Street Fighting Men: Southern Honor at the Tennessee State Fair

The “Bloody Tragedy” at the 1858 Tennessee State Fair made headlines across the United States.

In 1858, the Nashville Patriot predicted that the upcoming Tennessee State Fair would be “the most extensive and interesting that has ever been held in Tennessee.” While it was a memorable occasion, it was compelling for all the wrong reasons. Instead of showcasing the Volunteer State’s agrarian successes, the fair emphasized what happened when Southern honor collided with an uprooted family tree. A bloody fight — involving walking sticks, pistols, and a feuding Nashville family — left several men maimed and dead and was condemned for being “one of the most horrid affrays which has ever occurred in our city.”

At first glance, the Tennessee State Fair seemed an unlikely place for familial violence, especially between members of a respected family. Founded five years earlier, the 1858 fair opened in Nashville that October with remarks from Tennessee Governor Isham Harris. The governor lauded “the great cause of agricultural and mechanical industry” and hoped that the fair would become “a week’s holiday for the people.” Furthermore, with classical flair, Harris declared that any award presented “should be as eagerly sought, and as highly prized, as was the palm of the Olympic Games, or the laurel of the Roman conqueror.”

Nashville Railroad Depot. Library of Congress.

Organizers worked to make travel easier for thousands of attendees. The Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, for example, ran a train between the depot and the fairgrounds every forty minutes, charging ten cents a ride. Bad weather caused low attendance on the first day, when prizes were given for the best cattle and horses. One correspondent noted that “the exhibition of these horses in the ring caused a good deal of excitement among the spectators, many of whom cheered their favorite horse.” Another newspaper admired a competition apple that weighed twenty-seven ounces.

By October 13, the weather had cleared. An estimated 12,000 people thronged to the fairgrounds, prompting one witness to write that “the ladies were out in full force.” Work horses and mules were presented that day, and, the Nashville Patriot reported, “Of the animals shown, there were many which could hardly [be] surpassed anywhere, whilst all, or nearly all, were of superior kind and quality, high formed and strongly built.”

Among the attendees were members of the Owen and Cowan families. They were half-brothers, but a long-running feud — the original cause now forgotten — had divided the family.

Near the grandstands, Samuel Cowan spotted James Owen, who was strolling with his wife. Cowan approached Owen and the two men exchanged words. Although Owen’s spouse was “leaning upon his arm,” Cowan spat in Owen’s face. Enraged, Owen told Cowan that they would soon settle their difficulty. Owen seated his wife in the grandstands, found “his brothers and friends,” and went off to punish Cowan.

Find him he did. According to one correspondent, “At about 11 o’clock the large crowd in attendance were suddenly startled by the report of a pistol, the clashing of sticks and a noise and confusion generally.” A fight had erupted at the Tennessee State Fair.

Agricultural Implements. Library of Congress.

Like most nineteenth century Southern states, Tennessee was tightly bound to agriculture. One state newspaper wrote, for example, “While commerce may add to our thrift, it is by agriculture we live.” Because of this reliance on farming, state fairs held great importance to Southern culture. In addition to providing entertainment and a boost to the local economy, fairs provided a venue for farmers to socialize, see the latest agricultural technology, and to improve their farming methods.

A few months before the Nashville brawl, the Memphis Daily Appeal contended that a desire for self-improvement among the planter class would spur attendance. “There is not a farmer in the State who would not learn something by an intercourse of several days with many others of his own calling, be he ever so experienced and practical,” the newspaper explained. Promoters of the Georgia State Fair agreed, writing that “the great leading object of our State Fair is to stimulate, by comparison and rewards, improvement in every branch of industry, and more particularly in every branch of Agriculture.” This included farming and “the raising of fine stock.” Thanks to the fairs, the booster crowed, “Planters are thus rapidly becoming scientific cultivators of the soil.”

Agricultural Implements. Library of Congress.

The application of scientific methods relied upon the latest technology. Manufacturers rushed to fairs to showcase their newest equipment. Immediately before a fair, advertisements filled local newspapers boasting about new plows, mowers, reapers, and other mechanical gadgets. In one 1854 paper, for example, a company lauded the merits of “Willimantic Cotton Duck” fabric, which “was awarded the highest Premium at the London World’s Fair, also at our own [New York] State Fair.”

While self-improvement and technological advancements drew planters to the fairgrounds, scheduled entertainment provided excitement. The full schedule of agricultural and mechanical displays, animal sales, timed races, competitions, and showings wowed audiences, many of whom who rarely traveled beyond their own counties. The 1858 Tennessee State Fair even amazed attendees with a cowboy who “exhibited some feats of horsemanship.” The rider left the crowd breathless when he seized “a young horse belonging to Mr. Ben. Cockrill that had never been bridled, put a saddle and halter upon him, and rode him around the ring, notwithstanding the powerful efforts of the colt to throw him. The colt fell once with him, but could not throw him. It caused more excitement than any other show during the day.”

Prize Fat Cattle. Library of Congress.

A state’s bragging rights were also on the line, and newspapers reported on prize-winning produce and animals. On December 31, 1852, the Athens Post in Tennessee reported that “The fat ox that took the prize at the late Kentucky State Fair weighed three thousand two hundred and fifty pounds.” Also that month, the Fayetteville, Tennessee, Observer noted that “A cheese of monstrous size was lately received in St. Louis, from Cincinnati. It measures four feet eight or ten inches across, twenty-four inches in thickness, and weighed eleven hundred and thirty-five pounds. This monster cheese was exhibited recently at the Indiana State Fair.” The same paper was amazed that $2,500 had been allocated for “prizes, in the form of silver pitchers, goblets and cups,” for the Georgia State Fair. Others marveled at “extraordinary” fruit exhibited at the 1858 California State Fair, which included “a pear weighing four lbs., a bunch of grapes weighing fourteen lbs., an apple weighing two lbs., three ounces, a peach measuring twelve and one-half, and a strawberry six and one-half inches in circumference.”

Sadly, as large crowds mixed with animals and machinery, accidents occurred. Around the time of the Tennessee fight, two people were killed and several injured at the Ohio State Fair, when two “roadsters” collided. This nineteenth century fender-bender spooked one of the horses, which pulled a damaged vehicle out of the ring and “under the ladies’ platform,” where it ran over a crowd, killing an older man and a child. A few weeks later at the Illinois State Fair, a hot air balloon carrying two children broke from its tether and floated nearly twenty miles. Fortunately, a “grappling iron” hanging from the basket snagged a tree and averted an airborne disaster. The children, ages four and seven, were safe. With a shrug of his shoulder, the youngest passenger simply remarked that he was not scared, simply hungry.

At the Tennessee State Fair that year, there were no accidents. There were no crashing wagons, no runaway horses trampling crowds, and no untethered balloons floating skyward. Instead, fairgoers enjoyed the sights and sounds uninterrupted. Until, at least, a family feud shattered the peace.

Currier and Ives’ “American Farm Yard.” Library of Congress.

It was a family feud clouded by Southern honor.

Among the Cowan and Owen families, and across the Southern male planter class in general, the concept of honor framed their interactions with others and marked their position in society. Honor encompassed one’s evaluation of self. It also harbored the community’s opinion of the individual based on how that person followed societal guidelines.

In his book Kentucky Justice, Southern Honor, and American Manhood, historian Dr. James C. Klotter writes that “honor represents a set of external, ethical rules supported by a collective community consciousness, a group of principles of socially expected conduct that establish what actions should be taken under what conditions.” When it came to a real or perceived insult or the questioning of one’s masculinity, the response could be formal or informal — a formalized duel or an impromptu street fight. When Samuel Cowan publicly shamed James Owen in front of his wife and his community by spitting in Owen’s face, honor called for an immediate response. The disgrace had to be confronted, or else, as historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown notes in his book Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South, the charge of being a coward would “haunt the bearer forever.” A failure to meet a challenge or defend one’s honor “was inseparable from community evaluation of the individual” and led to “the stigma of shame.”

Klotter writes that “honorable individuals most feared not death but public humiliation, as a betrayal of manhood and honor. Honor required courage; cowardice meant shame; insults could not be tolerated. Action must follow, for only blood could cleanse the stains of honor.” With Cowan having spat on Owen in public, Owen immediately defended his honor. He gathered friends and family and rushed off to find Cowan.

Joel Allen Battle.

The warring families met behind the grandstand “on the promenade back of the upper tier of seats.” The subsequent clash, a reporter wrote, “created the greatest excitement imaginable.” At least eight to ten family members appeared, armed with canes and pistols. Samuel Cowan struck Sandy Owen “with a heavy walking stick.” Reeling from the blow, Sandy grabbed Cowan and fell on him. Cowan pulled a pistol and shot Sandy several times, killing him instantly. John and James Owen, Sandy’s brothers, jumped into the fight and more chaos erupted. “Pistols were fired,” one correspondent wrote, “sticks were used freely, and it appeared . . . that men were being knocked down on all sides.” Samuel continued shooting, wounding John Owen.

As the brawlers surged one way and then another, one of the older members of the Cowan clan, General Joel Allen Battle, stepped in to break up the fight. An uncle to the Cowan boys, Battle had gained great wealth after inheriting a plantation and many enslaved African Americans. He quickly became prominent in Nashville, and the aptly-named Battle became a brigadier general in the Tennessee state militia. Prospering as a farmer, by 1850, he owned $10,000 in real estate and forty-five slaves. A year later, he was elected to the Tennessee legislature.

Battle, evidently, was not above dramatic flair. Shortly after he married his wife, Adeline, he reputedly told his bride that he would “wear the breeches” in the family. Four months later, Joel and Adeline had an argument in a field. In the midst of the discussion, Battle “got off his horse, pulled off his coat and vest, collar and cravat and next unbuttoned his breeches.” When Adeline asked what he was doing, Battle said, “I understand when we were married that I was to wear the breeches, but if you are going to wear them I will pull them off and give them to you.”

The forty-seven-year-old Battle was quickly pulled into the brawl. One newspaper reported that “Gen. Battle, we understand, endeavored at first to create peace, but being used pretty roughly, he commenced upon his antagonists in dead earnest.” Struck as he tried to separate the mass of stick-swinging antagonists, Battle used his own cudgel with authority, knocking down James Owen with a strike to the head. Before Battle could cause too much damage, however, he succumbed to a blow from a cane wielded by another combatant, W. A. Davis.

After several men were beaten down with sticks, other fighters pulled pistols. James Owen was riddled with bullets. Wounded in the hand and leg, another bullet struck his lower back and traveled into his lungs. There was little hope for his survival.

Newspapers called the fight “a serious affray.”

At least one man was immediately killed, two others were mortally wounded, and several more lay injured, including a bystander who caught a stray bullet. Sandy Owen was dead, shot through the heart by Samuel Cowan, who was also mortally wounded, having been beaten severely with sticks until “His skull is badly fractured, and his head terribly mutilated.” John Owen suffered severe wounds and was expected to die, while Thomas Battle, one of the general’s sons, was shot in the wrist. James Owen was hurt by General Battle’s stick blow, W. A. Davis lay injured, and General Battle, one reporter wrote, “was horribly mangled about the head from blows inflicted with a heavy stick, and it is reported that his skull is fractured, from which he was suffering the most excruciating pain last evening. Fears were entertained that his wounds would prove fatal.” Battle, however, survived.

The public was horrified by the fight and newspapers immediately decried the violence. The Nashville Patriot, for example, wrote that “A tragical and sad occurrence for a time disturbed the exercises and marred the festive character of the occasion.” Although the fair was supposed to showcase the state’s progress, the news coverage — which spread across the South and was even noted in the New York Tribune — cast the state in a negative light.

Apoplectic fair organizers feared that the episode would hurt attendance. Therefore, shortly after the brawl it was reported that “A strong police force will be in attendance hereafter, and every precaution taken to prevent any collisions during the progress of the Fair.” Fortunately for local boosters, the violence did not stop the proceedings. The next day, events continued with the showing of “roadsters and harness stock,” horsemanship, “cashmere goats,” hogs, sheep, and poultry. Despite the negative press coverage (or, perhaps, because of it), attendance continued to be strong. On the fifth day it was estimated that 12,000 to 20,000 visitors attended.

While the shooting death of Sandy Owen led to a coroner’s inquest, authorities never brought charges against the brawlers. Despite the highly visible public setting of the fight, and although newspapers condemned the violence, the brawl was understood to be an affair of honor. Authorities, like the fairgoers, simply moved on. Having a former legislator and state militia general as one of the primary antagonists may have also helped prevent a prosecution.

Two of Joel Allen Battle’s three sons were killed during the April 1862 Battle of Shiloh. Library of Congress.

While most of the participants faded into obscurity, the best-known of them — General Battle — remained in the spotlight. When the Civil War erupted a few years later, Battle fought for the Confederacy as colonel of the 20th Tennessee Infantry Regiment. He led Southern troops in Kentucky and Tennessee and Confederate authorities praised his performance. Major General John C. Breckinridge, for example, who later became the Confederate Secretary of War, called Battle “one of the bravest men and best officers I have seen in the army.” Tragedy struck in April 1862, however, when two of Battle’s three sons were killed at the Battle of Shiloh. Battle was captured as he searched for one son’s corpse, and injuries he sustained on the field disabled him for further military service.

In his landmark work Southern Honor, Bertram Wyatt-Brown notes that “dueling was a means to demonstrate status and manliness among those calling themselves gentlemen, whether born of noble blood or not.” Although the 1858 fight at the Tennessee State Fair was not a formalized duel, it was a fray brought about because of Southern honor. Spat upon, and thereby called out in public, James Owen’s honor — meaning his reputation, his manliness, his sense of self as a gentleman — was called into question. Not reacting at such a public sphere — a crowded state fair — would label Owen as a coward. Therefore, as Wyatt-Brown argues, “The stigma had to be dealt with or the labels would haunt the bearer forever.” James and the other participants wiped away the stigma, but erased several lives in the process.

Stuart W. Sanders’ newest book is “Murder on the Ohio Belle,” which examines murder, vigilante justice, Southern honor, and the Civil War through the lens of an 1856 murder on a steamboat. Follow him on Twitter @stuartwsanders.

Writes about history. Author of four books, including the new “Murder on the Ohio Belle,” published by the University Press of Kentucky.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store