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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Monday, October 03, 2016

The Return of That Loser Pate (Actually Just His Knife)

If certain figures of the Civil War may be said to personify the ill-fated hubris of the Confederacy, then Henry Clay Pate must surely be in that number.  But whereas some of them have been glorified in their arrogance, at least one of them was denied the pleasure, and largely because of John Brown. Now, if my almost religious disdain of Pate seems unfair, note that he is even disdained by some of his own family descendants, who know that he probably comes closest to bringing ruin upon their otherwise fine family name.  In a RootsWeb discussion thread from 2010, one member of the Pate clan wrote to another descendant:
[Henry  Clay Pate] could be considered famous but from everything I have found, he
is NOT a hero the family could be proud of. He was a very vindictive man,
was not thought highly of by his peers and it wasn't until the last battle
he fought in did Jeb Stuart decide he was a good soldier. Obviously, he is
in our family history, but I do not support placing him in the same company
as famous Pates. Maybe a new category of infamous Pates. 
Henry Clay Pate

A Spate on Pate

I would really like to apply the Golden Rule to the dead as well as the living, but there are a few people in the John Brown narrative of whom some very toasty things could be said without being considered unfair, and Henry Clay Pate is one of them.   Pate was a mean-spirited, dishonest, and unlikeable man.  There seems to be some notion that Pate won admiring words from his commanding officer, J.E.B. Stuart after his death at the Battle of Yellow Tavern in 1864.  This may be "Lost Cause" romance, but if Stuart (who got his just deserts in the same battle the following day) spoke kindly of Pate, it was only a soldier's concession to the dead.   

The truer estimate of Pate by Stuart (as relayed by Boyd B. Stutler) was that he "would not make a good corporal in a border ruffian outfit."  Stutler discovered that Pate was widely disliked by proslavery leaders in Kansas, who looked upon him "with a certain amount of contempt. He is described by all as being inordinately vain and pompous." Furthermore, a very reliable testimony passed down in the family of a Virginia cavalry officer states that Stuart's attitude toward Pate was "almost brutally severe." (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.)  

But my gripe with this dead rebel pertains to the manner and extent to which he went to abuse John Brown, who was clearly his better in every sense of the word.

Pate and Brown

Certainly, Pate was one of the most dishonorable man to be counted among Brown's future Confederate opponents, from the beginning of his doings with the abolitionist in Kansas in 1856 until his gratuitous, gloating visit to Brown in jail at Charlestown, Virginia in 1859.  Robert E. Lee was honorable but showed a dilettante indifference to the old man he had captured at Harper's Ferry.   J.E.B. Stuart was a self-righteous hothead who cursed Brown meanly but no more.   Even Lieut. Israel Green, who brutalized Brown on the floor of the Harper's Ferry engine house was as pitiable as he was contemptible, finishing his days as a drunk whose lying narrative could not absolve him of guilt.  But Henry Clay Pate was the worst because his misdeeds did not flow from a single incident, but rather from a deeply flawed character replete with ambition, deceit, and an inclination to vindictive plotting.  

A slaveholder, Pate was a mediocre writer and newspaper publisher who attempted to upgrade his profile as a proslavery newspaperman in Missouri.  When he was offered glory--and a cool knife--to apprehend and kill John Brown, Pate gave himself to the task like the ambitious tool that he proved to be.  However, whatever visions of glory he imagined, things did not turn out as he had expected.

When Pate and his men finally met Brown in battle in June 1856, he was not able to outdo Brown either in the field or by his wits, which were apparently inferior to those of the Old Man. Outsmarted in battle by Brown, Pate finally tried a bogus truce with the hope of delaying his opponent until reinforcements arrived.  But Brown was not easily fooled, and he took Pate prisoner instead, seizing his prize knife as a trophy.   Pate was shamed to the point of becoming the laughingstock of militant proslavery men at the time.  Meanwhile, Brown was so impressed with Pate's fine knife that he used it as a prototype for the thousand blades that were mounted on his famous pikes.  

In 1859, it seemed to Pate that his days of humiliation had come to an end when Brown was taken at Harper's Ferry, tried, and sentenced to death in Charlestown, Virginia.  Pate made the trip to Charlestown in order to delight himself by the sight of his old nemesis in chains; but although he was not above gloating, he was far more interested in eliciting some complimentary word from Brown that might redeem him in the eyes of the honor-minded South.   Pate also wanted his knife back from Brown, which would have made his redemption complete.

Unfortunately for Pate, Brown offered no such reprieve, and he and his witness left the jailhouse without satisfaction.  Brown made it clear that he did not think Pate was a brave man at all, nor that he was a fair fighter.  As far as that knife was concerned, well, the Old Man would never tell.
Defeated a second time by Brown, Pate set about on a vindictive path, composing a short treatise attacking him under the title, John Brown As Viewed by H. Clay Pate.  Publishing the screed at his own expense, he then set about lecturing about Brown at the time of his execution.  According to one reporter, however, Pate's anti-Brown lecture did not go over well in New York City, which was hardly a center of pro-Brown sympathy in 1859.  Even Virginians apparently greeted his little publication with coldness, given it was starkly vindictive and fairly useless now that they had Brown in chains.  
Certainly, some in Charlestown had even come to respect the integrity of Brown's character and recognized Pate's work as simply unworthy of the man.

Beyond this, there is little to learn of Henry Clay Pate between 1859 and 1864, when he was killed in battle.  A slaveholder and rebel, he joined a losing cause, once more hoping to find glory on the wrong side of history.  On May 11, 1864, he took at least one Yankee bullet at the Battle of Yellow Tavern, Henrico County, Virginia--a loser who had lost his most famous contest, then lost his most famous trophy, and finally lost his life for a "Lost Cause."  

Lost and Found

In a short article published first in the Boston Transcript  of January 30[?], 1900, an account about Brown and Pate's knife was relayed on the strength of Mary Stearns' testimony (the wife of Brown's supporter, George Luther Stearns).  The Stearns narrative states that Brown gave Pate's knife to his wealthy supporter in 1859, telling him that Southerners had bought it by subscription with the intention of arming the one charged to kill him.   Pate reportedly told Brown that the knife was given to him "to put an end to your career with, Captain Brown."  Unfazed, Brown seized the knife from him and replied: "Well, it seems that the Almighty had other designs concerning it." (New York Daily News, 31 Jan. 1900, p. 5).

A century and a half later, Pate's knife has made another public appearance, this time being purchased by Michael R. Zomber, the world-renowned antique arms and armors expert and author of fiction and non-fiction works.  In a report submitted by Zomber to PR News Wire (Sept. 26): "John Brown was a radical abolitionist well-known for his belief that armed insurrection was the only way to rid the United States of slavery.  He was eventually tried and hanged for his actions against the South."  Of course, Zomber is incorrect about Brown being an insurrectionist, and should read my book on John Brown's last days to correct his mistaken impression.  But otherwise, his words are salutary: "This knife is a rare treasure from a period in history I am particularly interested in and passionate about. Brown was a key player in the abolitionist movement, and it is an honor to own a piece of his personal history."

The knife, which is classified as a Bowie knife, was sold by Sotheby's and is described on the auctioner's website as "a remarkable artifact from one of the bloodiest periods in American history," with "a coffin-handle, spear-point blade, and a nickel handle inlaid with mother of pearl."  The knife is signed by maker, Joseph Hawksley's Celebrated.  Its overall length is 14 1/4 in. (330 mm), length of steel spear-point blade 9 5/8 in. (245 mm). The knife is accompanied by its time worn original brass-tipped gilt leather sheath.  Congratulations are due to Mr. Zomber; perhaps the knife will inspire a book on the subject, and hopefully it will be similarly fair to Brown.

So it seems John Brown's victory is permanent.  He not only snatched the knife from Pate and deprived slaveholders of their objective, but also passed it into the hands of more noble people, who preserved it for history.


Rich said...

Who doesn't love relics? Thanks for telling this story. As always I have a few questions. You mentioned Green was a drunk later in life. Where can I find information about his later life? How did the knife transfer from Buford to Pate? And finally what is the source of the statement that the knife was the prototype for the pikes. I always look forward to your stories.

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

Hi Rich--The information about Green in later life is not published, except where I quoted the source in Freedom Dawn. The source is a letter from a man who knew Green in later years, in South Dakota, and wrote to Oswald Villard in 1907. The man describes Green as a man of "intermittent sobriety" and shows him very unhappy and unsuccessful in later life. JB had the knife in Collinsville, CT, when he met Charles Blair the blacksmith who made the pikes. Brown told him he wanted such a blade mounted on long poles (See Villard, p. 283; Mason report, p. 121). Pate apparently knew about the later but mistakenly thought JB had given the knife to another of his friends not Stearns. Sorry, don't know the specifics of Pate's getting the knife.