Mary McDowell helped save Chowan during war

Published 9:46 am Friday, November 9, 2012

by David Day III

Three of my great-grandfathers were in the Confederate Army, serving with the Army of Northern Virginia.

My fourth great-grandfather was a Baptist minister as well as the president of Chowan Female Institute — now Chowan University in Murfreesboro, N.C.

In spite of the good deeds of these four men, I choose to tell of the spunk and support demonstrated by my great-grandmother, Mary Owens, wife of the minister and educator, Dr. Archibald McDowell. She also was the mother of their children, Willie, Ruth, Eunice, and a child whose name I do not know.

During the first part of the War Between the States, Chowan Female Institute (Baptist) and Wesleyan Methodist Female College continued their work with a small band of faithful, poorly paid teachers.

During the second year of the war, Confederate troops entered the town and demanded Wesleyan College as barracks. After arguments and protests, the young girls were sent home and the little force of teachers was disbanded. Some were hired by Chowan.

The Confederate soldiers turned the stately old building into a place of martial law. After a time, more quarters were needed and the troops demanded Chowan.

They marched to the school and told Dr. McDowell he would have to turn over the buildings. He was about to submit when his wife appeared on the porch and asked why the soldiers were there.

When Mary McDowell heard the answer, she declared it not possible to send the students or teachers home. She told a teacher to call the girls, and when they were assembled, she told the soldiers that there are other buildings that can shelter you, but nowhere else can we continue to educate these girls.

“Enter this building and you do so at the point of a bayonet,” Mary McDowell said.

It struck home, and the soldiers saluted, turned and marched away. Chowan’s doors were not closed during the four years of the war.

Another war story tells of it being March 1864, and a detachment of Union troops was dispatched to Murfreesboro from Boykins while a Yankee gunboat was docked on the Meherrin River. As the detachment from Boykins was arriving on the college grounds, a shell exploded nearby.

The soldiers were mistaken for Confederates. The frightened Union troops broke rank and ran to the building. Shortly afterwards, Capt. Flusher arrived with his men from the gunboat and stepped upon the porch.

Flusher announced to Archibald McDowell that he had orders to search the college. McDowell replied that the female institute was certainly a queer place to search for soldiers, but gave permission to proceed.

At this time, little Willie McDowell appeared. Placing her hands on her son’s head, Mary McDowell said, “This is the oldest soldier we have here, and I only wish he were old enough to fight you!”

After upsetting some of the girls and finding no Confederate soldiers, Flusher left the college. Late that afternoon, he was returning to his gunboat and was mistaken for a private soldier who was told to give the password.

Flusher hesitated, trying to recall the password, and his own man who thought him to be a Confederate, shot him dead.

Hearing the news, little Ruth McDowell ran to her mother saying, “Mama, our doodest Yankee’s dead!”

My aunt Eunice told me her sister had her mouth washed out with lye soap for using doodest, which means damn.

The final story goes that the federal officers came to Chowan at two in the morning and knocked on the door for admittance. Dr. McDowell refused to allow them in even though he was told he would be shot.

Fearing for the safety of her husband, Mary McDowell awakened the student body and had them blockade the stairway. She went to the door and let the officers in.

First they asked for brandy. Of course, there was none to be given.

The girls remained at their assigned posts until the men left. To them, death was better than seeing their alma mater in the hands of the enemy.

From these stories one can see the spunk of Mary McDowell and the support she gave her husband. One could say that she was an example to the young girls of the college and of all women of the Confederacy.

Ruth McDowell was my grandmother and Eunice McDowell was my aunt. These two women passed the above stories to me and others in the family as did my mother, who was a student at Chowan.

DAVID A. DAY III is a member of the Urquhart Gillette Camp 1471 Sons of Confederate Veterans and lives in Boykins. He can be reached at 654-6298.