Born in Carroll County, Virginia, to merchant Bryan Ward Nowlin (1796-1860) and his wife the former Martha Clopton, Abner Nowlin received a private education. By 1850, his father farmed in Henry County, Virginia with the help of Abner and his other sons: Thomas Nowlin (b. 1832), Dr. John B.W Nowlin (1836-1911) and David Nowlin (1839- 1896). His family may have owned enslaved persons by
1850. Abner Nowlin studied privately, then graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1855, and read law. His
paternal ancestors, three O'Nolan brothers (James, John and William Nowlan), emigrated from Ireland in the 18th century and helped settle southwest Virginia, changing the spelling of the family name to "Nowlin." He married Eugenia Adelaid Terry of Pittsylvania County on September 10, 1855, in Halifax County, but she died on December 6, 1859. The widower remarried, to Louisa N. Nowlin and raised her son Ernest as well as had daughters Lelia (b. 1865) and Ruby (1866-1953). Ruby was blind, and spent most of her adult life at a home for the blind in Washington, D.C. Career Admitted to the bar, Nowlin began his private legal practice in southwest Virginia. He became assistant editor of the new The Times newspaper in Wytheville in 1856, and the following year was a featured speaker a Fourth of July festivities in the Odd Fellows lodge, but left town by 1858. His father died of pneumonia in March 1860, as Virginia contemplated secession. As the Civil War began, Nowlin enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army in Lynchburg on May 24, 1861, and earned a promotion to full captain on May 10, 1862 before resigning and mustering out on March 23, 1863. He served as a collector for the 59th district of Virginia for the remainder of the war. His brother John B.W. Nowlin also served in the Confederate Army in outhwest Virginia and into Tennessee, where he later established a residence and practice in Nashville. After receiving a pardon, Nowlin resumed practicing law and also farmed 380 acres in western Campbell County. The first postwar Virginia General Assembly elected Nowlin a judge. In 1871 voters elected Abner Nowlin to the Virginia Senate, where he served until 1875, when he was succeeded by fellow Confederate veteran John Dickenson (Virginia). By 1879, Nowlin and his family lived in Washington D.C., where he worked at 4 I Street N.W. and at some time edited the Richmond Whig. Over the following years, Nowlhe listed himself in various city directories as
an assistant postmaster (1880), journalist, real estate lawyer and an editor. He was listed as a copyholder public printer for Virginia in Washington D.C. in 1891. In the 1900 census, after wife's death and his daughter Lila's marriage, he was listed both as a lawyer and as the assistant superintendent of the Central Union Mission (founded in 1884 and D.C.'s oldest social service agency). At the Central Union Mission, he was commonly referred to with the honorific "judge".
Death and legacy
Judge Nowlin died on March 7, 1906, of injuries received several days earlier in a tussle as he evicted Leo Fitzgerald from the boardinghouse. He is interred at the Glenwood Cemetery in Washington, D.C. A petition he signed urging amnesty be granted to Confederate veterans is held in the special collections division at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.