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Union Color Bearer Kady Brownell,
Who Fought at First Bull Run and Displayed Incredible Bravery at the Battle of New Bern
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A view of Kady Brownell dressed in Zouave uniform, kneeling, holding a carbine, with lightly penciled identification on verso, no studio imprint.

[CIVIL WAR – UNION]. KADY BROWNELL. Carte de visite, identified on verso “Mrs. Brownell,” ca. 1870.

Inventory #22374       Price: $1,800

Historical Background

Kady Brownell (1842-1915) was born Kady Southwell in a British Army camp in Kaffraria, South Africa, to French Mother and Scottish father. When her mother died shortly after her birth, family friends, the McKenzie family, took her in and moved to Providence, Rhode Island. Until the outbreak of the Civil War, she worked in textile mills. She met Robert Brownell, a married millworker, and when his wife sued for divorce, they married, although it is unclear if it was a legal or common law arrangement. When the Civil War began, Robert enlisted in the 1st Rhode Island Infantry, with Kady determined to enlist as well. Rhode Island Governor William Sprague took her into his own unit, and once in Washington, Colonel Ambrose Burnside made her a Daughter of the Regiment and Color Bearer. She carried her rifle along with the Regimental flag, became an excellent shot, and was an active participant in the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas). As the battle turned sour for Union forces, a Pennsylvania soldier tried to lead her from the field and was shot and killed. He fell onto her, trapping her beneath his dead body. Though wounded herself, she freed herself and she hobbled to safety still carrying the flag.

After mustering out of the 1st Rhode Island, the Brownells re-enlisted in the 5th Rhode Island Battalion. Burnside was now a General, and he was ordered to take an expedition to North Carolina to capture southern ports to aid the Union blockade. During the Battle of New Bern, Kady displayed her bravery by saving the soldiers of the 5th Rhode Island from an incident of friendly fire. Poor visibility, an unexpected entry to the battlefield, and the ill-conceived choice of some soldiers to wear grey hats almost resulted in the 4th Rhode Island firing on their comrades in the 5th. Kady saw the danger unfolding, grabbed an improvised flag, and ran between the two groups to warn them of their mistake. This incident helped swell Kady’s reputation and build her to legendary status.[1] For the rest of the battle, she nursed Union troops, including her husband, who had been shot in the thigh.

In 1870, she was inducted into the G.A.R. in Bridgeport, Connecticut, whose city directory also listed her as an actress. Her most famous piece was entitled “Our Female Volunteer,” where she recounted her wartime experience. The photograph of her in the Zouave costume is likely from this time, as her Civil War uniform was a red coat, grey skirt, trousers, sash, and a hat. In 1884, Kady applied for, and received, an $8 per month pension for her wartime service. While not nearly as common as widow, orphan, and disability pensions, Kady was not the only woman who received government monies. Some nurses, standard-bearers, and women dressed as men to enlist also received federal assistance after the war.


Very good. Printed flaw in the background touched up by pen.

[1]Brownell is the subject of many legends, more fiction than fact, that have been passed through time and the Internet. Sara Bartlett unravels them, with full citations, in “Kady Brownell, A Rhode Island Legend.”

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