Ghost Cadet

Cadet William McDowell

Cadet William Hugh McDowell entered VMI on August 22, 1863, from Mt. Mourne, North Carolina, and was assigned to the fourth (freshman) class. He was killed on May 15, 1864, while serving as a cadet Private in Company B at the Battle of New Market.

The VMI Archives receives questions from students and teachers regarding the life of Cadet William H. McDowell. A fictional account of McDowell's participation in the Battle of New Market is featured in The Ghost Cadet, an award winning children's book by Elaine Marie Alphin. Our website contains factual biographical information and examples of full text primary sources. Unless noted otherwise, all sources are from originals in the VMI Archives.  Questions?   Contact the Archives

  • What happened to Willie's gold watch ?
    The watch was never found. It, and many other personal items that belonged to Cadet McDowell, could not be located after the Corps returned from New Market
  • I just read the Ghost Cadet.  Did everything in the book really happen?
    Although William McDowell was a real VMI cadet who fought and died at New Market,  the book is a work of fiction.
  • What was cadet life like during the war?
    See these online collections of cadet letters and diaries.
  • How old was the typical Civil War era cadet ?
    Although the ages ranged from 15 to 24, most cadets were between 17 and 21-- that is, very similar in age to today's college students.
  • How many cadets died in the battle ?
    Ten cadets were killed or died later as a result of their wounds. See this list for details.
  • Where can I find out about the Battle of New Market?
    We have many New Market resources on our website.
  • Where can I find a timeline of events at VMI during the Civil War?
    See this detailed chronology.

The following biographical information is from The VMI New Market Cadets by William Couper. (The Michie Co., 1933).

  • Born: December 31, 1846, at Beattie's Ford, Iredell County, North Carolina.
  • Parents: Robert Irwin McDowell (b. 1813; was graduated from Hampden-Sydney College, VA in 1832) of Mt. Mourne, NC, and Rebecca Brevard.
  • Grandparents: Hugh McDowell and Margaret Irwin, of Mecklenburg County, NC; Franklin Brevard and Margaret Conner, also of Mecklenburg County.
  • William Hugh McDowell entered VMI on August 22, 1863, from Mt. Mourne, North Carolina, and was assigned to the fourth (freshman) class. He was killed on May 15, 1864, while serving as a cadet Private in Company B at the Battle of New Market. When ordered to New Market, he was contemplating accepting a position upon the staff of General James Conner, his kinsman.
  • After temporary burial at New Market, McDowell's remains were brought to Lexington in May 1866, and are now buried beneath the New Market Statue at VMI.

Descriptions of McDowell's death

"In advancing from the ravine the Battalion was now and then protected by folds in the ground from the direct fire of the enemy. From the ravine to the close of the Bushong House is about half a mile. The cadets were exposed to direct fire the last half of this distance, losing three killed at this stage of their advance, the number including First Sergeant Cabell of D Co., and privates Stanard and McDowell of B. Co."
(From The Military History of VMI by Jennings C. Wise, copyright 1915)

"A little removed from the spot where Cabell fell, and nearer to the position of the enemy, lay McDowell, it was a sight to wring one's heart. That little boy was lying there asleep, more fit, indeed, for the cradle than the grave. He was barely sixteen, I judge, and by no means robust for his age. He was a North Carolinian. He had torn open his jacket and shirt, and, even in death, lay clutching them back, exposing a fair breast with its red wound."  (From An End of an Era by John S. Wise, copyright 1899)

The following letter was written by Mary Anna Jackson, the wife of General Stonewall Jackson, on behalf of her relative William H. McDowell. The letter was addressed to General Francis H. Smith, the Superintendent of VMI.

Charlotte, N.C. Jany 20th 1863
Gen'l F.H. Smith
My dear Sir,

I have been requested by a cousin of mine, Mrs. McDowell, to make application to you for a cadetship in the Institute for her son--a youth of fine character & talents. I would be much gratified if you could receive him, as I feel special interest in him, feel assured he will do well & his parents are very anxious for him to have a military education. Please let me hear from you as early as you conveniently can on the subject.

My love to Mrs. Smith & your daughters. With kind regards for yourself, I am, my dear Gen'l,

Yours very truly, Mary Anna Jackson.

The following letter was written by Rebecca McDowell, Cadet McDowell's mother.  It is addressed to Francis H. Smith, the Superintendent of VMI. The cousin she refers to is Mary Anna Jackson, the widow of General Stonewall Jackson.  Jackson had died a few weeks earlier.

June 1st, 1863
Col. Smith

I write for information concerning the time when the exercises at Lexington commence; as you promised Mrs. Jackson last winter that you would take him in July but did not state what time in July. Please let me know the time, the regulations, and terms.

I might obtain the necessary information from my cousin but her grief is too recent, too great, & sacred to obtrude upon with my concerns. Virginia had reason to be proud of & thankful for such a chieftain as Jackson. A great & good man, a pure & unselfish patriot, and it is a pleasure to us to think that we can do something by kind offices & soothing attentions, to cheer his widow on her lonely way. We all mourn him, through the length & breadth of this Confederacy.

You will find our child careless & thoughtless, but high principled, & too firm to be led astray. I hope his conduct & deportment may be unexceptionable as it has been hitherto. And let me beg of you to take an interest in him. I can scarce hope to have him with me much more after he goes to you--as when he leaves you twill be to enter the army. He has been a good obedient child to me and I would feel relieved to know that far from home and among strangers he has found one friend and protector.

Please direct you letter to Mrs. R.R. McDowell, Mt. Mourne, P.O. Iredell Cty, N.C.

Very respectfully, R.R. McDowell

This letter from Cadet McDowell's mother, Rebecca, asks VMI Superintendent Francis H. Smith to allow Cadet McDowell to have a photograph taken. This photograph is the only known image of Cadet McDowell.

Oct 3d 1863
Genrl Smith

I enclose you $10 for the use of my son William H. McDowell, with which I beg that you will have a good Daguerreotype, or photograph of him taken. He is my eldest child, and is far from me. And should any misfortune befall him, I would wish some likeness of him preserved. I have no idea of the cost of such a thing at the present time, and should this be insufficient for the purpose I will remit more. Should it be more than enough, tis subject to your discretion. Willie can retain the daguerreotype until there is an opportunity of sending it to us. By attending to this request, you will confer a favor on
R.R. McDowell

Virginia Mil. Institute
May 25th, 1864
Mr. R.I. McDowell
Mount Mourne, Iredell Co. N.C.

You have doubtless received before this the mournful intelligence that your [noble] son has been added to the long list of the gallant dead who have fallen in defending their country against the invasion of a ruthless foe. The newspapers have furnished you with accounts of the victory gained by Gen. Breckinridge over Sigel near New Market, and every notice of the fight bears unequivocal testimony to the value of the aid rendered by the Corps of Cadets and the [illegible] valor that they displayed in the action. You have also received, I suppose, an official letter from the Adjutant informing you of the sad event.

I can add nothing more except the statement that the fatal ball passed entirely through his body, entering a little to the [illegible] of the breastbone and coming out on the left of the spine, passing probably through the heart, so that it may be concluded that his death was instantaneous.

This I received from Col. Gilham who examined the body before its interment. I have not been able to see anyone who was near him when he fell, as the cadets have not returned to the Institute, [having been] ordered to Richmond.

The Quartermaster will endeavor to preserve any mementos or any property of the cadets who have fallen, but cannot at present while the Corps is absent identify what belongs to each. The letter which you gave me for him [3 words illegible] and which weighed as a heavy burden on my heart after I heard before I reached home, that the words of affection it contained could never reach the eyes closed in death forever--together with a second one received from the office for him, I have directed to be kept subject to your order not choosing to subject them to the risk of the mail in the present uncertainty of transmission.

I offer no words of condolence. I know how to sympathize with you for my noblest son fell slain in battle not two months after he left the Institute--and I know by experience that the only comfort for so great a sorrow must come from a source higher than any on earth.
Yrs truly
J.T.L. Preston

Mount Mourne, May 30 1864 N.C.
J.N. Morrison, Esq.


Your letter informing me of the death of my son Wm McDowell has been received. It came upon me like a clap of thunder in a clear sky, as I was not aware the cadets had been called out. I wrote a letter to Col. Preston in regard to his clothes, books, and gold watch, desiring him to have them sent to me at Charlotte by Express. I would feel greatly obliged to you for any assistance rendered in this matter. I desire to retain them as memorial of my beloved son, [thus] cut off in the opening of life.

R.I. McDowell

Used on William McDowell resources page

This letter is courtesy Dr. and Mrs. Murphy Cronland, owners of the original document, and reproduced with their permission 

July 25th, 1864
My Dear Aunt,

July 25th, 1864
My Dear Aunt,

I have been intending to write to you but have felt so badly that I put it off from day to day, hoping that my heavy sorrow would grow lighter. But it does seem to me that it only deepens as I reflect on it and realize my loss as days pass away.

At first, I could think of every blessing that had been vouchsafed me in connection with it. But now, altho' I do not murmur or complain and can from the heart say "Thy will be done," yet I recall the mercies remaining, but can't feel the same gratitude. 

I felt so thankful that the poor, dear child was not wounded & taken prisoner by our cruel foes--that he did not linger in agony and that as he had to die, that he died in the discharge of his duty to his God & his country, and not a craven coward, [illegible] away his life. I realized that there are some things, harder to bear than death, the disgrace of those we love. I felt so thankful that I had full assurance of happiness & that he passed from earth to Heaven with but one sigh.

But now I only feel my loss. I can't think of him in Heaven with that bright angelic host mingling his praises with the Redeemed. I only feel that his loss to me is [irreparable]. That I shall no more see his form -- so erect --no more gaze at his beautiful eyes--lit up with mirth or enthusiasm -- no more see those dimples in his cheeks as he would break out into his merry peal of laughter or look at the long dark lashes when he was in thought. This was the month in which he was to have been at home, and when I had expected to send him into the army with my prayers & blessings. I had made up my mind to give him to his God & country, but O not so soon! Could I weep, it would bring relief, but I cannot.

Before these Union people, some of whom I have heard of exulting him his death, I talk of my noble hero boy. I am calm - cheerful. I tell how thankful I am that he fell at the post of honor & duty & c. But my heart - O how it aches! afterwards - but if I died, they should not know if was with grief. My child died in defence of the South. To that cause my life is devoted and my God in his mercy take all that are dear to me & myself before we ever bend to yankee rule.

We had a kind & sympathizing letter from a gentleman in Lex[ington] whose son was a room mate of Willie's on last Saturday. He says that his son Edward Tutwiler & Willie were "fast friends" & that his son was much attached to him - that a short time before the Yankees took possession of Lexington he visited the room the boys occupied for the purpose of getting away the clothes & other things left by his son & on examination he found several articles belonging to our son, among them his daguerreotype. He says that he looked for his trunk but it could not be found & Col Preston writes that it is believed to have been burnt in the Inst or carried off by free negroes before.

His watch (his father's gold one, bought while he was in college) cannot be heard of, neither his Bible. Col Preston's son, who was Capt of the Company, said that he assisted in burying him, that there was no mutilation, no bruise on the body except where the fatal ball entered but neither his watch nor Bible were on his person. Mr. Tutwiler says that his his son in writing to him from New Market said "my roommate McDowell was killed, in the front rank. I know he has gone to heaven for he was a sincere Christian" & the Father adds in his letter --"This should cheer you, in your sad affliction, for you loss has been His gain."

Revd Dr. White of Lexington, whom I've met with at the Gen'l [illegible], has sent us part of his hair, retaining the other half for fear it might be lost, and writes that he hears Willie spoken of by every body who knew him in the most flattering terms--by Profs. & c. Dr. White & Col. Preston have both lost most promising sons in battle, & seem to sympathize much with us. We have been treated with much kindness by all our friends & had very many kind letters.

Willie had not been social until grace sanctified his heart. But on his last visit home his health was better & he was so bright & merry and his associates always spoke of him as being so intelligent, & well read, so truthful & reliable, despising everything low & mean. He had the qualities that would have ensured success--integrity, perseverance & energy with great [several words illegible]....

...We had such a kind letter from dear James about Willie. May God spare him to you, dear Aunt & bless you all. With much love to Lizzie & Carrie, yr attached niece,

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