Wednesday, December 30, 2009

More Henry Clay Pate vs. John Brown

I have recently started doing some research for an article I want to write on how Kentuckians reacted to John Brown's raid. Being that Kentucky was a Border State, and potentially just as dangerously poised geographically as Harper's Ferry, I though that I might find some very interesting viewpoints; and so far I haven't been disappointed.

Today I was looking through rolls of microfilm of 1859 Kentucky newspapers. In an edition of the Frankfort Commonwealth I ran across an article that was a reprint from a Petersburg, Virginia newspaper. Henry Clay Pate was its author and John Brown was his target. (For information on Pate, see my July 15, 2009 post.) Here it is in its entirety:

FEROCIOUS MANIFESTO FROM HENRY CLAY PATE--His Disgust at Old Brown.-- H. Clay Pate, the Border Ruffian hero of Black jack, has published a card in reply to the charge of having shown the white feather [cowardice] to his old Kansas conqueror, Ossawattomie Brown His letter closes with the following allusion to the imprisoned insurrectionist.

As to Old Brown, he has been an outlaw all his life. Professing to be a zealous Christian, he is a fanatical hypocrite. Living at different times in almost every State in the Union, he has been everything by starts and nothing long, except as mean a man as a horse thief can be, and as treacherous as an heir of hell and a joint heir of the devil.

I said of Brown in the St. Louis Republican, in 1856: " He told me he would take the life of a man as quick as he would that of a dog, if he thought it necessary. He said if a man stood between him and what he considered right, and he considered Abolitionism right, he would take his life more coolly as he would eat his breakfast. His notions show what he is. Always restless, he seems never to sleep. With an eye like a snake, he looks like a demon. Apparently a miserable outlaw, he prefers war to peace, that pillage and plunder may the more safely be carried on. And this is a leader of the Free State party in Kansas."

There is no reason why I should change any opinion of John Brown in 1859.

If what I have said is not enough, the public need expect from me nothing more of defense with the pen. Three years ago I thrashed one coward who said I surrendered, and when he was called on for satisfaction, would not accept a challenge. I am just as able to do the same thing in 1859 as i was in 1856, and possibly a little abler. H. CLAY PATE
Petersburg, Va., Oct. 1, 1859
This article is interesting in that, if the date is correct, it was published before the Harper's Ferry raid, which occurred on October 16, 1859. It was common practice for newspapers to recycle articles from other newspapers. This is just speculation, but possibly the Commonwealth editor had remembered reading this article and thought he would make use of it in the wake of the Harpers Ferry raid while this event was the biggest story in the following weeks.

Another significant point that this article bring out is the sense of honor that Southerners seemingly put above almost all else. The article clearly states that Pate "published a card in reply to the charge of having shown the white feather." A man's honor was not to be trifled with in the 19th century South. Being labeled a coward was seen as unmanly and therefore a heinous insult. At the end of the article Pate himself confirmed the allegation, but attempted to express his willingness to disprove the charge when he said that, "I thrashed a coward who said I surrendered," and that he called "for satisfaction," but that the accuser "would not accept a challenge."

Pate went to Charlestown, Virginia to visit Brown in jail. Apparently, as one would expect, the visit did not go well. Pate was all to happy to see his old nemesis incarcerated and gloated over his capture. Brown told Pate that he had met many people braver than the young Border Ruffian, to which Pate responded by calling Brown a villain.


  1. Greetings Tim:

    Pate is an interesting figure.

    Henry Clay Pate, who died in 1864 serving under JEB Stuart, was a colorful character, but he was a man of inferior character and ought not to be believed, in my opinion.

    First of all, we have the separate, harmonized testimony of John Brown’s sons Owen and Salmon that Pate himself brought the flag of truce to Brown and was taken prisoner. Salmon says that the first man to bring the flag of truce was not Pate and he was sent back and told to send Pate. Pate came with a free state prisoner and the flag of truce. Brown demanded unconditional surrender and had weapons pointed at him. Pate’s own man, named Brockett, didn’t want to surrender and openly said Pate would not be so cowardly as to surrender, but Pate did surrender. Salmon Brown also said that neither his father nor his brothers “showed the white feather, as they were warned not to by their grandfather before they left Ohio.” So not surrendering and not having one's bravery called into question was also a northern thing too, apparently. (See letters of John Brown Jr., quoting Owen Brown, to Franklin B. Sanborn, Apr. 10, 1885, MS04-0052AB; and Salmon Brown to William E. Connelley, May 28, 1913, MS05-0039, both in Stutler Collection as below).

    As to Pate’s character, the renowned researcher and John Brown aficionado, Boyd Stutler, researched Pate and discovered that he served during the Civil War in the 5th Virginia Cavalry. He was court-martialed for what Stutler called "sins of omission and commission," although he was restored by JEB Stuart and died in 1864, in the same battle that claimed Stuart’s life. Stutler says that Stuart himself wrote to Gen. Robert E. Lee that Pate "would not make a good corporal in a border ruffian outfit." Stutler discovered that Pate was widely disliked even by pro-slavery leaders in Kansas. He wrote that these pro-slavery leaders looked upon him "with a certain amount of contempt. He is described by all as being inordinately vain and pompous." Boyd Stutler to Lewis W. Bridgman, Apr. 12, 1959, RP02-0036; and Stutler to Joseph A. Johnston, Feb. 22, 1926, RP06-0042. All references in Boyd B. Stutler, John Brown Papers, West Virginia Historical Society.)

    It is not hard to conclude from all this that Pate, being pride and pompous, held a grudge against Brown and used every means to attack his character and save his own face. But considering that he was not liked by his fellows in Kansas nor was he trustworthy or well liked by Confederate officers, Pate appears to be a good candidate for "big liar." His gloating in the face of Brown at Charlestown, Va. only reinforces the sense that Pate's testimony was probably unreliable and born of pride and resentment. Best wishes

  2. Louis,
    Thanks for your comments and additional information. I have long been fascinated with the idea of "Southern honor," and Pate's personal need to publish his account shows how touchy this idea was to them. It seems he wanted to find ways to keep his name in circulation.

    I have no doubt that Pate was a pompous, big-headed, blowhard and that if he were in our modern society he would probably be one of those reality television stars that trys to turn his 15 minutes of fame into 30.