Women in the Ranks: Concealed Identities in Civil War Era North Carolina
The August 19, 1862 issue of the Weekly Enquirer of Columbus, Georgia printed the following under a column titled "The Female Volunteer":
In calling the roll of a regiment of conscripts who had just entered the camp of instruction at Raleigh, N.C., last week, one more "man" was present than called for by the list. The Winston Sentinel says: This, of course, involved an investigation, when it was discovered that the features of one claimed to be a conscript were quite too fair and fine for one of the sterner sex. The soldier was charged of being a female, when she confessed the truth and acknowledged that she had determined to accompany her friends in the perils of war, and avenge the death of a brother who fell in the fight near Richmond. We have heard nothing in any degree to implicate the good character and standing of this gallant heroine.
The identity of this particular person remains unknown. But she was one of a handful of women known to have attempted, and in some cases succeeded, in enlisting in the Confederacy and the Union militaries in North Carolina. This essay examines the stories of these individuals, analyzing the facts of each case by utilizing contemporary historical documents.
Sarah Malinda Pritchard Blalock, Southern Historical Collection, UNC.
Sarah Malinda "Sam" Blalock
Sarah Malinda Pritchard, perhaps the most famous female soldier from North Carolina, served alongside her husband in the Confederate army, and later assisted the Union military. Born in 1839, she married William McKesson Blalock at the age of seventeen, and settled on a farm near the base of Grandfather Mountain. William, who went by the nickname "Keith," remained loyal to the Union at the outbreak of the war, and refused to enlist the Confederate army. However, in March 1862, faced with new conscription laws requiring all men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five to serve in the army, Keith Blalock and his wife, disguised as "Sam" Blalock and claiming to be Keith's younger brother, enlisted in Company F, 26th North Carolina Infantry.
Six days prior to the Blalock's enlistment, the 26th North Carolina had fought in the Battle of New Bern, and the regiment was recovering near Kinston. "Sam" gave her age on enlistment as twenty, but was described in later accounts as a "good looking sixteen-year-old boy" weighing "about 130 pounds, height five feet four inches." It was noted that for the next month Sam , tenting and eating with Keith, did all the "duties of a soldier," and was "very adept at learning the manual and the drill."
Sarah Malinda's Confederate service was quite short-lived, however. Keith, ever anxious to find a way out of the army, approached the regimental surgeon, Thomas J. Boykin, with a complaint of a "rupture" (hernia) and "poison from sumac." The injury may have been a preexisting condition however it is thought that he rolled around in sumac in order to gain the rash. Initially the surgeons thought he was suffering from smallpox due to the severity of the disorder. On April 20, 1862, Keith was discharged from Confederate service for "disability." That same afternoon, "Sam" came clean to the regimental commanders, including Colonel Zebulon Vance, and immediately was discharged from service.
After their release, the Blalocks made their way back to their mountain home. Precisely what happened to them in 1863-1864 is unclear. One account states that Keith was subsequently wounded in the arm as the couple were pursued into the wilderness atop Grandfather Mountain by Confederate conscription and enrolling officers attempting to force Keith to rejoin the army. If he had been properly discharged, however, and had papers proving that, they could not have legally reenlisted him. In his later years, Keith asserted that he had never been properly discharged. Tradition also states that he helped Union escapees from Salisbury prison cross the mountains into Tennessee.
At some point in the fall of 1863 or spring of 1864, Keith made his way across the mountains into eastern Tennessee, where on June 1, 1864 he enlisted at Strawberry Plains in Company D, 10th Michigan Cavalry. The company records indicate that at least four other eastern Tennessee or western North Carolina Unionists joined the same company. He later claimed in his Union army pension that he spent the majority of his time in service as a scout. He acknowledged two injuries in his pension that do not appear in his service records: a gunshot to the arm while operating in Caldwell County in the summer of 1864, and a second wound, which cost him his left eye, on January 15, 1865.
Historians as well as fiction writers have made numerous claims that Sarah Malinda Blalock took part in many of Keith's scouting forays. One story involves Malinda being wounded in the shoulder in an early 1864 attack on the home of Carroll Moore, the father of a former friend and comrade of the Blalocks. She indeed may have helped him, but one must account for the fact that she had a one-year-old child at the time that needed care, and Keith does not mention her presence alongside him in any of his pension correspondence postwar.
After the war, Keith Blalock murdered a man who was responsible for the killing of his stepfather during the conflict. He managed to escape prosecution. For a brief time the family moved to Texas, but eventually returned to North Carolina, settling as farmers in Mitchell County (in an area that is present-day Avery County). Malinda died in 1903, and is buried in the Montezuma Community Cemetery alongside Keith, who was killed in 1913 in an accident on the railroad.
Sarah Malinda Blalock's month-long enlistment in the Confederate army, and her later assistance to the Union military, made her unique among North Carolina's women veterans.
Mollie Bean newspaper – (Charlotte) Daily Bulletin, March 2, 1865.
On February 20, 1865, the Richmond Whig published a report stating that on February 17:
A young woman, dressed in military uniform, was arrested somewhere up the Danville Railroad and sent to this city, charged with being a suspicious character. On examination of the Provost Marshal's office it appeared that her name was Mollie Bean, and that she had been serving in the 47th North Carolina Regiment for over two years, during which time she had been twice wounded. She was sent to Castle Thunder, that common receptacle of the guilty, the suspected, and the unfortunate. This poor creature is, from her record, manifestly crazy. It will not, we presume, be pretended that she had served so long in the army without her sex being discovered."
The story also ran in the Richmond Sentinel and the Richmond Enquirer, and was picked up by the Charlotte Daily Bulletin, which on March 2 ran a much more detailed version of the incident:
The train guard on the Danville cars encountered a delicate looking individual, decked out in a Yankee great coat, and a pair of light colored pants, and a jaunty little fatigue cap, stuck rakishly on the head, one side resting close against the right ear. As the face was a strange one, the guard demanded 'Your papers, sir,' to which the individual in the great coat responded, 'I've got no papers, and damn if I want any." To attempt to travel on the cars without papers signed by the Provost Marshal and all his assistants, and from the commandant of conscripts and all his clerks, is downright treason in the eyes of any detective, and so the delicate individual in the great coat and corduroy pants was ejected vict armis, placed in the hands of another officer, and marched off to the office of chief of police. Here the strange individual was subjected to the most rigid cross questioning, and much to the astonishment of all, it was ascertained that the great coat encompassed the form of a female, who gave her name as Mollie Bear, of the 47th North Carolina State troops. She states that she was twice been wounded in battle. Miss Bear was committed to the castle as a suspicious character.
Five days later the Charlotte Western Democrat ran the story under the title "A Female Adventurer," but added no more details about the event or the individual. Unlike the other Charlotte paper, the Democrat gave her name as Mollie Bean, not Bear.
No further records have been found about her final disposition at Castle Thunder prison in Richmond. How long she was incarcerated, and what happened to her upon her release, are questions that remain unanswered.
Exactly who she was also remains a mystery. If the newspapers were correct, Molly Bean was a young woman, assumedly from North Carolina, who enlisted in the 47th North Carolina Infantry at some point in the spring of 1863. Identifying her by her alias would entail finding an individual who enlisted at that point, who suffered two wounds either to extremities or the head (wounds which would not necessarily have necessitated discovery that she was a woman), and who for whatever reason, could have been on the railroad between Danville and Richmond on February 17, 1865. The 47th North Carolina, on that date, was posted in winter quarters near Hatcher's Run.
No woman by the name of Mollie Bean is listed on the 1860 census as living in North Carolina. However, Mollie is a common pet-name for Mary or Margaret. A Mary Bean, born 1838, lived in Rowan County, as did a Margaret Bean, born 1839. A second Margaret Bean, born 1838, lived in Montgomery County. In addition, a Marry Bean, born 1845, was living in Caldwell County, while a Monday Bean, also born 1845, was living in Yadkin County. Finally, a Mary Bean, born 1849, was recorded as living in Randolph County, and a Margaret Bean, born 1849, was documented in Montgomery County.
Mollie Bean, if that was her real name, was perhaps one of those women. The 47th North Carolina, however, was primarily raised in Alamance, Franklin, Granville, Nash, and Wake Counties, and included very few enlistees from other regions. One intriguing possibility is that she was actually Mollie Bunn, born in 1840, who was living in Nash County in 1860.
An analysis of the regiment's deserters who absconded in the January-February 1865 period, searching for those who enlisted in 1863, and who were documented as having been twice wounded, proved inconclusive, as in each case those individuals can be proven as males using census and pension records.
Mollie Bean's true identity consequently remains unknown.
Margaret Plyler Torry newspaper – (Charlotte) Western Democrat, April 11, 1865.
Margaret Plyler Torry
On April 11, 1865, the Charlotte Western Democrat ran two stories, which had previously been published in the Raleigh Progress and Raleigh Daily Conservative, concerning a female soldier.
The Raleigh Progress stated that
A young soldier was arrested here yesterday on suspicion of being a female, and she admitted she was. She gave her name as Margaret Plyde, and says she is from Union County, in this state, and has been nine months in the army. We learn she was sent to a hospital for further examination.
The Daily Conservative story, the much more detailed of the two, reported that
Mrs. Margaret Torry, alias Charley Mills, of Company D, Jeff Davis Legion, Butler's Cavalry Division, came to this city on Wednesday last as one of the guard to some of the prisoners sent up. She is 20 years of age, has good features, bronzed skin, dark eyes, and short hair. She states that ten months ago she married, and one month thereafter she joined the company of her husband, and has been on duty since that time, has been in all the fights, was never sick or absent from duty. Her husband was killed in the battle of Bentonsville [sic] and having no longer any inducement to remain in the army, she now made known her sex and wished to return to her home in Union County, N. C. Her maiden name was Plyler. She is a native of Lancaster, S.C.
A Margaret Plyler, born in S.C., is documented on the 1860 Union County, N.C. census. Born in 1846, she was living at the time in the household of her mother Rachel in the town of Walkersville. There is no marriage record, however for a woman by that name in 1862-1864 in Union County.
The newspaper stories did not give the name of her husband, only that her married name was Torry, and that her husband would have thus been a member of Company D, Jeff Davis Legion Cavalry, who was killed at Bentonville. Only one man by the name of Torry served in that unit. Private Richard S. Torry enlisted at age 19 in Montgomery, Alabama on August 10, 1861 in Stone's Company of Alabama volunteers, which subsequently became Company D, Jeff Davis Legion in the fall of 1861. He served without incident until March-April 1864, when his records note that he was on detached duty "as a scout." He had returned to duty in September 1864. There are no further extant muster rolls for the unit, and therefore there remains nothing to necessarily prove he was killed in action at Bentonville, however he never appeared on subsequent censuses.
No one named Charley Mills (her alias) is documented on any of the surviving company or regimental muster rolls from late 1864. Consequently that part of the story is either wrong on behalf of the newspaper or an error of identification.
However, another piece of evidence that supports her story appeared in the Fayetteville Observer on March 19, 1927. Governor Angus W. McLean offered a reminiscence passed on by his late father, a former artilleryman in Company B, 13th North Carolina Light Artillery Battalion, concerning the Battle of Bentonville. The elder McLean recalled that during the fighting:
We were intently watching our cavalry about 200 or 300 yards distant in an open pine forest in our front skirmishing on the brow of a small ridge when someone exclaimed, 'Hello, there's some one killed." Quickly a comrade was seen spurring to his side, and with some assistance, although under a continuous fire from sharpshooters, succeeded in raising his bleeding form across the front of his sadlle, and with the most profound resoluteness rode by us to the rear, with his body dangling on either side of the horse's shoulders. Imagine our surprise when, a few days later, we heard that our faithful warrior was a woman, and none other than the wife of him whose remains she had so heroically borne from the field, having volunteered, it was said, disguised as a man, in an Alabama regiment at the beginning of the second year of the war. She had shared with her husband all of the privations and dangers incidental to a soldier's life for three years. Faithful to the end to the cause which required her husband's services, and even after death, to him from whom she would not be separated, not even by the horrors of warfare. She went to the proper authorities, made known her disguise, and was honorably discharged from military service."
McLean's battery was in a position to watch such skirmishing about mid-day on March 20, as Col. Robert Catterson's brigade of the Union XV Corps advanced on Confederate positions near the Flowers House. In fact, the volley that killed Margaret's husband likely was fired by the 100th Indiana Infantry. Sergeant Theodore Upson of the 100th Indiana recalled the moment that the "Johnny Cavelry [sic] came dashing into our rear." The Confederate horsemen almost captured several Union generals who were following the advance, but Upson's unit commander "faced the regiment towards them and the men fired a volley into them that scattered them."
Despite the obvious contradictions concerning Margaret's length of service in McLean's account versus the Daily Conservative story, it seems certain that both stories are describing the same individual: Margaret Plyler Torry, Confederate cavalry trooper.
Lucy Matilda Thompson Gause Kenney, Jay Hoar's The South's Last Boys in Gray.
Lucy Matilda Thompson Gause Kenney
Lumberton's newspaper, The Robesonian, published an article on May 4, 1914, which had previously run in the Savannah Dispatch, titled "Fought As a Man Beside Her Husband Until He Was Killed – Was a Mrs. Gauss of Bladenboro – Now More Than 100 Years Old." The story concerned Lucy Matilda Thompson Gause Kenney, whom the paper reported had recently told her pastor a secret that she had held onto for over fifty years. She claimed that having been just married on the eve of the Civil War she could not bear to part with her husband, "a man by the name of Gauss," when he left to fight in the conflict. She reportedly "cut her hair close, donned a uniform," and entered the army with him under the alias Bill Thompson (her maiden name). Kenney supposedly "served for several years" with Company D, 18th North Carolina Infantry, until her husband was killed. The paper noted that "he met his death in the coldness of winter" and that she then accompanied his body home for burial. After the war she moved to Savannah, where she married a man named John Kenney.
Lucy Matilda Thompson Gauss Kenney appeared in newspapers a number of times during the following decade. She was the subject of an article titled "Hold your Head Up and Die Hard, the Rule of 107 Years Lady," published in the Savannah Press in March 1920, and a piece in the Arkansas Democrat, "Democrat Employee's Mother Was Soldier in the Civil War," published in July 1925.
On July 8, 1925, the Atlanta Journal ran an obituary for Lucy titled "Only Woman Confederate Veteran Dies at 112." The paper claimed that at her death, she was 112 years old, and that she had been born near Bladensboro, North Carolina, in 1812. The paper noted that she was "165 pounds when she was seventeen, was tall and of masculine appearance," but was "not without feminine charm." Lucy volunteered in 1861 alongside her then husband, Bryant Gauss and it was further claimed that she "was an expert sharpshooter" who was wounded in the head by artillery fire at First Manassas, where she stated her regiment advanced over "rifle pits slippery with mud and blood." According to the obituary, she remained faithfully by her husband's side until his death in one of the Seven Days Battles outside Richmond in the summer of 1862. It further noted that she "was one of those whose weary, half bare feet left blood tracks in the white snow" during the "bitter winter campaigns in northern Virginia." After her husband's death, the young widow told her secret to their company commander, identified as Captain Robert Tate, who then allowed her to receive a discharge and return home. When the war ended, the paper stated that she moved to Savannah, Georgia, where she eventually married Joseph Patrick Kenney (not John, as claimed in the earlier story).
Lucy's story was later picked up by Jay Hoar in his book The South's Last Boys in Gray. In a brief analysis of her story, Hoar utilized a copy of her obituary published on June 25, 1925 in The Coffee County Progress of Douglas, Georgia, which repeated the claim that she was 112 years old at the time of her death. However, that obituary said she had served in "Company B, of the Bladen Light Infantry" with her husband, who was "killed near Bennettsville." She was reportedly "struck in the head by a piece of shell at the siege of Richmond." It further noted that she "came to Georgia after the Charleston earthquake in 1886." Hoar also cited a January 1977 letter from a great-grandson which gave Lucy's husband's full name as Joseph Patrick Henry Kenney, a Union navy veteran who had been coerced into serving, and noted that both "she and this second husband were personally acquainted with Lincoln." Finally, Hoar provided a statement by Lucy's granddaughter, repeating many of the claims made in the Atlanta Journal article, including that the first husband was killed in the Seven Days fighting, but added that Lucy's first child, Mary Caroline Gauss, was born on January 21, 1864. That statement went so far as to claim that Lucy Matilda gave birth to twins Martha and James in 1868 when she was fifty-five-years-old, as well as further children Katie, Victoria, John P., and Joseph. The last child was reportedly born in 1881 when Lucy would have been sixty-nine.
A simple cursory glance at the various claims demonstrates a number of factual inconsistencies. Some of these issues could best be attributed to failing health, senility, and simple mistaken memory. For starters, Lucy Matilda Thompson Gauss Kenney was not 112 years old at the time of her death. She first appears on the 1850 Bladen County, North Carolina, census at the age of eight as Matilda, living in the household of her mother, Lucy, age thirty-eight. No male head of household is documented. Ten years later she is listed as L. M. (Lucy Matilda) in the household of her mother, Lucy Thompson, in Bladen County. Two households before them on the census lived the Henry Gause family which included son Bryant B. Gause, Lucy Matilda Thompson's first husband.
Challenging some of the earlier reports that she met and married Joseph Patrick Henry Kenney in Georgia, she actually appears living with him in the 1870 Bladen County census in Brown Marsh. The household lists "Patrick Kinnie," born in Ireland, age thirty-eight, along with his wife Matilda, age twenty-one, with daughters Mary, age four, and Margaret, age three. John Thompson, Lucy Matilda's brother, is living in the household next door. In 1880 the family appears on the Columbus County census with Patrick listed at age sixty, Matilda at age thirty-eight, and several children: Mary, Martha, Katie M., Victoria, and John.
Up until the 1900 census, Lucy Matilda's age of birth clearly put her as being born in the early 1840s, not in 1812. The story that the family moved to Georgia after the 1886 Charleston earthquake is born out in the fact that on the 1900 census they appear in Pierce County, Georgia. Lucy Matilda's age on that census places her being born in 1827-1828. On the 1910 census in Coffee County, Georgia, she gave her age as ninety-seven-years-old, making her born in 1813. On the 1920 Chatham County, Georgia census, she is again listed as being born in 1813. Her husband's age remained increasing at a normal rate, but in a ten year span she, on paper at the very least, aged twenty-five years. Something was clearly amiss.
Numerous errors plague the military claims as well. Bryant B. Gause served in Company B, 18th North Carolina (not Company D), alongside his brothers Henry H. Gause and James W. Gause. All three enlisted on May 3, 1861 in Bladen County, and Henry and James both survived the war. Bryant B. Gause was not killed in the Seven Days Battles, and is not reported to have been wounded three times during the war. He was in fact mortally wounded at Fredericksburg, Virginia, on December 13, 1862. He languished in a hospital in Scottsville, Virginia, where he died on January 1, 1863.
No one by the name of William (Bill) Thompson enlisted in the company in 1861 alongside the three Gause brothers. A William Thompson did serve in the unit, but that man enlisted at age forty-three on July 15, 1863, and served through the end of the war, signing an Oath of Allegiance at Point Lookout, Maryland in June 1865. Private James Thompson, probably Lucy Matilda's brother, enlisted on May 3, 1861 in the unit. He served until being killed in action at Frayser's Farm in June 1862. Private Bryant G. Thompson, age twenty-seven, also enlisted in the unit in 1861, but his connection to Lucy Matilda remains uncertain. That individual served throughout the war.
So, the 1914 story, claiming that Bryant B. Gause died in winter, seems correct. No Bill Thompson appears in the unit records for 1861-1862. Furthermore, her assertion to have been wounded at First Manassas is false, as the 18th North Carolina was not engaged in that battle.
Lucy Matilda Thompson Gause Kenney's claim as to having served alongside her husband cannot be supported by the contemporary evidence. There is simply no documentary proof that she served in any of the capacities in which she claimed. In the end, her story may have been nothing more than a good yarn.
At least one North Carolina woman served actively in the Union military. Lucy Berington, a 45-year-old African American woman from North Carolina, was enlisted in January 1864 as a first-class boy in the U.S. Navy. Her gender was known at the time of her enlistment, and she was assigned as a washerwoman at the U.S. Naval Hospital at New Bern. At the time of the war, the enlistment of women was forbidden therefore her case is something of a mystery. She was not hired as contract labor, but formally enlisted at a rating, or naval rank, equal to that of inexperienced recruits to the Navy – the rating of boy was the lowest pay scale in the service. There may have been selfish motives on behalf of the surgeons in charge of the hospital. Average pay for a washerwoman contracted to the Navy at the time was fifty centers per day, which equated to fifteen dollars a month, while a first class boy earned between seven to nine dollars a month. Perhaps they were simply trying to control labor costs; however, if that is the case, why only choose one individual? Sadly for Lucy, the decision to enlist in the Navy cost the woman her life, as she died of disease in the spring of 1864 in the very hospital in which she worked.
Attempting to locate more on Lucy Berington has been difficult. No free black woman by that name lived in the state of North Carolina in 1860, suggesting she was enslaved prior to the war. If she was indeed a slave, and Berington, or perhaps Barrington, was the name of her owner, then one should find a slave, aged nearly forty-five, listed as the property of such a family on the 1860 slave schedule. Interestingly, the only Barrington families in North Carolina (there were no Beringtons) who owned slaves lived in Craven County, the very place Lucy enlisted. However, no female slaves aged forty-five were owned by any of them. A fifty-four-year-old female appears as the property of Nancy V. Barrington while a thirty-six-year-old female was the chattel of Stephen G. Barrington, but it remains uncertain if either was Lucy.
Nevertheless she stands out as the only identifiable enlisted North Carolina female recruit in the Union military.
Several tales have been spun concerning non-North Carolina female soldiers who fought in engagements within the state. One story which has been published in several modern books on the subject of women fighting, originated in The Independent, a Calliope, Iowa newspaper, and the Sturgis Weekly Record in the Dakota Territory on November 20, 1885. Titled "The Girl Recruit," it reported to be the reminiscence of a former surgeon in the "Tenth Georgia" in "Hoke's Division" who recalled that he had overseen a mortally wounded man at Bentonville named Charlie Stanhope. As Charlie was brought to the medical tent, his brother Francis, or Frank, came along with him, and fainted when he heard his brother had been killed. According to the surgeon, on administering aid to Frank, he learned that the soldier was a woman, and in turn discovered that it was Charlie's wife.
However, the story is almost certainly false, or at the very least, cannot be substantiated. The 10th Georgia Infantry did not fight at Bentonville. The 10th Georgia Cavalry did, as did the 10th Confederate Cavalry, a unit comprised largely of Georgians however neither unit served in Major General Robert F. Hoke's Division. The 6th, 19th, 23rd, 27th, and 28th Georgia Infantry regiments served in Brigadier Johnson Hagood's brigade of Hoke's Division, but not the 10th Georgia Infantry. In fact, at the time of Bentonville, that unit was fighting with Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Furthermore, no one by the last name of Stanhope can be documented as having served in any Georgia Confederate unit and not a single person with that surname was living in Georgia at the time of the 1860 census.
Kady Brownell, Library of Congress.
Another story of a female warrior in North Carolina that may ride the line of fact and fiction is that of Kady Brownell. Brownell supposedly carried the 5th Rhode Island's flag into battle at New Bern on March 13, 1862, an incident which she shamelessly promoted through the remainder of her life.
Background information on Kady is extremely difficult to pin down prior to the 1862 engagement. According to her postwar biographers and her husband, she was born in the 1840s in South Africa, the son of a Scottish soldier in the British Army, Colonel George Southwell, and a French mother. She was named, she said, for a fellow British officer and family friend, John Kady. Supposedly her mother died shortly thereafter, and her father, unable to juggle being a single parent with his military career, handed her over for adoption to family friends Duncan and Alice McKenzie. And here the problems with her story begin. No officers named either George Southwell or John Kady ever served in the British military during the 1840s. There is also no record of her immigration, or that of Duncan and Alice McKenzie ever existing.
The first record of her is in the 1860 census, where she appears, under the name Kady McKenzie, as a boarder, and mill worker, in South Kingstown, Rhode Island. In the mill she met a fellow worker named Robert Brownell. The two subsequently began a romantic relationship, despite Robert being married. The following year he divorced his wife to be with Kady. At the outbreak of the war, Robert enlisted in Company H of the 1st Rhode Island Detached Militia, a ninety day volunteer unit. According to Kady, the two married shortly before he left. However, marriage records in Rhode Island clearly show they were wed in November 1863.
Robert's regiment was sent to Washington in the spring of 1861, one of the first units to arrive in the defense of the capitol. Kady soon joined him, and was supposedly made an "honorary" color-bearer of the regiment. In her 1882 pension application she claimed to have been wounded carrying the regimental flag at the Battle of First Manassas on July 21, 1861. She does not appear on any regimental muster rolls nor is she acknowledged in Augustus Woodbury's 1862 history A Narrative of the Campaign of the First Rhode Island Regiment in the Spring and Summer of 1861. Woodbury, who fought with the regiment at First Manassas, states in regard to the regimental flag "Our color sergeant had been wounded. One of the guard who had taken the flag had also been struck. Still another, who had taken it from him, had been disabled." He does not mention Kady or any woman as being present.
Shortly after their first engagement, the 1st Rhode Island's term of service expired, and they were sent home. Robert subsequently enlisted in Company A, 5th Rhode Island Infantry (which later became the 5th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery). Kady, ever faithful, reportedly followed him, and was according to her version of events granted an honorary position as color-bearer of that unit. At the Battle of New Bern, with the battlefield blanketed with fog, she claimed to have run forward with her flag, waving it frantically to warn other Union soldiers not to fire on the 5th Rhode Island. By doing so she saved the lives of numerous men, including that of Robert, who was subsequently wounded in the engagement.
In 1882, Captain Jonathan M. Wheeler, the commander of Company A, confirmed some of the details of Kady's story in an affidavit he offered as part of her pension application. In it he wrote that Kady did serve at New Bern and was:
Conspicuous for bravery in carrying a flag at the head of the battalion. That he believes she saved the lives of many Union soldiers; that a report came that the rebels had flanked us, and were moving up a ravine in our rear, and on looking back saw a regiment clothed in gray overcoats and slouched hats. The command had been given to face by the rear rank, when Kady Brownell rushed forward and cried out, `Don't fire; they are our men.' But for this a New Hampshire regiment would have received a volley, and many men must have been killed.
However, he later wrote that on the morning of the battle, she "begged me to allow her to carry the American flag at the head of the regiment just as we were coming under fire of the enemies' rifles" but "I ordered her to the rear, she complied with the greatest reluctance." Nevertheless, Kady received her pension, one of the only women to do so from service in the Civil War.
Robert Brownell was discharged from the service in December 1862 due to the wound he received at New Bern. Kady went with him. They settled in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where in the 1870s she worked briefly as an actress, and attempted to cash in on her wartime exploits performing as the "Heroine of New Bern" in a zouave-like uniform, the likes of which she never wore in actual service. The couple later moved to New York City, where they worked for the Parks Department. Kady took part in every Memorial Day parade that she could until her death in 1915.
As is apparent, some of the more fanciful claims of veterans such as Lucy Matilda Thompson Gause Kenney and Kady Brownell may have been nothing more than wishful thinking, and other stories, such as that of Charlie Stanhope, appear to have been entirely made up. Nevertheless, North Carolina women such as Malinda Blalock, Margaret Torry, Mollie Bean, and Lucy Berington actively served in the ranks during the American Civil War. Although clearly representing a minuscule portion of North Carolina women's wartime experience, their service is nevertheless an intriguing piece of our wartime history.