31 January 2014
Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:
“Sandbar” Frank D. Brown: From Plantation Boyhood and Confederate Soldier and Marine to Adventures Galore on the Montana Frontier
By Ken Robison
For The River Press
January 29, 2014
This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that came to Montana after the war. This issue features the colorful exploits of “Sandbar” Brown who blazed a trail from his family’s plantation in Virginia to boyhood service in the Confederate Army, the War Department, and Marines to adventures on the upper Missouri as a miner and leader in the United Confederate Veterans. Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Francis Dean “Sandbar” Brown, a man of many names and adventures, fought for the South in the Civil War and left an indelible mark when he came to Montana Territory at war’s end. Born November 24, 1845 to socially and politically prominent parents in Bedford City, Nelson County, Virginia, Frank’s father Ludwell Harrison Brown’s great grandfather was Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and his mother, Margaret Washington McClelland’s great grandfather Richard Henry Lee also signed the Declaration.
Young John Brown was reared on Montezuma plantation in the rolling hills of Virginia’s Piedmont, and he little realized he was destined for remarkable pioneer experiences in the West. In 1850 John’s father worked as a civil engineer, and the family owned one household slave, Sarah Read age 30. His father died in 1859, and two years later in June 1861 at age fifteen John F. Brown joined Company D, 25th Battalion Virginia Volunteers, known as the Richmond Battalion. The 25th Battalion was responsible for local defense of the Richmond area and on constant guard duty throughout the city, capital of the Confederacy. While Brown’s enlistment in 1861 is documented, the 25th Battalion apparently was not organized until August 1862, thus his first year of service is unclear.
In November 1861 Private Brown was transferred to the Quartermaster Department under Capt. James R. McClelland, and the following April he was assigned to the Confederate War Department as Orderly under his cousin Secretary of War James A. Seddon.
In early 1863 Private Brown returned to the Richmond City Battalion. With the Union controlling much of coastal Virginia and North Carolina, inland cities like Richmond were starving. Much of the cropland in central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley went unattended as soldiers left their farms to fight for their country. The rail system was overtaxed supporting the fighting forces, and food that did make it to Richmond was sold by merchants and speculators at rocketing high prices.
With the ranks of police depleted, order broke down. In the words of historian Michael Chesson, “Wartime Richmond had become a city of strangers and camp followers, some with criminal intent.” The Battle of Antietam, known as the Battle of Sharpsburg in the South, during General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of Northern soil had ended badly for the Confederacy, providing a wake-up call for those who thought the war would soon end. The winter leading into 1863 had gone badly in Richmond with a devastating explosion of a major ordnance plant in March killing 45 women and girls working there followed by heavy snow and ice and a breakdown in the city’s water works.
On March 27, President Jefferson Davis blundered when he called on Confederates everywhere to spend the day in prayer and fasting. A clerk in the War Department wrote, “Fasting in the midst of famine! May God save this people!” Angry women took to the streets protesting against hoarders and grain speculators. Women from within the city and nearby counties descended on the Confederate Capital. The situation rapidly escaladed into violence. The Richmond City Battalion deployed to protect the Capitol. With President Davis on the scene, in the face of threats of troop commanders to fire on the rioters, the women fled with no shots being fired. Artillery was brought in to position to defend the Capitol and business district. The Confederate Army was placed on alert, but a second day of demonstrations was called off and the authorities rounded up riot leaders.
Secretary of War Seddon pleaded with city newspapers to suppress the story and telegraph operators to remain silent, yet the suppression did not work. Brief but clear reports of “Bread Riot” appeared in print, and city residents, both white and black, knew what had happened.
In September 1863, Private John Brown was discharged from the 25th Battalion. He immediately re-enlisted as a Confederate Marine. The Confederate States Marine Corps (CSMC), a branch of the Confederate States Navy, was established in March 1861. By September 1862 its manpower was authorized at 1026 enlisted men. The organization of the corps began at Montgomery, Alabama, and was completed at Richmond. Throughout the war the CSMC headquarters and main training facilities were located at Camp Beall on Drewry’s Bluff and at the Gosport Shipyard in Norfolk.
The Confederate Marines were modeled after the U.S. Marine Corps that had a tradition as a fine and well-disciplined organization. The CSMC never approached its authorized manpower and in October 1864 listed only 539 officers and men. CS Marine Corps units were stationed at naval bases and with garrisons at shore fortifications like Fort Fisher in North Carolina. Marines served on Confederate warships such as the open-ocean raider CSS Alabama. From mid 1862, the CS Marine Corps was broken into squad-sized units and dispersed throughout the South and aboard CS ships.
Private Brown served with a Marine Corps unit on the Steamer Powhatan, commanded by Lieut. William Severe. The Powhatan served as a tender to the ironclad Virginia until its officers destroyed the boat at the surrender of Richmond in April 1865. Brown’s Marine regiment assembled at Drewry’s Bluff on the James River, where they surrendered to the 15th Pennsylvania Regiment and were taken to Petersburg and paroled.
Defeated, but unbowed, Frank D. Brown would remain an unreconstructed Confederate for the rest of his life. About this time, Brown dropped “John” from his name through distaste for the Union Army’s marching song “John Brown’s Body Lies A-Mouldering in the Grave. . .”
The Civil War brought desolation and insecurity to the southland and under these conditions the young veteran of the Confederacy decided to leave Virginia and seek his fortune in the West. At the time of his parole, Private Brown was given rations and transportation to St. Louis, Missouri. He later wrote a short account of his decision:
“I was a young Confederate soldier after Lee’s surrender. I went to St. Louis and entered the employ of the American Fur company and arrived at Fort Union Feb. 12, 1865. Of an adventurous disposition, I went out of the service of the company the March following, with two halfbreed Frenchmen, to trap beaver and otter on the lower tributaries of the Yellowstone. I engaged in this work more or less profitably, but being bothered by the Sioux, went over to the Judith and Musselshell, where I traded at Fort Hawley and Fort Benton.
During his long life Brown gave varying account of his activities in his early years in Montana. Perhaps Brown didn’t proceed overland up the Missouri to Fort Union until February 1866, and on to Fort Benton in the spring of that year. More likely, however, on his arrival at St. Louis, the Northwest Fur Company hired him, and he boarded the first company steamboat Hattie May to make its way up the Missouri River to the Montana mining frontier. His claim of employment with the American Fur Company no doubt blurred over the years. During the summer of 1865 the Upper Missouri operations of that company had been purchased by the Northwest Fur Company, thus Brown likely was hired and received passage up the river as an employee of the new company.
Reaching Fort Union on September 17, 1865, Frank Brown proceeded overland to Fort Benton arriving in December of that year. In Montana Territory he worked as wolfer, wood hawk, fur trapper, scout, and placer miner on the Yellowstone, Musselshell, Judith and Missouri rivers. In 1872 he was a scout under Colonel Eugene Baker at Fort Ellis on an expedition to protect surveyors of the first Northern Pacific survey up the Yellowstone River. In Brown’s words:
“Felix Ingrem and myself were to furnish meat to the survey outfit of Colonel Hayden. We had our first brush with the Indians on a slough—an inclosed piece of land opposite the mouth of Pryor’s Fork, and it is my honest opinion that had it not been for the infantry, who constituted a part of the military command, there would have been another massacre to add to that of Fort Smith and Kearny.
“As I have been in every valley tributary to the Yellowstone, I am familiar with the rich alluvial soils, its wealth of grass lands and its mineral possibilities. From 25-Yard creek to the Bad Lands, this great and noble river, dotted with islands ever green with cottonwood groves swiftly pursues its way to mix its pure waters with the muddy current of the Missouri, ever whispering of romance and tragedy, amid silences unbroken save by the lowing of countless herds of game, or the scream of thousands of wolves.
“I have lain in my buffalo robes and looked up at the starlit heavens and whitened crests of lofty enclosing mountains, and wondered why the emigrant should wheel his way to more distant lands to find the home he sought. The Indian alone was the obstacle, and he would finally be removed by the tide of emigration flowing up the Platte and Missouri. And I am grateful to know that I have lived to see the day which I predicted would come, where the trails had given way to the railroad, where the schoolhouse, church, village and city invite you to tarry and abide, where fenced lands destroyed the primeval serenity. Prior’s Gap, and the immense area of lowly well watered valleys, within the last 50 years, have given homes to thousands.”
Frank Brown told varying stories of how he earned the nickname “Sandbar” Brown. At times his story was located on the Yellowstone River while other times the incident occurred on the Upper Missouri. Perhaps the most plausible account came when asked by a newspaperman to explain the peculiar significance of the name, Brown replied:
“It was in 1866, with two other men I was riding along the Missouri, about seven miles above the Marias [River]. One of the men was across a ridge and my other partner had crossed the river and had disappeared from view.
“I forded over a long sandbar, got the three horses hidden in some willows and backtracked, as we knew some Indians were following us. Hidden behind some sand, I saw three Bloods [Kainai Blackfoot] following our tracks. They had their guns ready, and you know Bloods never gave a white man a chance. They always killed from ambush. As the first Indian got over to the bar, I fired and he dropped. My partner heard the show and came running back. I got the second Indian and my partner got the third. We scalped them and threw their bodies in the river. I guess that’s how I got ‘Sandbar’ tacked to my name.”
In 1873 Andrew Jackson Davis hired Brown to locate mines in the early days of Butte, and his success in locating the Lexington and other substantial mines contributed to the early success of both the mining camp and Davis’ personal fortune. That same year Brown married Anna Elizabeth Lentz in Helena in December. They had eight children: Francis Dean, Anna, Edward Wilhelm, Amy Frances, Albertina Nettie, Minnie Madeline, Angus, and James A. Murray. Francis Dean, Anna, and Angus died before age three. Mrs. Anna Lentz Brown passed away October 6, 1914.
Brown moved to Philipsburg in 1878 to join the Northwestern Mining Company. He owned and edited the Philipsburg Mail newspaper, and for the next forty years, he managed and developed many placer and quartz mines in the area.
Brown attended all Democratic state conventions for four decades, though he never ran for public office. He was a member of the Sons of the American Revolution and served proudly as Major General in the United Confederate Veterans, commanding the Northwest Division for Montana, Idaho, Washington, the Dakotas, and Wyoming. He was known as a brilliant conversationalist and orator.
An active member of the Society of Montana Pioneers, “Sandbar” Brown was elected its historian in 1908 and its secretary in 1923. He played a key role in locating and promoted monuments to Lieutenant John Mullan and the Mullan Road, an early wagon road from Fort Benton to Fort Walla Walla, Washington Territory. The marble Mullan Monuments begin on the Levee in Fort Benton and extend across Montana in key points along the famed Mullan Military Wagon Road.
In his later years, Brown ranched and sold real estate and insurance. At the age of 85, Private Frank D. “Sandbar” Brown, veteran of the Confederate Army and Marines, and Major General in the United Confederate Veterans, passed on in Missoula on January 16, 1931. The old Confederate soldier rest today in Philipsburg Cemetery.
Ken Robison is a local historian and author of Montana Territory and the Civil War: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield.