Kady Brownell: Defying Gender Norms in the Civil War

Photograph of Kady Brownell in uniform, standing with a rifle and bayonet, circa 1861, representing her service in the Civil War as a vivandière and color bearer.
Kady Brownell, circa 1861

Kady Brownell Snapshot Biography

Born in 1842 in a British Army tent in Kaffraria, South Africa, to a French mother and a Scottish father, Kady Brownell’s early life was marked by the tragic death of her mother. With her father away as part of the British military, Kady was cared for by a local family who would eventually bring her to Providence, Rhode Island​.

In the early 1860s, Kady met and fell in love with Robert Brownell while working as a weaver in a textile mill. The two forged a deep bond, eventually living as husband and wife. However, their lives took a dramatic turn with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Robert enlisted in the 1st Regiment Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry of the Union Army.

Refusing to be separated from her husband, Kady accompanied him into war. At a time when the idea of women in combat was unfathomable to most, she served openly alongside Robert after earning the respect of the soldiers and permission from the regiment’s commander. She transcended traditional roles, transitioning from vivandière—a support position typically available to women—to color bearer, a role steeped in valor, risk, and significance. Color bearers were often responsible for rallying and guiding troops during battle. As often was the case for them, Kady had to take a position at the front of the regiment, very much in harm’s way.

As a soldier, she actively and bravely participated in combat while saving fellow soldiers’ lives. In one situation, she saved the lives of fellow soldiers from friendly fire. As written by one biographer,

“Just as a number of Union regiments were getting into their battle positions on the morning of March 14, members of the 5th Rhode Island came out of a clump of woods from an unexpected direction, giving the appearance that they might be a disguised rebel force preparing to attack. Realizing that a misunderstanding might lead the regiments already in line to open fire, and with no fear for her own safety, tradition has it that Brownell—who had moved to the rear as ordered—ran forward into clear view of those already in place, carrying her regiment’s flag and waving it wildly until the 5th Rhode Island soldiers’ identity became clear to surrounding regiments.”

Kady’s military service was a groundbreaking challenge to the era’s gender barriers, earning her the profound respect of her peers. After the war, in a testament to her service and that respect, Kady became the only woman to receive discharge papers from the Union Army. She was granted a pension and became a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans.

In later years, Kady said in an interview with a reporter about the war,

“The war, with all its legacy of bitterness and hatred is over, 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 passed away in 1915 at the age of 72.