Who Was Kady Brownell, Really?
Essay by Jackson Piantedosi, Rhode Island Historical Society Intern and student at Providence College
This essay summarizes a longer journal article by Dr. C. Morgan Grefe, “Sourcing a Rhode Island Legend”
Kady Brownell is a Rhode Island Civil War legend, mostly due to nostalgic newspaper and other published narratives of her life and exploits. According to the popular legend, when the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Kady Brownell was clearly determined to do more than sit on the sidelines. Having married her husband, Robert Brownell, only days before the first shots at Fort Sumter, she chose to follow her husband into war. She proudly became a vivandière, or a woman who would follow her husband or family member into Civil War volunteer service, supplying food and water and nursing the sick and wounded. These roles were vital to a regiment’s morale, and the women who took up this role were fondly referred to as, ‘Daughters of the Regiment.’ None became more famous and beloved than Kady Brownell. But why did she become famous and beloved? Newspaper accounts, poems, and essays written about her in the postwar years paint an exciting picture of her life. But, are they embellishments of the truth as some contradictory historical documents might suggest? Did she encourage the telling of an exaggerated story after the War? As legend has it, she went above and beyond her role as a vivandière, steadfastly dedicating herself not just to the health of her husband but to the health of the entire regiment and served as an inspirational color-bearer that the men could rally around, even under enemy fire. Or, was the reality that she was one among other vivandières? Although this remains a mystery, one thing remains certain – women who served in this way did put themselves in grave danger and demonstrated great bravery, with or without an aggrandized version of their story.1Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History vol. 70 no. 1: 31-43 (Winter/Spring 2012)
Kady Brownell (again, according to the legend) appeared destined for the role of serving a war from the beginning of her life. The daughter of Colonel George Southwell of the British Army, she was born on the battlefield, on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, where British troops had long been positioned to protect British settlers from the indigenous population and where her mother had come to watch her father fight. As a result, Kady was, “accustomed to arms and soldiers from infancy, she learned to love the camp.”2Moore, Frank. Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014 (original publication date 1867) Following the death of her mother, she was taken in by family friends, who brought the young Kady with them to Rhode Island. From there, she worked various jobs, one as a weaver in a Central Falls factory, where she met her husband, Robert. As the story written by Moore goes, they married, and only days later, the American Civil War broke out with the first shots fired at Fort Sumter in April of 1861. Robert volunteered immediately, prepared to leave his new wife behind as he joined the Union ranks. Kady, however, refused to be left behind. He insisted that the battlefield was no place for women, and departed without her. Kady wrote to Governor Sprague of Rhode Island and begged to be allowed to join her husband. When she met with Sprague, he was impressed by her zeal and spirit and granted her wish to follow her husband as they marched south.
Kady became known in the regiment as an enthusiastic color-bearer, or one who would march carrying the American flag as well as flags carrying the insignia of the regiment. During the first Battle of Bull Run, Moore depicts Kady as an ‘”Unmoved and dauntless’ color bearer around whom the men could rally despite the smoke and chaos of battle.”3Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History 70 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 33 She remained in the heat of battle until a Pennsylvania soldier grabbed her and forced her to run for cover in the woods, soon after which he was promptly decimated by a cannon ball to the head. Following the battle, Robert’s ninety-day enlistment was up, and the couple returned to Rhode Island only to enlist for a second time. This time, following the Union advance towards New Bern, North Carolina, Kady Brownell would again distinguish herself for her bravery.
Never satisfied to simply march alongside the men of the regiment, Kady was determined to carry the regimental colors, or flags, into battle once more. She did so, and when they neared the location of the impending battle, her regiment was mistaken by Union troops for the enemy. As the Union troops prepared to fire at Kady’s regiment, she, “ran out to the front, her colors in hand, advanced to clear ground, and waved them till it was apparent that the advancing force were friends.”4Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History 70 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 35 Despite the impending risk of musket or artillery fire, Kady ran out between the two forces to ensure the protection and safety of her regiment and put herself into harm’s way in order to do so. When Robert was injured for a second time during the ensuing battle, she settled into the more traditional role of vivandière, caring for him and “when not over him, she was doing all she could for other sufferers.”5Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History 70 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 35 The Battle of New Bern, occurring in March 1862, would be the last time Kady and her husband would serve in the army again.
How much of the above story by Frank Moore was based in reality? Was this an uncritical and highly romanticized account originating from a blend of hearsay reports and embellishments created in the years following the Civil War? Who was Kady Brownell the person versus Kady Brownell the legend? Kady Brownell the legend married her husband just days before they were sent to war together. When the facts are teased out and the historical records are evaluated, it is revealed that Kady Brownell the person may not have been legally married to her husband Robert when they were on the front lines together. In fact, Robert may still have been married to his first wife, Agnes Brownell, who initiated a divorce from him in March of 1861, and Robert and Kady were supposedly married that April (according to the popular story). The Rhode Island Marriage Index lists Robert and Kady as having married on November 11, 1863, a full year after they were mustered out of service together.6Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History 70 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 38 It remains possible that the two hastily married before they were sent off to war, and the above marriage date could represent a more elaborate ceremony for friends and family. However, there is no way of knowing for certain which version of events is true.
In addition to the uncertainty surrounding her marriage to Robert, the details of her military service are also contested. In the years following the Civil War, veterans of Kady’s regiments would go on to give contradictory accounts of her service. For example, Captain J. M. Wheeler of Kady’s regiment would state immediately after the war that, during the Battle of New Bern, while she was deserving of praise for helping the sick and wounded, he ordered her to the rear of the regiment when she begged to be allowed to carry the American flag in the front. In a later statement of his taken in 1882, he says that Kady, “was conspicuous for bravery in carrying the flag at the head of the battalion. That he believes she saved the lives of many Union soldiers.”7Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History 70 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 38 By the time of this statement, her legend had already become well known. Was Wheeler’s memory colored by the legend, or did he initially downplay her role? Another soldier, James Moran, would also remember Kady Brownell differently than the popular legend would suggest, “She certainly had no official connection with our regiment that any of us were aware of… although she exhibited qualities of pluck, patriotism, and good intentions.”8Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History 70 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 41
How, then, could the difference between Kady Brownell the legend and Kady Brownell the person become so great? One reason is likely due to the work of newspaper reporters, who promoted the legend of Kady Brownell as accepted fact, helping her legend to grow. One story that appeared in the Providence Journal in 1905 reported her war exploits as fact, and only added a small disclaimer, that “The Army records… contain no specific mention of Kady Brownell and her name is not on the muster rolls of either the First or the Fourth Rhode Island volunteers as it certainly would have been if she had been an ‘enlisted soldier’ in either command.”9Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History 70 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 39 Another reason could be due to the “plasticity of memory” alluding to how memories of an event can change over time. It is possible that these soldiers with whom Kady Brownell served misremembered details of her service, or had those memories influenced by the accounts that would later be written about her. Or, perhaps these soldiers became jealous of her celebrity and attempted to discredit her. After all, Kady Brownell was never asked nor required to kill for her country, and it is possible that these soldiers resented the fact that she was remembered as a hero despite being able to avoid some of the horrors of battle. Perhaps Kady Brownell herself embellished aspects of her service in order to make for a better life after the war.10Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History 70 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 42
In the 1870s in Bridgeport, Connecticut, she was listed in the city directory as an “amateur actress.” She performed in a tableau entitled, Our Female Volunteer, which was based on her experiences with her husband during the war, likely adding her own embellishments to the story. In September of 1870, Kady became the first woman to be inducted into the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union veterans of the Civil War. Kady would continue to find the spotlight in New York City’s annual Decoration Day parade, where she would appear in uniform, complete with war souvenirs and sword. All of this helped Kady Brownell become a legend in her own lifetime, which was echoed by the poem about her, titled “The Daughter of the Regiment” by Clinton Scollard, “See! Why she saw that their friends thought them foemen / Muskets were levelled, and cannon as well! / Save them from direful destruction would no men? / Nay, but this woman would, — Kady Brownell!”11Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History 70 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 38 However her legend was formed, it is clear that the full story of Kady Brownell is yet to be written, and that historian will face great challenges.
Kady Brownell died on January 4, 1915 while living with Robert in New York. Robert had her buried in a Brownell family plot in Providence’s North Burial Ground. Although the specific facts of Kady Brownell’s service and life may forever be a mystery, her legend lives on in Rhode Island as a story of triumph, bravery, determination, and patriotism, and as a Civil War heroine.
Vivandières: a French name for women attached to military regiments who sells provisions to soldiers
Insignia: a badge or distinguishing mark of military rank, office, or membership of an organization; an official emblem
Musket: a light gun used by foot soldiers. It typically has a long barrel and is fired from the shoulder
Artillery: large caliber guns used in warfare on land
Conspicuous: visible. Standing out
Tableau: a static scene containing one or more actors or models. They are stationary and silent, usually in costume, carefully posed, with props and/or scenery, and may be theatrically lit
Fraternal organization: a brotherhood or a type of social organization whose members freely associate for a mutually beneficial purpose such as for social, professional or honorary principles. Ranging from college fraternities to professional organizations and trade unions to civic clubs, fraternal organizations provide deep networks for members as well as social activities, leadership training, and continuing education
How do you think historians studying Kady Brownell today use the limited sources and evidence to make assumptions about her life? What do you imagine that experience to be like?
Why do you think women were expected to complete domestic work (in the home) or work as caregivers only rather than fighting alongside men in battle? What assumptions are these expectations based on?
With that in mind, why do you think it was so impactful that Kady defied those expectations by going into battle as a Vivandière?
Can you think of other women who have exceeded and/or changed expectations of women throughout history or even today?
- 1Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History vol. 70 no. 1: 31-43 (Winter/Spring 2012)
- 2Moore, Frank. Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014 (original publication date 1867)
- 3Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History 70 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 33
- 4Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History 70 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 35
- 5Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History 70 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 35
- 6Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History 70 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 38
- 7Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History 70 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 38
- 8Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History 70 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 41
- 9Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History 70 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 39
- 10Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History 70 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 42
- 11Grefe, C. Morgan, “Sourcing A Rhode Island Legend,” Rhode Island History 70 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 38