Book Find: Cowper after the Storm

Guest post by Book Traces @ UVA volunteer Jamie Rathjen

A volume of William Cowper’s poems has rested in a decades-long repose in Alderman Library, a welcome respite compared to the action it saw on the front lines in central Virginia’s Civil War campaigns. It accompanied several different members of a regiment of Virginia troops, the 12th Virginia Infantry, on their travels from the Richmond area to Fredericksburg and beyond, all the while containing within its pages Cowper’s opposition to slavery. The regiment ultimately harbored a connection to the man in whose collection the book ended up, fervently patriotic Confederate colonel and one-time UVA student William Gordon McCabe, in the form of the Pegram cousins, consisting in this context of younger William, eventually the superior of McCabe’s as the war progressed, and older Richard, a member of the 12th Virginia Infantry later made an artillery captain. It is from McCabe’s library that the Cowper volume made its way to UVA, when the library was donated by McCabe’s sons in 1924 following his death four years before.

Col. McCabe is responsible for several inscriptions in other books that he owned, including one made during the war containing a diagram of howitzer firing angles and another relating an anecdote of a conversation between his father and Edgar Allen Poe. However, he did not write in this volume of Cowper; the inscriptions fall to others.


The earlier of the two dated and readable inscriptions was made by Pvt. Robert E. Jones on 19 June 1862 while he was “on the line at” Richmond. (It is lucky, or perhaps necessary, that Jones included his middle initial, as the regiment contained another Robert Jones.) Jones was, however, wounded at a battle variously called Fraizer’s Farm (as it appears in his records) or Glendale, northeast of Richmond in Henrico County, only 11 days later on 30 June, and ultimately died on or around 10 July. The Battle of Glendale was part of a series of six battles in seven days in the Richmond area known as the Seven Days Battles, in which the Army of Northern Virginia, led by Robert E. Lee and containing the 12th Virginia Infantry, repulsed the Union, under Gen. George McClellan, from Richmond and onto the peninsula to the east. While there were heavy casualties for both sides, the Confederates emerged successful and afterwards began a counter-attack to the north, culminating in the famous battle at Antietam in the fall.

The Seven Days Battles began on 25 June; thus, Jones would have had only six days to read Cowper from the date of his inscription to the date of the first battle, something which may help to explain the lack of annotations on the poems themselves despite Jones’ large signature in the front of the book and two Confederate flags rendered in pencil in the back.


Of the two flags, one is rectangular and reminiscent of the Confederate “stars and bars” flag, but with extra, perhaps fanciful additions, including a “C.S.” which bears similarities with Jones’ handwriting in the front. The other is a square saltire, similar to the Army of Northern Virginia’s battle flag, the familiar blue cross on a red field with stars in the cross; three stars have been faintly replicated on one arm of the cross. The battle flag was often customized by regiments with an identifier and the names of battles, likely those in which the regiment participated; Col. McCabe, in an oration of his from after the war, lists upwards of thirty battles which he believes ought to have been on his battalion’s tattered flag. One or both of these flags were perhaps carried into battle by the 12th Regiment.

After Jones, the next inscription comes from the quartermaster sergeant of the 12th Regiment, Robert C. Osborne. His, while quite faded, is somewhat readable: “Robert C. Osborne, Esq.; camp near Fredericksburg; January 30, 1863.” (Photo below has been enhanced to show Osborne’s inscription.)


The Army of Northern Virginia had spent four days successfully defending the city in mid-December 1862 and did not fight another battle until Chancellorsville in the spring, also in the immediate area. Osborne, like Jones, is short of biographical information, but appears to have survived the war, as, for lack of other evidence, his records at least do not note his death and consist mostly of ordnance forms rather than the more enlightening index cards, recording attendance at roll call, found for Jones and others. He had been the quartermaster sergeant for the regiment since November 1861 and in July 1863 was appointed captain and assistant to the divisional quartermaster. Thus, the path on which the book traveled to reach Col. McCabe was set in motion with him.

One possible path from Osborne to Col. McCabe is represented by the Pegram cousins, Richard and William. Richard Pegram was born in Petersburg on 14 February 1829 and, like William, grew up studying law. Richard originally started the war as a private in the 12th Regiment, but in April 1862 (before Jones was killed) transferred to a company of artillery, eventually being chosen to captain the company in May 1863. His company fought at the same battles as the 12th Regiment in the period between the book’s two inscriptions (the Seven Days Battles and Fredericksburg), so it is possible that he retained links with his former regiment; Pegram was originally in Company E of the 12th Regiment, formed of men from Petersburg and the surrounding area, and the same company as Robert Osborne before their respective promotions. He was also with his artillery unit throughout the crucial period from mid-1862 to early 1863 and thus was likely encamped with the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg. The younger Pegram, William, was born on 29 June 1841 in Richmond. Studying in UVA’s law school at the beginning of the war, Pegram possessed increasingly greater artillery commands for all four years and made a name for himself starting in the Seven Days Battles with a combination of youth, fearless leadership, skillful command, and at times aggressive tactics that won him much praise. During the course of the war, William Pegram was promoted several times, culminating in the position of colonel of artillery in early 1865, but first gained a substantial command when he was made a captain (the same as Richard) in March 1862. At the end of the war, William possessed an entire battalion of artillery (as opposed to Richard, who remained one step below as a captain), and William McCabe was Pegram’s adjutant (essentially, a personal assistant). McCabe mentions that Pegram “never lost a gun in four years of active service;” the only time he did was when he was mortally wounded at the battle of Five Forks on 1 April 1865, a week before the end of the war, and died the next day. Twenty-one years later, at the battalion’s annual reunion, McCabe would present them their tattered battle flag on behalf of Pegram’s mother, to whom Pegram had previously given it at some point during the war.

Indeed, William McCabe seems to have made a postwar career out of the eloquence with which he remembered William Pegram in the evening of 21 May 1886. His obituary in UVA’s alumni news remembers him as a “soldier, teacher, scholar, and citizen” and “one of the most distinguished of the University’s older alumni” at his death on 1 June 1919 and despite spending less than a year (fall 1860 – spring 1861) at the University. He continued to harbor a zealous Confederate patriotism throughout his life, additionally serving as “commander” of the A. P. Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans (under whose ultimate command William Pegram and McCabe’s battalion was) as well as president of his surviving battalion. As related in a memoir of McCabe by Armistead Gordon, McCabe was also known for writing out his full wartime rank and position (“From W. Gordon McCabe, formerly Captain of Artillery, Pegram’s Battalion, A. P. Hill’s Corps, A. N. V.”) in books he gave to others from his library. However, he seems to have reserved this for the benefit of others: another book of McCabe’s in Alderman library, a biography of Thackeray, has a simple “W. Gordon McCabe, Petersburg, Virginia” as identification inside the cover. In fact, McCabe spent much of his time throughout his entire life with books, writing several of his own not about the Civil War, but rather in which he demonstrates a classical interest: a Latin reader and a work on the Gallic War. Unfortunately, he did not get to inscribe the Cowper book in his distinctive style, as it did not leave his library.

The five men behind the story of the Cowper book appear to have served in the same battles throughout the seven months between the two inscriptions. In McCabe’s speech memorializing William Pegram, he lists the battles that “should” belong on the battalion’s flag, even if they are no longer present. These include three of the Seven Days Battles: Mechanicsville, Gaines’ Mill, and, most importantly, Glendale, as well as Fredericksburg. Thus, besides Robert Jones, the other four men – the Pegrams, McCabe, and Robert Osborne – were together for a period of many months. It is, however, impossible to say anything specific about the interactions of individuals in such a large army, and the four’s proximity to each other begins to disintegrate after the battle of Fredericksburg and the encampment thereafter. Richard Pegram’s battery of artillery disappears from the radar somewhat after Fredericksburg; the Virginia government’s Civil War website has it next surfacing at the battle of Swift Creek in May 1864, while a chart of the artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia from April 1863 only includes one Pegram battery, which was William’s (as both were then captains). Additionally, in spring 1863 McCabe’s records indicate that he was given special orders to report to Charleston and the command of P. G. T. Beauregard, where he stayed until the fall. However, during that time his and Pegram’s unit (of which McCabe had first been appointed acting adjutant in March 1863) was held in reserve at Gettysburg and thus remained with the Army of Northern Virginia. Thus, it is fortuitous that the book’s two inscriptions are dated when they are, as the two appear to bookend a period in which all the crucial figures involved were in close proximity. The most likely story behind the Cowper book seems to be that it simply drifted around, first in the 12th Regiment and then among the Pegrams and McCabe. The exact details are as murky as war often is itself, and the group of four’s proximity to one another was not limited to the period from June 1862 to January 1863; both Richard Pegram and McCabe, for example, are mentioned as being captured at the battle of Sayler’s Creek on 6 April 1865, a few days after William Pegram was killed. As the war was at an end only three days later, however, they were both swiftly pardoned.

The Cowper book as a whole is in an interesting mix of conditions; it has been given a protective box by the UVA library. The binding has entirely ripped in one place, creating two “halves” of the book that are more like a 30-70 split, with the smaller one lying on top of the larger one. While the back cover is intact, the front cover was hanging on by threads when I first received the book and finally fell off before I was done. The covers themselves are non-descript dark green and done in relief, the most common method of graphic design.


The pages are actually in very good condition compared to the covers; they are not brittle and have aged well. There are, as mentioned, very few interior annotations. Of the crucial entries by Jones and Osborne on the end pages, Jones’ has not really faded while parts of Osborne’s are hardly readable at all. There are also small and mostly unreadable inscriptions on the top of the page with Jones’. A bookplate indicating that the book came to UVA from McCabe is pasted on the first end page.


The book itself is relatively large, at 17 cm in height according to the library catalogue, and could not fit easily in a small coat pocket, for example. Ironically, its wear – outside of its existence in multiple parts – does not quite match the battlefield journey on which it embarked.

Cowper’s poems mix the sense of optimism that would have been felt earlier in the war with the anti-slavery rhetoric that ultimately won out. Cowper was known for anti-slavery poems, and titles such as “Hope,” “Ode to Peace,” “Peace after the Storm,” “The Negro’s Complaint,” and “Pity for Poor Africans” make him seem out of place on a battlefield, especially in the possession of Confederates. “Pity for Poor Africans” in particular condemns the hypocrisy of the slave trade, as Cowper uses a group of boys engaging in petty theft of apples from a farm to parody slave traders. The speaker attempts to simultaneously justify both his involvement and his sentiments of sympathy for the farmer by disconnecting himself on a personal level; “he will lose none by me, but I’ll get a few,” goes the reasoning. Such sentiments could have been repeated in the Confederate lines by attaching oneself to the tradition or perhaps the institution of slavery, or even an ill-defined Southern patriotism as McCabe did, rather than the individual slaves themselves. Indeed, some of McCabe’s reasoning is on full display in the end of his speech to the Pegram battalion association: “…that the blood shed in its [the battle flag’s] defence was not the blood of ‘traitors,’ but the blood of patriots, who died that they might transmit to their children the heritage bequeathed them by their fathers.”

Yet this was regarded as not much of a blemish on McCabe, who was hailed as “the finest type of Virginian of his generation” by Armistead Gordon in his memoir. McCabe served on UVA’s Board of Visitors from 1888-1892 and the collection of his letters and materials in Special Collections indicates that he could count among his numerous acquaintances and correspondents Tennyson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Cabot Lodge. The Cowper book appears since the first inscription never to have left the hands of Virginians and remarkably passed from a virtually anonymous private to a well-known and distinguished yet ultimately non-commissioned officer. The book itself could tell the story of the war in Virginia, with the whole state heavily traversed by both sides and McCabe and Pegram’s battalion surviving until near the bitter end.

“”Branch’s-Pegram’s Battery.” Civil War in Virginia: Walk in Their Footsteps. Commonwealth of Virginia. Web.

“Colonel W. Gordan [sic] McCabe, ’61, Dies Suddenly in Richmond.” University of Virginia Alumni News 8.11 (1919): 285.

“A Guide to the William Gordon McCabe Papers, 1757-1920.” University of Virginia Special Collections. Web.

“Jones, Robert E.” Fold3.

“Osborne, Robert C.” Fold3.

“Pegram, Richard G. (private).” Fold3.

“Pegram, Richard G. (captain).” Fold3.

“McCabe, William Gordon.” Fold3.

“Memorials of Deceased Members: Richard G. Pegram.” Report of the Ninth Annual Meeting of the Virginia State Bar Association. Ed. Eugene C. Massie. Richmond: James E. Goode, 1897. 170-72.

“The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper, Esq.” New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1858.

Carmichael, Peter S. Lee’s Young Artillerist: William R.J. Pegram. Charlottesville: U of Virginia, 1998.

—. “The Merits of This Officer Will Not Go Unrewarded: William R. J. Pegram & The Purcell Battery in the Seven Days.” The Peninsula Campaign of 1862: Yorktown to the Seven Days. Campbell, CA: Savas Woodbury, 1995. 191-209.

Feeney, William R. “Battle of Glendale.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 5 April 2011. Web.

Gordon, Armistead C.. “William Gordon McCabe: A Brief Memoir”. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 28.2 (1920): 193–205.

McCabe, William Gordon. “Annual Reunion of Pegram Battalion Association in the Hall of House of Delegates, Richmond, Va., May 21st, 1886.” Perseus Digital Library.

Nafziger, George F. “Confederate Forces under Lee, 10 April 1865.” The Nafziger Collection of Orders of Battle. Combined Arms Research Library.

—. “Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, 4 May 1863.” The Nafziger Collection of Orders of Battle. Combined Arms Research Library.

—. “Confederate Artillery Organization, Army of Northern Virginia, 16 April 1863.” The Nafziger Collection of Orders of Battle. Combined Arms Research Library.

—. “Confederate Forces, Battle of Fredericksburg, 10 January 1863.” The Nafziger Collection of Orders of Battle. Combined Arms Research Library.

—. “Confederate Army around Richmond Virginia, 29 June 1862.” The Nafziger Collection of Orders of Battle. Combined Arms Research Library.

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