While American women today serve in front-line duties in the armed forces, this wasn’t a common or accepted practice in the past. For example, during the American Revolution, most women stayed home. Some did serve as laundresses, cooks, or nurses in military encampments, but only by permission and only if they proved helpful. A few did wind up on the front lines, by choice or by chance. Over the centuries, American women have served in battle, either in female attire or dressed as men. Some also served as spies behind enemy lines. These pioneers paved the way for today’s total integration of women into combat.
The first known American woman to become a combat veteran was Deborah Sampson who served in the Continental Army as Robert Shurtleff. Well known in her lifetime, today her name is less recognized. Born in 1760 in Plimpton, Massachusetts, she came from a poor, but well-known Pilgrim family. Her widowed mother, unable to care for Deborah and her seven siblings, placed Deborah as an indentured servant and farmworker. Self-educated, Deborah taught school at age 18 and later worked in a tavern as a waitress and seamstress. There, she came upon the idea of military service to earn a living wage. Tailoring a cast-off military uniform, Deborah enlisted in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment in the Spring of 1781 under the name Robert Shurtleff. In spite of her small stature, no one suspected her identity. Her light infantry unit marched to West Point in the waning days of the war where her story took a bizarre twist. The troops engaged a band of Tories. Deborah bayonetted one man to death, but was slashed on her forehead and shot in the thigh. Terrified at being discovered as a woman, she hid the bullet wound from a military doctor. She later pulled the musket ball from her own leg, sewing the wound closed using her seamstress skills. Promoted to corporal, she was sent to Philadelphia by General John Patterson.
There, she became a victim of an epidemic sweeping the city and her true identity was discovered. A doctor, Benjamin Binney, although sympathetic, sent her back to General Patterson. Impressed by her bravery, Patterson saw that she was given an honorable discharge. She returned home to Sharon, Massachusetts. In 1785, she married a local farmer, Benjamin Gannet. They had three children and adopted a fourth. But Benjamin was a gambler and the family fell on hard times. Supporting her family by lecturing on her experiences, she also applied for a military pension. She was unsuccessful until a neighbor, none other than Paul Revere, interceded. In 1805, she was awarded a monthly pension of four dollars. After she died in 1827 at age 66, her husband managed to get a widow’s pension for himself, even though he wasn’t married to her at the time of her service. The government statement approving the pension concluded that Deborah, serving as Robert, “…furnished no other similar example of female heroism, fidelity and courage.” Both the Daughters and the Sons of the American Revolution uniquely honor Deborah’s grave in Sharon. In 1983, she was named the official Heroine of Massachusetts.
There were a few recorded instances of women serving during the War of 1812 and on the battlefield in the Mexican-American War, although in the latter they did not take up arms which brings us to the American Civil War.
Recently, our Museum VP and Curator Patrick Donovan came across a long forgotten book called, “Women of the War; Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice”. Written by Frank Moore in 1867, it recounts the exploits of a number of women who contributed to the war effort including some who made it into the front lines, mostly wearing men’s attire. My lecture, “Women in Combat”, which I have done for the Varnum Continentals, includes stories from both sides of the war about women who participated in active combat as well as in support roles.
For those who served on the front lines, concealing their identities was not as difficult as it might appear. Many soldiers were still teenagers yet to shave. Ill-fitting uniforms disguised their shape. Most soldiers rarely bathed and everyone slept clothed and ready to fight. Physical exams were initially cursory. Sometimes, young men paraded before a doctor and if they could use their trigger fingers, they were in.
If women acted in a manly fashion, smoking, chewing tobacco, swearing, and playing cards, it was enough of a ruse, since such behavior was completely unexpected in the socially prim Victorian era. Many of their male counterparts figured out what was going on, but the women fought bravely and carried themselves in a soldierly fashion, so their ruse was accepted and even hidden from senior officers.
A handful of women fought openly in women’s attire. One was Rhode Island’s own Kady McKenzie Brownell, about whom we have written and spoken. Kady proudly dressed in own version of a female uniform. Along with her husband, she fought in heavy combat in two major battles with two different Rhode Island regiments. It’s time to update her story a bit.
Brownell was born in 1842 in a British Army tent in Kaffaria, in British controlled South Africa, the daughter of Scottish-born Colonel George Southwell. Kady’s frail mother died soon after and her soldier father couldn’t care for her. The infant wound up in the care of Duncan and Alice McKenzie, who eventually immigrated with her to Providence, Rhode Island. There is no record of them ever legally adopting Kady.
This writer found Kady’s name in the 1860 Rhode Island census where she was listed as living with the Rodman family in Providence, RI, and working as a weaver in a textile mill in Central Falls, RI. There she met mill mechanic Robert Brownell, Junior, who was six years older. Kady was nineteen, five foot three with a dark complexion and blue eyes. The pair fell in love, but there was a slight complication. Robert was already married. His wife Agnes soon discovered the romance and divorced him.
Until they left the military, Kady and Robert lived as common law husband and wife. There is only one known picture of them together. Based on the size and style of the photo, it was taken after the war, probably in the 1880’s after the couple had left Rhode Island.
When the war broke out, President Lincoln called for volunteer troops. Rhode Island Governor William Sprague vowed his state would do all possible for the Union cause. He quickly signed up Ambrose Burnside to lead an initial regiment. Sprague himself led the men to Washington where they set up training outside the city in a camp named for the governor. Among the enlistees caught up patriotic fever was Robert Brownell, enrolled in Company H, First Regiment, Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry on April 17, 1861.
Left behind, Kady was frantic and desperate to follow Robert. Eventually she managed to buttonhole Governor Sprague and convince him into taking her along with him when he travelled to Washington to visit the regiment. Kady was reunited with her husband at Camp Sprague.
With the approval of Colonel, later Major General, Ambrose Burnside, Kady was at first named a vivandiere, a “daughter of the regiment”. The role had originated in Europe, where women to go to the front lines selling personal items or wine to the troops. Some adopted female attire that mimicked men’s uniforms. A few doubled as water carriers or even nurses. Despite their role and the impression of some, most were not women of “easy virtue”, but served honorably in the field or behind the lines. Determined not to be a water carrier, Kady immediately volunteered as a color-bearer for the 1st Rhode Island. Now, the role of a color bearer in those days was far from ceremonial.
The regimental flag was a rallying point for troops and served as a guide in the midst of battle where the sound of a bugle or drum could be drowned out by gunfire. Kady was in the front of the line and as such, a target for the enemy who sought to mow down color bearers in order to throw confusion into the opposing ranks. Right from the start, Kady had proved a gutsy and determined young woman.
While at Camp Sprague, Kady convinced her fellow soldiers to teach her how to shoot, and with daily practice she became proficient with a musket. Color bearers also carried arms to protect the colors. To conserve ammunition, men were allowed three shots each at daily target practice. Her fellow soldiers were so impressed with her determination, skill, and coolness that Kady was given the opportunity to fire as much as she wanted. She also practiced daily with her own infantry sword.
At the First Battle of Bull Run, Kady carried the company colors and her weapons. The battle was a rout for Union forces and Kady became separated from her husband. Although slightly wounded herself, she managed to leave the field still carrying her flag. Kady had lost track of Robert and Colonel Burnside himself let Kady know her husband had survived unhurt. The couple was reunited in Washington. By then, their initial ninety-day enlistment had expired. They returned to Providence and were mustered out.
Robert soon volunteered again, along with most of the men of the 1st Rhode Island, this time with Company A, of the Fifth Rhode Island Heavy Artillery. Guess who went along? Kady and Robert served under now General Ambrose Burnside. Their unit was sent to North Carolina, initially as an infantry unit. They were promised easy duty.
Kady again carried the colors. At one point, she is said to have prevented a catastrophe during the Battle of New Bern, when she recognized a body of troops about to be mistaken for Confederate forces. According to an officer who witnessed the incident, she called a warning, crying out, “Don’t fire; they are our men!” The troops were from another Rhode Island unit and had made the mistake of wearing grey hats. Many likely would have died except for Kady’s action. Put into the heaviest fighting, they led the assault and fired the first shots at Matthew’s Hill. The unit lost eight men.
Robert, by then a first sergeant, sustained a serious leg wound at New Bern. Kady, by then assisting at a military hospital, was reunited with Robert. She nursed him and other soldiers, including Rebel prisoners. In early 1863, the couple was sent back to Rhode Island. Both were mustered out and Kady received official discharge papers. Back in Providence, Rev. William McDonald, at the Methodist Episcopal Church, officially married her and Robert at last, on November 7, 1863.
The Brownells moved to Connecticut and settled in Bridgeport where she was accepted in 1870 into the Grand Army of the Republic Elias Howe Post #4 on the basis of her discharge papers. She was the first woman known to have been admitted to the GAR. For a while, she gained some measure of fame and earned much needed money by lecturing on her experiences. She and Robert later moved to New York City where she and Robert worked for the city park department as custodians at the Morris-Jumel Mansion on Washington Heights. She became well known to tourists who visited the facility.
Over the years, the depth of her service was often questioned but enough evidence existed to drown out the naysayers. She had kept her company colors, her discharge papers, and her saber with her name engraved on the scabbard. In 1884, by an Act of Congress, she was granted a government pension ($8.00 a month) based on her service as a Daughter of the Regiment and for her wound at the First Battle of Bull Run.
In a sidebar story to flowery piece published in the July 22, 1899 Philadelphia Times, the 57-year-old Kady and her husband spoke of their wartime experiences. He was much more vocal, and complimented his wife’s bravery on the field. But Kady expressed a different view to the reporter. “The war, with all its legacy of bitterness and hatred is over,” she said quietly, “and in the hearts of these brave men who lost the day there is nothing but a tender love and trust in us who saved the Union. For myself, I did my duty, under discipline, and with that I am content until it shall please God to call me.”
Kady and Robert lived out their later years at the New York State Women’s Relief Corps Home in Oxford, NY. The home had been set up for U.S. Civil War veterans and enabled married couples to remain together. Kady died there on January 5, 1915 at the age of 72. Her funeral was held under the auspices of the GAR in New York City.
Her husband managed to scrape together the money to send her body back to Rhode Island by steamboat where was laid to rest in the North Burial Ground in Providence, RI. Now here’s the kicker to our story.
Robert had her buried in the same plot as his first wife. Given their limited finances, it was probably just common sense. The date of his death is missing from the tombstone, because he isn’t there. Robert never made it back to Providence to join his two wives. He died eight months after Kady on September 29, 1915 at age 79 and wound up in an unmarked gravesite in East Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. By the way, the emblem of the Grand Army of the Republic is engraved on Kady’s tombstone. The Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War have named a unit in her honor: Tent #36 in Long Island City, New York. Color bearer, front line soldier, devoted wife: that was Rhode Island’s own Kady Brownell.
In the later decades of the 20th century and in recent years, more and more opportunities have opened for women in all branches of the service. Today, thousands serve in active combat and in positions of high command.
We’ve come a long way from the Deborah Sampsons of the American Revolution to the likes of Kady Brownell, and her sisters of the U.S. Civil War. Only a handful gained lasting recognition. Many were simply forgotten.
But, their pioneering spirit evolved into the eventual acceptance of women in every facet of military service. Navy Lieutenant Andrea Goldstein, USNR, writing for the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, noted “these largely unsung women broke convention to prove that a nation is strongest when it draws on 100 percent of its talent.” Elizabeth Leonard, a historian at Colby College in Maine, in an article in the Washington Post, noted that the removal of the ban on women in active combat was nothing new, it was simply that we let disappear the stories of women combatants in past wars…women who often served in roles that defied existing conventions. Said Professor Leonard, “They fought. They bled. They died. We should know that, and unlike the past, we should remember.”