Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Henry Clay Pate

Like many youth in the 19th century South Henry Clay Pate was named for an esteemed American, and like many youth of the 19th century South, Pate considered himself the quintessential American man.

Henry Clay Pate was born on April 21,1832 in Bedford County, Virginia. His father, Edward Pate was a War of 1812 veteran and had served in the Virginia General Assembly. H.C. as he was sometimes called had preferred to be become a soldier, but his family wished him to be a lawyer, so in 1848 he matriculated at the University of Virginia to study law. Pate's time at UVA would be cut short as he left in 1850 due to troubles in the Pate family finances.

Pate relocated to Louisville, Kentucky where he wrote newspaper articles and continued to informally study law. In 1851 he moved to Cincinnati where he wrote a short book praising the University he had to leave. The book was titled The American Vade Mecum; or, The Companion of Youth, and Guide to College. While the book credited UVA for turning out excellent students and citizens, it criticized what he saw as the current stagnant state of Virginia's progress and once proud place as a leading state in America.

While in Cincinnati Pate earned enough money to purchase a newspaper, but then sold it in 1855 for a profit and moved to Westport, Kansas (present day Kansas City), and stated editing and publishing a newspaper called The Star of the Empire, and also opened a law office.

Pate brought his Southern sympathies with him to Kansas, and in 1856 he joined Shannon's Sharp Shooters named for Kansas territorial governor Wilson Shannon. In the aftermath of the murders of pro-slavery settlers in the Pottawatomie Creek area, Pate and other pro-slavery Kansans and Missourians went to find the killers of these citizens. The nation later would come to know the perpetrator of these murders as none other than the militant abolitionist John Brown. Pate succeeded in arresting some of Brown's men, but upon moving the prisoners he became involved in a battle with Brown and more of his men. After a protracted fire-fight Pate issued a flag of truce. When Pate came out to parlay with Brown, the old abolitionist called for Pate's surrender. Pate refused at first, but after noticing that his men had abandoned him, he had no choice but to give up. Pate remained Brown's prisoner for several days until he was turned over to the U.S. Army and then he was released.

Pate was an active recruiter and fund raiser for the pro-slavery Kansas settlers. He made a number of trips back to Virginia for these purposes. While on one of these trips he met Miss Sue Thomas of Norfolk, who he married in 1859. He permanently moved back to Virgina in 1860 where he settled in Petersburg, printing the Petersburg Bulletin.

When war came Pate sold his business and raised a company of Virginia cavalry that was initially mustered into the Wise Legion, and served in western Virgina. He later served as Lieutenant Colonel of the 5th Virginia cavalry under JEB Stuart's command. Pate's Confederate military record included a dust up and longtime quarrel with Colonel Thomas Rosser, but he ended up dying a soldier's death in the Battle of Yellow Tavern. During the battle Pate was shot in the right temple; his commander, JEB Stuart, witnessed his death and would also die in the battle after being shot in the stomach. Pate was 32 years old; Stuart was 31. After an initial burial Pate was later re- interred in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

Pate's story is like so many other Southern young men during this era. Disillusioned with the direction America was headed and looking to make a name for themselves, they often chose the life of a soldier when war came. Many, like Pate, didn't live to see the Cause lost.


  1. What sources do you have regarding:

    (a) Pate's time in Louisville;

    (b) Pate's appointment as a colonel in the Kansas militia; and

    (c) Geary's ending Pate after Brown?

  2. a.) The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion by Peter S. Carmichael, page 35.

    b.) On this point it appears that I was mistaken in my governors. Pate was part of Shannon's Sharp Shooters, named after Kansas Territorial Governor Wilson Shannon, who preceded Geary. Geary didn't become governor until Sept. 1856. Thanks for catching the error.

  3. Do you have any additional family information other than what I assume was derived from the University Memorial bio? I stumbled upon your blog while researching my family and it appears H.C. and I are related. In a bit of irony, my father, Charles Pate, has written and researched extensively on Sharpe's and Colt's, which John Brown and his men were carrying that fateful day.

  4. I believe I am a direct decendent of Henry Clay Pate. He was my great-great grandfather. My grandfather was Edward Clay Pate, Jr; his father was Edward Clay Pate, who's father was Henry Clay Pate. I believe this is the correct order. My family has a copy of the book.
    If anyone has onformation otherwise, please let me know.

  5. I too am a descandent of Henry clay pate. His brother William D Pate was my great great grandfather. I am however a zirkle. William D had a servant Cynthia Zirkle whom he had children with while he was married to Rebecca. William is the only one of the children that took the pate name though they are on the birth and death certificates as father. I wish I knew more about all the pates. I am making a trip to va in May to visit my son. He has promised to take me to Hollywood Cemetery so I can pay tribute to my uncle Henry.

  6. Hello,

    I am currently researching the Battle of Yellow Tavern for an upcoming exhibit, and I stumbled upon this blog and have been fascinated by the discussion. The thread is an old one and I'm not sure how long they stay active, but I have a number of questions.
    One that I hope someone can answer- is there a photograph or painting of H.C. Pate in uniform? All I have been able to find is the youthful studio photograph you have of him in this section.


  7. Hello, I am trying 2 find out about my family bcuz most of my immediate family on mom's moms side died & I was never given information that went deeper until I realized that the family bible my gave me is from 1869 & Pate, Lane, Munday,Tracy, Gannon, & Williamson are the handwritten names in the bible.. I have several pictures from of my family as well that don't have names & I need help...! So if anyone is interested please email me at or call me at 510-688-7591 thank you