mental stress of this poor soldier. The Fayetteville Semi-Weekly Observer reports on 10 March 1862 the death at Camp Stephens, SC of, “James S. Highsmith of the New Hanover Moore’s Creek Rifles, Co. E, 18th Reg’t.”
Owen tells of a fight after Sunday services among some of the German company members. Here he probably refers to recent immigrants or persons of German descent. The arrival of the paymaster must have lifted their spirits and put an end to the conflict.
On the day Owen writes his March 5th letter, the regiment will assemble to discover who will reenlist. Owen says of himself, “I for one will not volunteer and should I be drafted before getting home they will hardly get me at all.” Apparently, the great rush to serve has been tempered by actual service. Owen implies that reenlistment would be more common if furloughs home had been more fairly issued, “few will go in until the go home.” However, the government having just received thousands of dollars worth of arms on a steamer and the purchase of “three first class war steamers,” has encouraged him. He feels the blockade will surely be broken and they would receive more “necessaries.” At the top of the list of necessaries is coffee, for which they have been using, “parched meal, sassafras &c as substitutes.” He ends with, “the Captain sends his respects to you,” and the same return address as his last letter in Charleston, SC.
On the 25th of May 1862, Owen writes that D. Blue and J. M. Fairly will leave for home. Owen says he was ill when the rest of his company, “took their tramp to Blue Ridge,” but he is well now. It rained uncomfortably their train trip from Gordonsville. At Gordonsville they learned the Yankees possessed the railroad between them and Richmond, leaving the Fredericksburg Road the only access. He is anticipating a fight for Richmond, though since their company is on the extreme left wing, they may not see the brunt of it. Yesterday some, “Yankee horsemen coming in about two miles on a stealing trip,” caused the guns to be loaded and, “the whole brigade under arms.” Owen has heard that the people of Richmond are not worried about the coming battle, for they are filled with confidence about the outcome.
The remainder of this missive explores the prospect of Owen finding an alternative to his military duty of the past year. The eager young man, who marched off to his adventure a year before, spends the rest of his service writing home desperate pleas for his family to help him find a way out of it. Apparently, he believes Neil Smith would leave home on Wednesday to take his place for a month. However, Owen says this is useless because he cannot get off, “for not period less than 12 months.” If Neil is well enough to take his place, then he is liable for the Conscription Act. Apparently, Neil has a medical discharge, and if an examination by surgeons finds him fit for duty, he loses his discharge.
The next option Owen mentions may involve a substitute:
Fathers present plan to get one under
18 is the best and if he does not succeed
in getting the one he now has his eye on
I have another plan in view not for getting
out of service but to get some government office
by being detached from the Regiment. — Owen McLaurin
Owen says he would need a recommendation from one of the older community leaders in his home county, men of influence, who could get it signed by his Captain and Colonel. Owen is aware that his father and uncle both have these connections. In a cryptic closing Owen hopes that his father will find a substitute, “as I have not been anxious to leave until now my reasons I will communicate at another time or perhaps not until I see you.” According to Fold 3 records, Owen is discharged for disability on June 19, 1862.
In his last letter of 1862, written on scraps from old letters, Owen is still suggesting the government appointment as a last resort. His plea is more urgent because, “it is reported we leave this place this evening where to or how no one knows.” This letter is signed General Branch’s Brigade — Richmond, VA.
It is likely that Owen is referring to his company’s participation in the defense of Richmond, VA. In the late spring, about the time Owen pens this last 1862 letter, the Federal General McClellan brought his troops to the tip of the peninsula at the mouth of the James River in Virginia. McClellan worked his way up the peninsula from Ft. Monroe towards Richmond but was ultimately blocked at Drewry’s Bluff on May 15 and at the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31 and June 1. It is probable that Owen may have participated in these battles.
In April of 1862 the Confederate lawmaking body passed the first conscription law in U.S. history. On September 27 it extended the age of service to age 45. By October 11 it had passed the controversial portion of the law that exempted from service the owners of twenty or more slaves. This supposedly because so many larger plantations were left without any white male person to run them.
Owen explains clearly in his correspondence how these laws affect him. In December of 1863 the chances of his escaping further service, as the war became more deadly, decreased when the practice of hiring substitutes officially ended. According to Owen’s letters, John McLaurin was considering hiring a substitute as Owen’s first year of service ended. By February of 1864 the draft age had been increased to ages 17-50. We must speculate the details of how Owen spent his time from June 1862 until he appears in the service records of the 20th Regiment, South Carolina Infantry as a private in the summer of 1863. Clearly, he was unable to escape service altogether. Apparently, Owen joined a company of the South Carolina 20th Infantry from nearby Marlboro County, where his Uncle Duncan and father had many, many connections with both friends and family.
“Palmetto Battery” January 1864 – December 1864: 20th South Carolina Infantry
and the CSS Fredericksburg
On 26 January 1864, Owen writes a letter to his uncle with the greeting from the “Palmetto Battery.” Evidently, Owen did not return to his North Carolina regiment, but mustered into service of Company N South Carolina Infantry out of nearby Marlboro, NC. Owen’s Aunt Sarah and Uncle Duncan Douglas had lived in that county for many years. Their son John, several decades Owen’s senior, was in the cavalry of the 20th. Owen begins his letter by noting his own good health. He mentions that he has written to his sister that their cousin John Douglas would probably go home over the weekend. Douglas was being furloughed due to illness. Owen comments, “I doubt his final recovery although they may improve his health.” John Douglas would soon succumb to “consumption,” better known today as tuberculosis, on 6 March 1864. Sadly, his sister dies of the same illness on the 18th day of March 1864. Tuberculosis was rampant during the Civil War, especially among closely confined soldiers. These soldiers likely brought this contagious disease home with them on visits, unaware that they were spreading disease. The incubation period for tuberculosis can sometimes be lengthy, causing the disease to spread easily.
The good news is that their rations have increased since, “some of the troops on Sullivan’s and also on James (River) mutinied for want of provision but it was a small affair. They are now enjoying the pleasures of close confinement.” Owen feels that he is unlikely to suffer much in his current environment but notes the discontent of many. Some of the troops, whose terms of service expired, refused to do their duty. Many were being placed under arrest. He relates a report from Fort Moultrie that Regulars attempted to, “spike the guns, and run up a white flag.” The plot was discovered in time to stop it. He expresses the feeling among many of the soldiers at this point in the war but adds that he is, “willing to serve,” and that now is the time to be steadfast and loyal. However, many believe the following:
the war was brought on by designing men
to gratify their ambition and they do not
seem willing to continue in the army &
fight, when the good of our country is not
the main object in view it appears
that the fires of Patriotism are burning low — Owen McLaurin
Owen begins and ends this letter by referring to his sister. He approves of her teaching at a school that has given her an offer. His sister had written that Owen’s father wanted to visit him, but Owen replies that his father would only be detained in Charleston. He is more specific about his location:
The Yanks are reported to be dredging the
channel at Drewry’s Bluff which is just
opposite to us at St. Helena at any rate
the authorities will have obstructions
placed there in a short time.
We are doing well on St. Helene now
as we have a stove and the weather
is pleasant. — Owen McLaurin
In closing this letter, Owen asks to be remembered to his friends, family, and to his cousin Kenneth McKenzie, who has been staying with Duncan. Kenneth had made his way from Mississippi after mustering out of the 8th MS Infantry. Kenneth’s objective was to answer his elderly Uncle Duncan’s request for assistance in his old age, but he also helped on John McLaurin’s farm.
A few months later, 23 March 1864, Owen’s father, John, would be dead. The Fayetteville Observer would publish his obituary under “Died.” Duncan likely composed his brother’s obituary: “At his residence…on the 23rd of March 1864, after a short attack of pleurisy, Mr John McLaurin in his 74th year. in all his unobtrusive relations in life he was much esteemed…From his early boyhood up to his death he had an undoubting confidence in the Providence of God and was seldom or never disappointed.” Pleurisy is the 19th century term associated with pneumonia. The same obituary column lists John Douglas and his sister, both dead of consumption.
The death of John McLaurin, a tragedy for the family, presents difficulties since Effy and her daughters are now the managers of the farm. According to Duncan, Effy assumes ownership of the property as if she had inherited it. Duncan insists that John had a will, likely leaving the property to Owen, but it is never found. If Owen, however, is to inherit the property, the likelihood of his keeping it in the event of a Union victory is slim.
Less than a month after his father’s death, Owen writes on April 10, 1864 that his company, “along with 9 others,” will be disbanded. They are ordered to report to Columbia, SC. He says that General Beauregard is trying to have the order “countermanded” but will likely not succeed. According to Fold 3 records, J. A. Peterkin’s Company had been organized, “without proper authority.” At this point the men were ordered to “report to the Commandant of Conscripts at Columbia, South Carolina.” Owen was evidently in one of the ten companies of infantry that composed this regiment. Owen declares in his letter that he will not report to Columbia: “There is one thing certain, I am not going to Columbia.” Owen gives his uncle contact information for his superiors, General R. S. Ripley, whose address is Charleston. Meanwhile, Owen will talk to Colonel Keitt, who will assume command of Mt. Pleasant. Evidently, Col. Keitt organized the 20th SC Volunteer Regiment in 1862. He was later promoted to the rank of brigadier general and died after being wounded on June 4, 1864.
Aboard the ironclad C.S.S. Fredericksburg
Owen may have spoken to Keitt, who likely told him that his chances of getting home at this point in the war were slim. Owen writes his next letter dated 22 November 1864 from aboard the C.S.S. Fredericksburg of the James River Squadron. The Fredericksburg was an ironclad steamer launched by the Confederate Navy yard at Rocketts on the James River, VA in June of 1863. However, it would be some time before it was fully functional due to a shortage of iron at the Tredegar ironworks. The Union blockade had been taking its toll. Also, flooding on the James River in the spring of 1864 delayed progress. In March of 1864 the steamer was still having trouble getting her guns, and by April 1864 the difficulty of manning the Fredericksburg caused the Confederate Navy to commandeer troops from the infantry to finish out the crew.
According to John M. Coski, author of Capital Navy: The Men, Ships, and Operations of the James River Squadron, “Adjutant General Samuel Cooper, on March 22, 1864, sent instructions to nine Confederate generals throughout the Confederacy ordering the immediate transfer of a total of 1,200 men.” Some several hundred of those men were destined for the James River Squadron. Among those soldiers was Owen McLaurin. Captain John Kirkwood Mitchell assumed command of all the active James River naval vessels and Commander Thomas R. Rootes was given first command of the Fredericksburg. At this point in the war less attention was paid a conscript’s aptitude for naval service, and the number of transfers had increased. Indeed, imprisoned soldiers and civilians were given shortened sentences if they would transfer to the navy.
Though the food is better and more abundant in the navy, Owen says, “I am very much dissatisfied here & trust that you and Uncle John (Stalker) will use every endeavor to have me transferred to Wilmington.” Once again he names local people with connections who could write to Commander Rootes about a transfer. His language is quite desperate:
Dear Uncle I beg of you all to re-
member me in your prayers, where
one like myself is exposed to both
the missiles of the enemy & all kinds
of wickedness among those with whom
I am thrown — Owen McLaurin
Owen’s sentiments are supported by another infantryman turned sailor that is quoted by Coski. Oliver Hamilton, a transfer from the North Carolina 38th Infantry, wrote home to his father. This letter collection is held at the North Carolina State Archives. In one letter Hamilton describes the crew as, “very much mixed up — about half of us here just came from the army — and the others are all seamen some are English, some Irish some Dutch and I don’t know what all — Some are very wicked too.” To add to the diversity of the crew, enslaved servants of officers were allowed and enslaved labor was hired for menial tasks. Hamilton says the general consensus is that the infantry conscripts are not very good soldiers and are, “kicked around.” Evidently, a prejudice existed on the part of experienced seamen and the untrained conscripts.
Coski in Capital Navy supports with evidence the crowded conditions on the ironclads of the James River Squadron. The ironclads were notoriously uncomfortable, cold in winter and like ovens in the summer. Hamilton mentions to his father, “There are about 150 men in this steamer and we are very much crowded.” Close quarters made these vessels incubators for disease. Frequently in the summer, sleeping quarters might be found on barges with tarps for shelter or as young Hamilton mentions “a Scooner brought along side.” The boiler room brought warmth in the winter. However, sickness and desertion would become rampant in the James River Squadron during the last months of the war. In November of 1864, despite his desperation to be transferred, Owen says his health is good, though he has lost weight. Owen tries to convey the sentiments aboard the vessel regarding the war:
There appears to be
a strong peace feeling in Congress
& on board this ship There are
numbers of men who are for peace
on any terms, I am sorry to
write it but it is the truth — Owen McLaurin
At the end of November 1864, Owen writes another letter revealing that he is much better since having taken, “a few doses of quinine.” He says that shelling continues at Dutch Gap and he foresees an engagement if “the canal” is opened. Owen quotes the price of gold in Richmond as forty to forty-five dollars for one. He begins to share his ideas of what must become of the enslaved people on the farm. It is unclear whether Owen is referring to his Uncle’s property, his father’s property, or both. In any case, the goal is to make sure they lose as little of their investment in human chattel as possible. He says if he could go home on furlough he could suggest a plan. Since that won’t happen, he makes this suggestion:
hire out all those of the negroes even
those as small as Charles or Darling,
if you could get their victuals &
clothes for them, I would not sell one
except those for which you would
have to pay for the feeding of, and
those I sold I would not receive confed
erate Currency but notes with
the most approved security and at
long dates … with
the interest payable annually — Owen McLaurin
Apparently, Owen is suggesting that the enslaved people on the farm be hired out for the cost of their upkeep. If that cannot be managed, they should be sold without accepting Confederate currency. However, the not so distant future would settle things to an extent for Owen’s household. William T. Sherman and his troops would drive directly through Richmond County, destroying property as they went, while dispersing both animals and people. Owen’s household would be one of the lucky ones. They would even be spared a portion of their cotton on hand. Evidence exists in Owen’s probate hearing that at least one formerly enslaved person remained on the farm. Life as they had known it before would be virtually over.
The financial disaster that is about to befall them must have preyed upon Owen’s mind during a daily struggle to maintain his health and positive outlook. His anxiety is palpable, not only for his family’s situation but for his own. Owen wishes to hear from them often, “and do your best to get me away from here.” Again, his letter ends with a plea for prayers, “Dear Uncle I beg of you to pray for me.”
The James River Squadron
After the first Union attempt to take Richmond in 1862 failed, the James River Squadron had seen little action, though the blockade running continued throughout the war. The navy yards along the James River were active in building and experimenting. The Confederates experimented with torpedoes, which were actually mines. They also would launch the first primitive submarine in the United States from this area. The James River in Virginia is particularly winding, so it was easy for the Navy to fall into a defensive position by obstructing Federal passage up the James to Richmond. By May of 1864, General Grant had begun his campaign to capture Richmond. At this point the Fredericksburg, was captained by Lt. Francis E. Shepperd. Grant, engaged in the Siege of Petersburg, placed his supply base at City Point on the James River.
That winter of 1865, the James River Squadron Commander, Captain John K. Mitchell, was ordered to engage the enemy. Mitchell felt it too risky. The best they could do was help the land batteries keep the Union forces from crossing the river behind Confederate lines. Most soldiers probably realized this situation could not last forever. As Owen expected, engagement came the night of January 23-24, 1865 in the Battle of Trent’s Reach.
On January 15, 1865 Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory had received a report that the obstructions in the James River at Trent’s Reach had partially washed away. With Grant’s supplies concentrated at City Point on the James, Mallory saw an opportunity to finally put the James River Squadron on the offensive. The goal was to send the squadron down river, passing the newly opened channel to attack City Point under cover of night.
Commander Mitchell felt any engagement with the Federal Navy would probably be disastrous to the Confederacy. For this reason Mitchell procrastinated until January 23 and 24, when high water and washed obstructions presented an undeniable opportunity of allowing the squadron to pass and attack City Point.
Wooden vessels were lashed to the ironclads. The Fredericksburg led the flotilla with the gunboat Hampton and torpedo boat Hornet lashed to it. The Confederate Navy had mined the river with torpedoes which could be identified by coded stakes. They traveled in complete darkness and silence under the Federal pickets, adding to the precariousness of the venture. Soon the Federals discovered and fired upon them. The Confederate land batteries retaliated. The flotilla was plagued with vessels becoming stuck and having to be rescued. At 1:30 am on January 24, the Fredericksburg passed the Federal obstructions, having endured fire from shore. However, Commander Sheppard had the ship pass through too hastily. Both of the lashed torpedo outriggers were torn away. In addition, the ship struck something below the waterline that caused a slow leak. The Fredericksburg anchored below Dutch Gap Canal. The Hampton followed. That is where they waited for the rest of the flotilla, but it never came. The flagship, Virginia II, had grounded. Time was consumed getting the Virginia II up and running again. The first attempt to attack City Point never happened; the Fredericksburg and Hampton were recalled.
As the sun rose, Federal gunners at Battery Parsons fired and destroyed the Drewry in dramatic fashion by a direct hit to its magazine. The Fredericksburg crew endured the explosion of the Drewry and constant shelling barrage before sheltering under cover of Battery Dantzler. General Grant saw an opportunity to destroy the Confederate Navy, but hesitation on the part of the Federal Navy that had been left to guard the James River lost the chance.
Meanwhile, the James River Squadron attempted the attack on City Point a second time. The Federals trained a Drummond light on the river, making sitting ducks of the squadron. Suffering even more damage, the flotilla returned to Chaffin’s bluff under fire. The opportunity to impede Grant’s attempt at taking Richmond was lost. The Fredericksburg had a hole in its port side and was leaking two to three inches per hour.
Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes replaced Mitchell as James River Squadron commander on February 18, 1865. According to Coski, in Semmes’s 1869 memoir he describes the state of the squadron personnel as mostly from the army and very demoralized. He said they lived in close, crowded conditions in uncomfortable quarters with little opportunity for exercise. They were, at this point, reduced to half rations and little change of clothing. They were begging him for leaves of absence due to destitute families. The end result of these conditions was rampant desertion. Thus, accurate Confederate information was passed to the Federals by deserters. Semmes said, “Sometimes an entire boat’s crew would run off.” Soldiers and sailors understood that the Confederacy was near collapse, and illness had decimated their numbers.
Owen’s last surviving letter to his uncle is dated December of 1864. Because he was a member of the Masonic Lochlomand Lodge No. 242, it is likely he was true to his word and remained, though reluctantly, a faithful soldier until the end of the war. Perhaps he surrendered with Admiral Semmes. Whether he returned directly home immediately after the war is questionable. Owen spent time after the war with his cousin Duncan McEachin in Canada.
While Owen was still attached to the Fredericksburg his home of Laurel Hill came under the assault of foragers among the troops of General William T. Sherman, who was leading the Federals from Georgia through the Carolinas on his way to meet General Grant at Richmond, Virginia. In the North Carolina Encyclopedia online (www.ncpedia.org), John G. Barrett writes, “By March 1865 Sherman’s entire army was on North Carolina soil in the vicinity of Laurel Hill Presbyterian Church.” Foragers looted and burned much of the property at Laurel Hill. Livestock was scattered and crops destroyed, though the Owen McLaurin family probably suffered less than others in what became known locally as, “the raid.” According to Owen’s probate record, Effy and her two daughters were lucky enough to have their house and furniture saved as well as six bales of cotton stored in the lumber shed. They would also recover some livestock.
On April 2 Semmes received news that General Lee had advised the government to leave Richmond. Semmes ordered the remaining ships of the squadron destroyed rather than have them fall into federal hands. When the order was given to abandon ship, men scurried to gather possessions and find something to carry them in. Remaining provisions were given out. They unlashed their hammocks and rolled blankets tightly. With water for travel, they met at the Danville Depot, but not before their final duty.
Instead of sinking the vessels where they were, Semmes moved them to the Drewry’s Bluff obstructions. After disembarking, crews set the ships ablaze.
Where was Owen at this historic moment? It is probable that he was one of the soldiers who gathered his possessions and met Semmes at the depot, boarded the train for Danville, and perhaps made it there. Every time the train stopped or slowed, soldiers whose families lived near enough, would jump off and head home. According to Coski, by the time Semmes reached Danville, his force of men totaled 250. General Joseph E. Johnston, with whom Semmes was supposed to meet, had already surrendered to General Sherman, and on May 1 Semmes did the same.
Aftermath of the War
Whether or not Owen met Semmes at the Depot and returned home is unclear, for testimony at his probate hearing reveals he was in Canada visiting his cousin Duncan McEachin until late August or early September of 1865. Duncan McEachin was the son of Effy Stalker McLaurin’s sister — McEachin was Owen’s maternal first cousin. While in Ontario, Canada, Owen promised to marry Jennie McKay. Sadly, Owen would die of tuberculosis on November 28, 1869. His will would also direct his mother to leave, “all of her personal property, to my intended wife, Jennie McKay of Elgin County Ontario.”
Apparently, Owen borrowed a substantial amount from his cousin Duncan McEachin, mostly for his return home to Laurel Hill, NC. In testimony at his probate hearing, we learn Owen’s probable reason for his extended Canadian visit. Owen feared confiscation of his recently deceased father’s land by the U.S. government. Kenneth McKenzie, Owen’s paternal first cousin, claims that at first Owen offered the land to him with the understanding that it would be returned when the Federals no longer occupied the state, and Owen could safely keep it again. Kenneth said that Owen was under the impression that he was an, “anti-war man,” when he made the offer. However, Kenneth had volunteered and served in the Confederate Army also and could not have held the land any better than Owen.
In his will, Owen officially leaves his property to his cousin Duncan McEachin. He stipulates that Duncan share the property with his McEachin siblings: Archibald, Catherine, and Ann. In addition, he tasks his cousin with placing tombstones on the graves of his father, sisters, and his own grave. His own gravestone should bear a Masonic emblem, “chosen by the Worshipful Master and Wardens of LochLomand Lodge, No. 242.” He also leaves one hundred dollars to this lodge.
Owen makes it clear in his will that none of his property, “shall ever come to any of my relations on my Fathers side.” He stipulates that any property his Uncle Duncan may have intended for him should go to his cousin Hugh McCall, “and his heirs, as he and children are worthy of his regard.” The McCall family would own and occupy the home of Duncan McLaurin for the next hundred years or more. It is made very clear, through the testimony of Daniel Middleton at John McLaurin’s probate hearing in October of 1872, that Owen and his Uncle Duncan McLaurin were on very good terms despite the language in Owen’s will. Middleton explains the family trouble between Duncan McLaurin and some of his nephews. Kenneth McKenzie and the three Patterson nephews had brought law suits against Duncan McLaurin regarding property claims. All of them had failed. Letters in the Duncan McLaurin Papers support that Isabella Patterson’s sons were quite resentful of their former guardian, Uncle Duncan. According to Middleton the ill will remained so that Owen likely felt McLaurin property should not fall into their hands:
“In conversation with Owen I heard him say, speaking of some of his relatives on his father’s side, that they would not get any part of his property, or that he did not want them to have it. There was an ill feeling existing between some of the nephews of Duncan McLaurin …, and I think it was on this account that Owen McLaurin made use of such expressions, and not on account of any ill feeling Owen had towards his Uncle Duncan McLaurin. I think they were on the best terms.” — Daniel Middleton
The property that McEachin inherited was surveyed by him according to probate testimony. The deed included 950 acres in all. The property ran along the Stage Road and the railroad.
Apparently, Owen also engaged in a business upon returning to his home. He and friend Gilbert Morrison began hauling railroad ties. Testimony also shows that they may have made a small profit on this business until Owen could no longer work due to his illness — about the last fourteen months of his life. In probate hearing testimony, L. Ross Hardin claims to have sold to Owen in 1867 a pair of mules and a wagon, or rather the running gear of a wagon, in order to carry on this business. Owen paid with drafts on the railroad and on Mr. Moffitt, a businessman of Wilmington.
Samuel Gibson added that Owen also purchased a horse for the farm with his mother’s money. Evidently, Owen was overseeing the farm for his mother and using hired labor after the war. In the words of close neighbor, Samuel Gibson, “They (Owen and his mother) were not very good farmers.” He claims that from 1865 to 1872 they had probably made “150-175 bushels of corn and four bags of cotton weighing 400 pounds.” Gibson suggests that all of the profits from the farm were needed for the family’s support. This support became increasingly dire as both of Owen’s sisters suffered from tuberculosis. Owen’s illness too was an expense to the family. Effy estimates that she spent over $800 dollars on his medical care alone.
Included in the property that McEachin inherited was the dower of Effy Stalker. In the 19th century a dower included real estate that had been officially set aside for a widow. Evidently, Effy was living on her dower after Owen died and after the estate passed to McEachin, who allowed his aunt to reside on the property. After losing all of her immediate family, Effy Stalker McLaurin, born in Argyll, Scotland would live until 1881.
It would be October 17, 1872 before Owen’s father’s estate was probated.The Richmond County civil government was in disarray due to the raid during Sherman’s march through North Carolina, not so long after John’s death in 1864. In 1867 military authority began in North Carolina, which lasted officially until 1877. However, the state had less of a military presence after 1868. On July 4, 1868, after ratifying the 14th Amendment, North Carolina was readmitted and became part of the United States again. This served to eventually bring some normalcy to state and local civil affairs.
That fall of 1872, as the weather cooled and the leaves began falling from the trees at Laurel Hill, Plaintiff Duncan McLaurin, along with other creditors, contested his brother’s estate in probate court. It would be Duncan’s last effort, for he would be dead from cancer by December. His contention was that neither John’s estate nor Owen’s estate had been handled properly. He was openly hostile in his writing towards his brother’s wife, Effy, and her brother John Stalker. He accused them of claiming less property than the estates were actually worth in order to filch creditors of the estate. How much Duncan’s illness exacerbated his bitterness is difficult to gauge.
Much of the testimony in the legal accounts of these two probate hearings involves who was actually in charge of the farm after John’s death. A great deal of testimony itemizes property on the farm before and after the “raid.” It rankled Duncan that Effy had simply taken unofficial charge of the property immediately in Owen’s absence. Duncan always claimed John left a will while Effy claimed none could be found. Duncan, owning more property than he or the McCalls were equipped to handle during the changing times, likely had no designs on the property himself. However, it was, in part, the land that his father Hugh had deeded to his son in John’s youth.
Effy Stalker McLaurin, Murdock Morrison, Samuel J. Gibson, Daniel Middleton, John McLean, and John Stalker gave testimony during this hearing. According to Effy’s testimony, she is residing on her dower in 1872 on one side of Gum Swamp, “and on both sides of the railroad.” Effy also admits that after the raid a Yankee officer gave her two mules and a mare. She itemizes property, other than land, owned by John McLaurin just before Sherman’s army raided the area:
“Two mules and a mare and colt. I suppose there were at least 12 head of cattle, four milk cows … about 20 head of sheep. There was enough corn to feed 3 horses and 17 to 20 persons in the family. (This must have included enslaved people.) There was enough fodder to feed all the horses and mules; enough bacon to last the family and no corn or bacon left over that year, about enough wheat for that year. There was an excellent four horse wagon, a cart and a one-horse Rockaway. There was a mill and fixtures on the farm and about enough farming implements to run a three-horse-farm.” — Effy Stalker McLaurin testimony
She also names her three now deceased children, adding that her husband left no will. Effy says that she, “overseed the farm, and applied the proceeds to the support of family.” They consumed everything they made, “I made two crops without Owen. Owen came home in the fall of 1865.” Effy claims to have supported Owen when he was in Canada. Ultimately, from 1865 until just before his death, Owen was in charge of the farm: “Owen conducted the farm as my overseer.” Effy claims that every cent she, “got hold of,” was paid Owen. She follows this claim with a brief characterization of her son, “Owen would have spent as much more in books and papers if he could have got it.” At this point books and papers must have seemed a bit superfluous to Effy, though they must have meant a great deal to Owen.
During Owen’s probate hearing, which occurred after Duncan McLaurin died in December of 1872, Kenneth McKenzie gives testimony as to what remained on the farm after the Yankee raid. His reason for knowing about the farm was that, “it was mostly my home,” from 1863 when he came from Mississippi to North Carolina to help his aging uncle Duncan McLaurin conduct his affairs until he re-enlisted in the Confederate Army in September of 1864. He was also on John’s farm after April of 1865, though he was no longer employed by his Uncle Duncan: “I was there a great deal after the raid up to Owens death.” The following is Kenneth’s enumerated list:
“There was a lot of cattle of fifteen — or more.
there were four breeding sows, (and other hogs.) one was killed
in the latter end of 1865 or the beginning of 1866.
There were four feather beds including bedstead quilt counter pane, the beds and
furniture —I cant say how much — farming implements
plows, hoes &c I can’t say how much I suppose there were
a dozen chains. one wagon,
there was a safe, dining table four
small tables two common bedsteads. one grindstone
there was corn there cant say how much some fodder
Six Bales of cotton, 2 mattresses belonged on the
common bedsteads — some blankets in a box two were
shown me there seemed to be more. There were some kitchen furniture. these a large
pot, and a large boiler each of which would hold about 40
gallons. — Kenneth McKenzie
He also enumerates items left on the farm after Owen’s death:
“There were fifteen cattle at least there after the
death of Owen, part of them the cattle
enumerated as belonging to the Estate of John
McLaurin, the balance I supposed to be the increase,
I suppose there were 10 of the old cattle that
I knew as belonging to the estate of John McLaurin, worth about $20 a head the
others were worth I suppose, about $10 or $12
the Sows three of which were left were worth $*. I reckon a piece, the 12
chairs I suppose were worth 75 cents to $1.00 — the
safe I suppose was worth $10. The dining
table I suppose was worth $2, or $2.50
the small tables I reckon were worth $6 a piece
I would suppose the beds were worth $50
each with their furniture the common Bedsteads were worth $100
or $150 and the Mattress (2) were worth about
$4.00 each the Blankets were worth a
dollar a yd 10 or 12 yds in a Blanket
worth say $10 there were two — three I think
The grindstone was worth $3. The pots or pot
and boiler were there after Owens death
and worth (the lightest would weigh 75 lbs
and the heaviest 100 lbs) the pot was worth $5
and the Boiler $6. I know of some cotton
sold after the raid at 40 cents per lb — Kenneth McKenzie
Apparently, the six bales of cotton that survived burning in the raid were held in what Kenneth referenced as the “lumber house.” He noted the cotton because he made an offer to buy it from Owen at fifteen cents a pound but Owen sold to someone else, probably receiving a much better profit.
The marking of the cattle is an interesting point. During the testimony of several people we learn that people living where John McLaurin’s farm was located did not generally mark their stock. However, Kenneth said he was directed to mark the stock by John and Effy McLaurin. Kenneth says he remembers them better by their flesh marks than ear marks. This was important because during the raid much of the livestock property was wandering loosely and had to be retrieved. Having no marks as evidence of ownership, many people collected more than they had before, and some were unable to collect all that they had before.
Another interesting testimony in Owen’s probate hearing comes from a former slave, Lydia Leak, who may also be known as Lydia Gibson. Lydia, if not born on the farm, was “raised on the farm,” during John McLaurin’s lifetime and ownership. Evidently, she was still working on the farm after the war as a free laborer. In her short testimony, she claims to have driven home some of the McLaurin cows after the raid. She also says there was a little corn and meat on the farm, but she could not attest to how many farming implements were left or the amount of household and kitchen furniture left. Her testimony was very brief and was not cross-examined.
The probate suit against John Stalker by the creditors of Owen McLaurin concluded with an admonishment for Stalker to pay what was owed. Stalker’s refusal to pay the full amount to creditors and choosing to go into further debt in court costs won him disfavor in the court’s decision.
Owen’s sad story, the wasting of youthful promise in pursuit of war, is a timeless one and recounted in the letters home of many soldiers, both Federal and Confederate, during the Civil War. Owen and others like him have left us a cautionary tale.
Account written by Duncan McLaurin of Laurel Hill, Richmond County, NC regarding his relationship with John Stalker of Richmond County, NC, brother of Effie Stalker McLaurin and uncle of Owen McLaurin. Written some time after Owen’s death in November of 1869 and before Duncan’s death in December of 1872. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Barrett, John G. “Sherman’s March.” NCpedia. https://www.ncpedia.org/shermans-march. 2006. Accessed 8 March 2020.
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Letters from Owen McLaurin to Duncan McLaurin. 9 May 1860, 15 December 1861, 5 March 1862, 25 May 1862, about May or June 1862, 20 January 1864, 10 April 1864, 22 November 1864, 29 November 1864, 18 December 1864. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.
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