Baptists and the American Civil War: April 26, 1865

cowan_harryAlthough Union General William T. Sherman and Confederate General Joseph Johnston a week earlier agreed on terms for a surrender of Jonston’s remaining army, the last large body of Confederate forces, officials in Washington D.C. rejected those terms as too lenient on the Confederacy.

Subsequently, Jefferson Davis rejected Union demands for harsher conditions, and from hiding instructed Johnston to disband his infantry but escape with remaining Southern cavalry forces.

Johnston, however, feels that prolonging the war any further is disadvantageous. Disobeying Davis’ orders, today at Bennett Place in North Carolina Johnston sits down again with Sherman in an effort to hammer out lasting peace terms. This time Johnston essentially surrenders outright, bringing an end to the war in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. Nearly 90,000 Confederate troops lay down their arms as a result of the agreement.

During the war Johnston has been attended by his body servant, Harry Cowan (1810-1904), a slave and a Baptist preacher who was born near Mocksville. According to a history of black Baptists in North Carolina, Cowan “preached every night during the struggle except the night when General Stonewall Jackson fell in battle.”

With Johnston’s surrender, Cowan is a free man. Within months Cowan establishes the Dixonville Baptist Church in Salisbury, believed to be the first Baptist church in western North Carolina. In 1867 he founds the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Salisbury, a congregation that yet exists to the present day.

During the entirety of his seventy years in ministry Cowan baptizes some 8,000 persons, preaches over 1,000 funerals and conducts over 1,000 weddings. Cowan dies in Winston-Salem in 1904 as perhaps the foremost black Baptist minister in the state of North Carolina.

booth_deathMeanwhile, as Johnston surrenders and Cowan is set free, the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln‘s assassin, comes to an end when he is killed in a confrontation with Union officials in a burning barn in Virginia.

Sources: “Bennett Place,” North Carolina Historic Sites (link); J. A. Whitted, A History of the Negro Baptists of North Carolina, Raleigh: Edwards and Broughton, 1908, p. 11, including image of Cowan, digitized by the “Documenting the American South” project, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (link); Nilous M. Avery, II, “History: The Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church of Salisbury, Inc.,” 2014 (link); “The Death of John Wilkes Booth, 1865” (link); “Capture and Death of John Wilkes Booth,” Civil War Trust, including image (link); see also Terry Alford, Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, Oxford University Press, 2015 (link)