Samuel McGowan was born on October 19, 1819 in the Laurens District of South Carolina. He graduated from South Carolina College in 1841 and went on to study law in Abbeville under T.C. Perrin. He was admitted to the bar in 1842, began a law practice and became active in state politics.
With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War McGowan joined the Palmetto Rifles as a private. He was promoted to captain on the General Quartermaster’s Staff of General Quitman, and served as a volunteer aide to Quitman at the storming of Chapultepec and the capture of Garita de Belem. He also served on the staffs of Generals Worth and Twiggs. He was wounded three times in Mexico and commended for gallantry.
After the war McGowan returned to his law practice in Abbeville, and married Susan Caroline Wardlaw. The couple had five children. Sarah, Lewis and Alexander would die very young and Samuel Jr. would die during the Civil War in his eighth year. Only a daughter, Susan, would survive to adulthood.
McGowan also returned to the South Carolina House of Representatives, serving a total of thirteen years. He was active in the militia, and was elected a Major General.
With the secession of South Carolina in 1861 McGowan was commissioned a Brigadier General in the South Carolina state army. He was given command of one of the four brigades under General Beauregard in the attack and capture of Fort Sumter.
With the transfer of South Carolina troops to Confederate service McGowan joined Beauregard’s army in Virginia. He served as a volunteer aide on the staff of General Milledge Bonham at the battles of Blackburn Ford and First Manassas (Bull Run).
In the spring of 1862 McGowan returned to South Carolina and was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the 14th South Carolina Infantry. While the regiment was serving on the coast he was promoted to colonel.
In May the regiment was sent to Virginia and assigned to Maxcy Gregg’s South Carolina Brigade in A.P. Hill’s newly formed Light Division. McGowan commanded the regiment in the fighting on the Peninsula, where he was badly bruised by canister on his right side at Cold Harbor on June 27. He returned to command in time for the Battles of Frayser’s Farm and Malvern Hill, and continued in the field until he was wounded more seriously in the thigh at the Second Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) on August 30.
McGowan was disabled during the Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam) but rejoined the regiment shortly afterward, and was in command again by the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862. Brigadier General Gregg was killed in the battle, and McGowan took over the brigade as senior colonel. In January he was promoted to Brigadier General (effective January 17) and given permanent command of the brigade.
McGowan suffered his third and worst wound of the Civil War at Chancellorsville in May of 1863, when he was hit in the leg below the knee by a minié ball. The leg was saved, but McGowan would be out of the war until February of 1864, and even then he would still need a cane to walk.
He was only back with his regiment for a few weeks before McGowan received his final wound. In the intense fighting in the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania he was hit and suffered a minor wound to the forearm. It would still keep him away from his brigade until August 15. He would then stay in command of his brigade through the fighting around Petersburg and the retreat and surrender at Appomattox.
After the surrender McGowan returned to Abbeville, his wife and daugter, and his law practice. He was elected to the United States Congress in 1865 as a member of the Conservative Party of South Carolina, but was not permitted to take his seat by the Republican majority.
McGowan was an elector at-large on the Democratic Presidential ticket in 1876. In 1878 he was again elected to the South Carolina Legislature, where he led the fight against “carpetbagger” rule in the state.
On September 19, 1878, Samuel’s wife, Susan McGowan, died at the age of 51. Their daughter Susan would go on to marry William Christie Benet and have five sons. Susan would survive her father by less than a year.
In 1879 McGowan was elected an associate justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court. After over a decade of service McGowan made an enemy of the Democratic boss of South Carolina, “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, by casting the deciding vote declaring a liquor law unconstitutional, and was defeated in the 1893 election.
Samuel McGowan died in Abbeville on Aug. 9, 1897 at the age of 77 – a notable achievement for a man who had been wounded seven times in two wars. He is buried there in Long Cane Cemetery.