Academic journal article Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military

Kady Brownell, a Rhode Island Legend. (Articles)

Academic journal article Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military

Kady Brownell, a Rhode Island Legend. (Articles)

Article excerpt

On a foggy March day in 1862, a Rhode Island teenager named Kady Brownell saved the bacon of her 5th Rhode Islanders at the Battle of New Bern, North Carolina. She risked her life by running in front of a line of other Union soldiers who were preparing to shoot at her company. In the smoke and fog, she got the attention of the shooters, and then she got the attention of the world. Throughout the years, newspapers from far and wide were quoted as saying that Kady was "... the only woman who ever enlisted in the Army of the United States (1)," and the "only woman who has her discharge papers and draws a pension for actual war services (2)." Today, Kady Brownell is an historic figure about whom many people think they know a fair amount, even though she was only in one major battle and left the war in 1862. What happened to her and for her that turned her into a legend--even before her death?

When one is dealing with a mythic person, primary sources are a lifeline. Documents from the Pension Files at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the Congressional Record and the payroll ledgers of the New York City Park Department reveal a paper trail for this legend-woman. She wasn't Paul Bunyan after all. She was real. She lived and marched off to war with her husband. This is known. But, surprisingly, birth date and place, parents, immigration information, marriage date, etc. are some of the most difficult things to find out about Kady.

Frank Moore, in his book, Women of the War (3), writes a stirring story of baby Kady being born on a battlefield in Caffraria, South Africa, where her frail French mother had come to watch her father, Colonel George Southwell, a Scot in the British Army, on maneuvers. A tent was quickly furnished for privacy as Mrs. Southwell went into labor and gave birth to a baby girl. Colonel Southwell's good friend, Sir James Kady, was also accompanied by his pregnant wife in Caffraria. The two friends agreed that they would name the new babies after each other. Thus, Kady became K-A-D-Y after her father's comrade's last name. It is a beautiful story and one on which many attributes can be hung--Kady had military life in her blood. She was used to living the hardships of a military family living all over the vast British Empire, etc. This birth story was reinforced by newspapers and anecdotal accounts of Kady for her whole life.

Newspapers, several books and the 1860 Federal Census tell of her foreign birth (although the 1860 Census lists her as being born in Scotland). Her husband, Robert, told the story in an 1895 interview (4). An African birthplace, a French mother and a British, not Scottish, father are listed on Kady's death certificate. Where, then, could one read about the lives of these fascinating parents and friends, living in the wilds of South Africa and their influences on baby Kady? Most sources say that Kady's mother died shortly after she was born, leaving her father, a colonel on active duty in a foreign land, as the only one to care for her. Enter Duncan and Alice McKenzie, good friends or possibly relatives of the Southwells, who offer to take the baby into their home. Alice may have even been a wet nurse for the child. The McKenzies, at some point and for reasons unknown, take Kady away from Africa and her father, and come to the United States. As far as is known, Kady never returned to Africa, and the sun sets quickly on these people from her infancy. Burke's Peerage, the London Metropolitan Archives, the Scottish Register General, the National Archives of Scotland, the Dictionary of National Biography, The Complete Peerage and British Who's Who do not contain a single reference to a Sir James Kady or a Colonel George Southwell. Traditionally, a colonel in the British Army would likely be from a high-born, well-known family with documented heraldry and pedigree. Yet the official credentials of these two men are nowhere to be found.

There is also no known immigration record of Kady and the McKenzies' official arrival in this the United States. …

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