Thomas Ewing, Jr. was born in Lancaster, Ohio on August 7, 1829. He was the fifth child and fourth son of Thomas Ewing, Sr. and Maria (Boyle) Ewing. Ewing’s father, Thomas Ewing, Sr., was a prominent lawyer, and a United States senator who also served as United States Secretary of the Treasury and United States Secretary of the Interior. Two of Ewing’s brothers, Hugh Boyle Ewing and Charles Ewing, and his foster brother, William Tecumseh Sherman, eventually became general officers in the Union army during the American Civil War.
As a youth, Ewing pursued preparatory studies at the Lancaster Academy, in Lancaster, Ohio. In 1838, at age nineteen, he served as secretary of a commission to determine if the boundary line between Ohio and Virginia was the high-water or low-water mark of the Ohio River.
During his father’s tenure as President Zachary Taylor‘s Secretary of the Interior, Ewing served as one of Taylor’s private secretaries from 1849 until the president’s death in 1850. In 1850, Ewing enrolled at Brown University, but he left this institution in 1855 before earning a degree. He next studied at the Cincinnati Law School, again failing to graduate, but he joined the Ohio bar in 1855.
On January 18, 1856, Ewing married Ellen Cox of Piqua, Ohio. The couple produced five children during their marriage.
In 1856, Ewing moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, where he joined the law firm of Ewing, Denman & Co. When Ewing’s brother, Hugh, and his foster brother, William T. Sherman, who was by then also his brother-in-law, followed him to Kansas, the trio formed the law firm of Sherman & Ewing. In 1859, Daniel McCook joined the partners changed the firm’s name to Sherman, Ewing & McCook. While living in Kansas, Ewing invested heavily in real estate and was a major shareholder and promoter of the Leavenworth, Pawnee and Western Railroad Company.
While in Kansas, Ewing became embroiled in the Kansas statehood controversy. In 1858, he was a member of the Leavenworth Constitutional Convention, which favored the admission of Kansas to the Union as a free state. As an opponent of the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution, Ewing took part in a legislative investigation to uncover fraudulent voting practices in Kansas. After the federal government admitted Kansas to the Union on January 29, 1861, voters elected Ewing as the first chief justice of the state supreme court. Governor Charles Robinson also selected Ewing as a Kansas delegate to the Washington Peace Conference, an unsuccessful attempt in early 1861 to avert the American Civil War.
After the Civil War began, Ewing resigned from the court in 1862 to enter the military. In June, he helped to organize the “Red Legs,” a unit of scouts that protected the Kansas border from marauders headquartered in Missouri. Later that year, Ewing recruited the 11th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, and he became the unit’s first colonel on September 15, 1862. During the 1862 campaign season, Ewing’s regiment fought in the battles of Old Fort Wayne (October 22, 1862), Cane Hill (November 28, 1862), and Prairie Grove (December 7, 1862).
District of the Border Commander
On March 13, 1863, Ewing attained the rank of brigadier general of volunteers. He assumed command of the District of the Border, which comprised Kansas and western Missouri. On August 18, 1863, Ewing issued General Orders, Number 10, which made it a crime to “willfully aid and encourage guerrillas” operating against Union troops. The order also stated that,
The wives and the children of known guerrillas, and also women who are heads of families and are willfully engaged in aiding guerrillas, will be notified by such officers to move out of this district and out of the State of Missouri forthwith. They will be permitted to take unmolested, their stock, provisions and household goods. If they fail to remove promptly they will be sent by such officers under escort to Kansas City for shipment South, with their cloths and such necessary household furniture as may be worth removing.
When federal soldiers started rounding up women and children in Missouri and sending them to a makeshift prison in Kansas City, a band of guerrillas, led by William C. Quantrill, retaliated by sacking Lawrence, Kansas on August 21, 1863, killing approximately 180 civilians. On August 25, Quantrill’s raid prompted Ewing to issue General Order Number 11, which mandated the eviction of suspected Southern sympathizers from four Missouri counties along the Kansas border. Federal troops forced thousands of Missouri residents from their homes, leaving their property unprotected from Kansas Jayhawkers seeking revenge for the Lawrence Massacre. The aftermath created a wasteland along the Kansas-Missouri border. Ewing was perhaps the episode’s last casualty when the political fallout from his dictate forced his transfer to the St. Louis District in March 1864.
Battle of Fort Davidson
During the 1864 campaign season, Ewing played a major role in checking Confederate Major General Sterling Price‘s raid through Missouri and Kansas. On the morning of September 27, 1864, Price’s 12,000 mounted infantrymen advanced against Ewing’s small force of just 1,500 Union soldiers at Fort Davidson, near Pilot Knob, Missouri. Despite a massive Confederate assault from several directions, the Federals held their ground. During the night, Ewing received orders to abandon the fort, and his men retreated into the darkness. The Battle of Fort Davidson was costly for the Rebels. Price suffered nearly 1,000 casualties (nearly one-tenth of his force) compared with just 200 casualties for the Yankees.
On February 23, 1865, Ewing resigned his military commission. After the war ended, President Andrew Johnson nominated Ewing for a brevet promotion to the rank of major general. On May 4, 1866, the United States Senate approved the appointment, dated from March 13, 1865.
Lincoln Assassination Trials
After leaving the army, Ewing practiced law in Washington, DC., for five years. In 1865, he served as legal counsel for Dr. Samuel Mudd, Samuel Arnold, and Edmund Spangler during the conspiracy trial following President Abraham Lincoln‘s assassination. Although all three men were convicted, they were the only defendants in Lincoln’s murder trial to escape the death penalty. Also, while living in Washington, Ewing used his political influence to help gain an acquittal for President Andrew Johnson during the president’s impeachment trial before the United States Senate.
In 1870, Ewing returned to Lancaster, Ohio, to practice law. While living there, he became active in Ohio politics as a member of the Greenback wing of the Democrat Party. Ewing served as a delegate to Ohio’s state constitutional convention in 1873. In 1876, voters from Ohio’s Twelfth Congressional District elected Ewing to the United States House of Representatives. Two years later, voters from Ohio’s Tenth District elected him to a second term. Ewing served in the Forty-fifth and Forty-sixth Congresses from March 4, 1877 to March 3, 1881.
Return to Civilian Life
In 1879, Republican Charles Foster narrowly defeated Ewing in his bid to become Governor of Ohio. Upon returning to private life, Ewing served as a trustee of Ohio University from 1878 to 1883 and as vice president of the Cincinnati Law School in 1881.
In 1881, Ewing moved to New York City, where he entered a law partnership with Milton I. Southard. When his son, Thomas Ewing III, subsequently joined the firm, the business became known as Ewing, Whitman & Ewing. On January 20, 1896, the elder Ewing suffered a critical head injury when a cable car struck him as he was crossing Third Avenue in New York. He died the next morning at his home at 223 East Seventeenth Street. Funeral services were held at the First Presbyterian Church at Yonkers. Ewing was buried at the Oakland Cemetery, Yonkers, New York.