Death of Kady Brownell, First Woman Member of Grand Army of the Republic, Veteran of War Between the States

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Death of Kady Brownell, First Woman Member of Grand Army of the Republic, Veteran of War Between the States

Kady Brownell, vivandière of 1st, then 5th Rhode Island Infantry
Photographer and date of creation unknown, circa 1866-1882
This is a posed photo; she's wearing a Zouave uniform [5th RI was not a Zouave unit]
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: January 14, 1915

Today's "Stroll Through History" involves a woman who saw action during the War of the Rebellion, and joined the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR, an ancestor of The American Legion), but also received a government pension for her service.


Kady Brownell was born in 1842 in a tent on a British army camp in Kaffraria, part of modern-day southeastern Republic of South Africa, of a French mother and Scottish father. Her father, Col. George Southwell, was on maneuvers at the time. She was named after her father's friend, Sir James Kady. Her mother, a frail woman to begin with, died shortly after her birth.

Kady was raised by friends of her father, who took here with them when they immigrated to Providence, Rhode Island. She was then raised by the family and friends. [There is no record that this family ever legal adopted Kady.] In the years before the War Between the States, Kady worked as a weaver in the mills of Providence, where she met and fell in love with Robert Brownell, a mechanic and a married man. Robert's wife divorced him on the grounds of adultery, and Kady and he lived as man and wife.

With the beginning of the War of the Rebellion, Robert Brownell enlisted in the 1st Rhode Island Infantry Regiment. Kady was determined to serve with him. She approached Governor William Sprague, who agreed to take her along to Washington and there met up with Robert. Colonel Ambrose Burnside, the regiment's commander, appointed her a Daughter of the Regiment (vivandière) and, later, a color bearer.

What Is a Vivandière?

Vivandière is a French name for women attached to military regiments as sutlers or canteen keepers. Their actual historic function of selling wine to the troops and working in canteens led to the adoption of the name cantinière which came to supplant the original 'vivandière' starting in 1793, but the use of both terms was common in French until the mid-19th century, and vivandière remained the term of choice in non-French-speaking countries. [Some regiments used the term "Daughter of the Regiment" as an alternative for the French terms.]

Originally, a regular soldier in a regiment was a vivandier. Many soldiers' wives trailed after their husbands on campaign. Eventually, women began taking over these jobs, thus the feminine form of vivandière was coined. Many of the women began making themselves outfits that mimicked their husbands' regimental uniforms.

"French Mary" Tepe, vivandière of the 114th Pennsylvania Regiment [Note the holster on her left side]; Photographer and date of creation unknown, c. 1866-1884; Image courtesy of the U.S. Army Military History Institute (USAMHI)
"French Mary" Tepe, vivandière of the 114th Pennsylvania Regiment
[Note the holster on her left side]
Photographer and date of creation unknown, c. 1866-1884
Image courtesy of the U.S. Army Military History Institute (USAMHI)

It should be pointed out that to many members of the general public, these women were often regarded as "ladies of easy virtue." There *MAY* have been some women "plying their avocation" (as Union General Ben "the Beast" Butler coined the phrase) but most of these ladies served loyally and bravely in support of their cause. They also functioned as battlefield water carriers and nurses.

Kady Brownell Goes to War

At some point during her time in Washington, Kady was appointed to be a member of the 1st Rhode Island's color guard. She learned how to fire a rifle-musket quite proficiently, as at that time color guardsmen were required to be sharpshooters (in order to protect the colors).

She participated in the First Battle of Manassas (aka Bull Run). At one point during the battle, her company broke in the face of Confederate attacks. Kady grabbed the colors, held them high, and stood her ground, hoping to rally her comrades. However, as Rebels advanced to within a few hundred yards of her position, another Union soldier urged her to retreat. She eventually found her unit, and her husband, who was unharmed. The 1st Rhode Island then fell back to Washington; shortly afterwards, the unit returned to Connecticut, where it was mustered out of Union service on August 1. [When the regiment was originally formed, the soldiers had signed up for 90 days, one of the many units formed under President Lincoln's first call for 75,000 volunteers to serve 90 days.]

Many of the men from the old 1st Rhode Island Infantry re-enlisted in the newly-formed 5th Rhode Island Infantry, the men signing on for three years. Robert and Kady Brownell joined the 5th Rhode Island, determined to make their contribution to the Union cause. Kady resumed her duties as a member of the regimental color guard.

The 5th Rhode Island was attached to now-Brigadier General Burnsides' expedition to capture various objectives along the North Carolina coast intent on suppressing Confederate blockade runners. After capturing Roanoke Island, which sheltered a number of Confederate blockade runners, Burnsides' forces advanced on the nearby town of New Bern. On March 14, 1862 the Federals attacked Rebel entrenchments south of the town.

The 5th Rhode Island was initially held in reserve with the rest of Burnsides' Third Brigade. Later in the day, the Third Brigade was ordered to move forward to join the fight. Later, another Rhone Island regiment achieved a breakthrough in the Rebel line, panicking the Confederates and forcing them to retreat.

Kady Brownell and her husband Robert; Another posed photo, likely taken at same time as above photo; Image courtesy of
Kady Brownell and her husband Robert
Another posed photo, likely taken at same time as above photo
Image courtesy of

During the fighting, 1st Sergeant Robert Brownell received a severe leg wound. She spent the next six weeks in New Bern, caring for Robert. She also helped nurse the other wounded soldiers, even carrying soup and coffee to the Rebel hospital there. In late April, the Brownells traveled to New York on a steamship. Robert was given a medical discharge in December, 1862 and Kady never returned to the front lines.

In 1870, Kady was inducted into the Elias Howe Jr. Post #4 of the Grand Army of the Republic of Bridgeport, CT. She is listed in local records after the war as an "actress," likely giving lectures about her experiences in the War Between the States. In 1882, she applied for a military pension from the federal government. It took special acts of Congress before Kady began receiving her $8 a month pension in 1884.


Cady and her husband lived in Connecticut, then they moved to New York when she took up residence in the New York State Women's Relief Corps Home, Oxford, NY. Kady died on January 14, 1915. Robert S. Brownell, Jr., died on September 29, 1915.

Footnote #1: Vivandières did not achieve the same level of official sanction in North America as they did in France and other European nations. There are also no official numbers for how many of these women served during the War of the Rebellion.

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