26 October 2014
John Mason Brown: From Adventures on the Upper Missouri to Combat
in Civil War Kentucky
By Ken Robison
For The River Press
October 29, 2014
This is the thirty-first installment of a monthly series commemorating Union and Confederate veterans of the Civil War who came to Montana during or after the war. This month features dashing young John Mason Brown who journeyed twice to the Upper Missouri before leading Union Kentucky Cavalry forces in combat against famed Gen. John Hunt Morgan. Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Young John Mason Brown made two exciting trips to the Upper Missouri during 1861-1862 before becoming embroiled in the Civil War in his native Kentucky. On his first trip up the Missouri River on the steamboats Chippewa and Spread Eagle in 1861, he became friends with Andrew Dawson, Chief Factor of the Upper Missouri Outfit of Pierre Chouteau, Jr. & Company, the famed American Fur Company. Dawson, with other illustrious travelers during that two-month river trip including Charles P. Chouteau, head of company operations, and colorful Malcolm Clarke, fueled Brown’s quest for knowledge and adventure.
John Mason Brown was born in Frankfort, capital of Kentucky, on April 26, 1837, in imposing Liberty Hall, built for his grandfather, John Brown, a leading lawyer and one of Kentucky’s first two senators. John Mason Brown's father, Mason was a substantial landowner and slaveholder, holding fifty-one slaves in 1860 and wielding considerable political influence. Young John Mason graduated from Yale College in 1856, returned to Frankfort where he taught school and studied law. In April 1860, he opened a law practice in St. Louis, Missouri.
During Brown’s first trip up the Missouri on the American Fur Company’s Spread Eagle steamboat in the spring of 1861, he had long conversations with a new friend, Andrew Dawson, as well as other frontiersmen. During this trip Dawson wrote, “In St. Louis there was not a pistol to be had for love or money. Nothing is talked of but soldiering and even here on the S[teamboat] Boat the passengers have formed themselves into a Company and go through daily drill” organized by John Mason Brown. The fifteen “Spread Eagle Guards” were armed with government annuity rifles provided by Charles Chouteau—arms being taken up river for distribution under treaty obligation to the various native nations.
Throughout this trip, Brown kept a remarkable diary that contained daily entries describing the many hazards of the trip up the Missouri River, his travels throughout what later became western Montana Territory as well as geographical features of the Rocky Mountains.
Boarding the steamer Chippewa at Fort Union, the travelers soon encountered tragedy. A careless crewman ignited 200 kegs of gunpowder in the hold of the steamer, and the boat blew up. Brown and the other passengers survived but suffered a long delay until wagons and horses could be sent from Fort Benton. Brown’s diary provides excellent insight into the trip from Fort Union to Fort Benton. After arriving at Fort Benton, adventurous Brown traveled along the Mullan Military Wagon Road via the Government Blackfoot Farm at Sun River, observing the Indians, the violence, the quest for gold, and the deeply divided loyalties of white residents. Brown wrote extensively of his travels along the Mullan Road to Fort Walla Walla, and on to San Francisco and home via the California overland route.
On his second trip up the Missouri, he left St. Louis May 10, 1862 on the company steamer Spread Eagle, renewed his friendship with Dawson and Clarke, and met the legendary trader Alexander Culbertson and his Blackfoot wife Natawista. Again Brown kept a diary with daily entries describing the trip up the Missouri River from St. Joseph, Missouri to Fort Benton, his encounters with traders, miners and hunters, as well as various Indian tribes in the Northern Plains, Rocky Mountains and Alberta, then British America, and the return trip down the Missouri.
A highlight of Brown’s second trip occurred when he joined a prospecting expedition made by a party of Bentonites consisting of Matt Carroll, James M. Arnoux, Dr. Atkinson, Paul Longleine, Henry Bostwick, Edward Williamson, David Carafel, George Magnum, and John Munroe. They proceeded north of Chief Mountain in July 1862, searching for gold that they had learned about from a man named La Rue. La Rue, who had lived among the Blackfoot for several years as a self-appointed priest, had sent a package to Dawson with word that it was gold bearing sand. The sand was washed and found to contain an exceptional amount of gold. The party formed quickly at Fort Benton and prospected along every stream from the Marias River to the Willows, a point about twenty-five miles south of the Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Edmonton.
The prospectors found light gold colors along the way, but nothing to warrant working. La Rue could not be found and the frustrated prospectors concluded that he had deceived them so in September they returned to Fort Benton. His sense of adventure satisfied, John Mason Brown likely joined a party of miners returning down river to St. Louis by mackinaw boat.
Brown's return to Missouri and Kentucky and the reality of the Civil War must have presented a dilemma to the young man. The Border States were deeply polarization into Union and Confederate camps, largely over the issue of slavery. In the war, nowhere were the divisions more acute than in the Kentucky and Tennessee since slaves made up about 20 percent of the population in the former and 25 percent in the latter. Tennessee seceded while Kentucky did not. By comparison slaves in Missouri formed 10 percent of the total population. Despite the slave owning background of the Brown family, John Mason never waivered, no doubt influenced by his years at Yale College and St. Louis as well as the summers on the Upper Missouri.
Within five days of his return from the second trip to the Upper Missouri in October 1862, Brown was commissioned Major in the 10th Kentucky Cavalry Regiment. He wrote to Andrew Dawson, known to friends as “Sorrell Top,” from the Camp of 10th Kentucky Cavalry” on March 15th 1863:
“My very esteemed old friend ‘Sorrell Top.’
I have this day caused to be shipped to ‘Andy Dawson, care of P Chouteau Jr & Co St. Louis’ by Adams Express, in a sea-worthy keg, a small portion of good whiskey which I hope you will find awaiting you on your arrival from Ft Benton- And in case it arrive all right I hope that you will condescend to touch it to the good luck of your young Ky. friend, who owes so much of the pleasant life he led in the Far North West to your kindness and friendship- If [Malcolm] Clarke ever departs from his ascetic rule of cider and ale I trust he will join you in the glass-
I wrote you, via Walla Walla, in [Frank L.] Worden’s care, immediately after reaching St. Louis- Even if that letter miscarried you heard I presume of our progress from Hotchkiss and Gerard [likely William D. Hodgkiss of Fort Union and J. J. Gerard of Fort Berthold]- Suffice it to say now that we got down safe, and in 5 days after my return to Kentucky I found myself Major of the 10th Regiment of Kentucky cavalry, busily engaged in drilling my men- This position I have held ever since but am now (I am informed by the Genl. Comdy [general commanding]) to be put in command of a regiment of my own- the immediate cause being the fact that I got my clothes badly torn in some recent fights- The Lord in his mercy Grant that the promotion may come!
Gerard commissioned me as I passed Fort Berthold to buy a horse for him to be sent up this Spring by the Company’s boat. He directed me to write to [D. A.] Constable on the subject which I did but received no answer- I found it impossible to get the kind of horse he desired for the sum he specified and in the absence of instructions from Constable I thought it best not to invest for him.
I feel very much annoyed to hear that Dr Atkinson and that Carpenter Neill had industriously circulated lying accounts of our trip up to Chief Mountain, to my prejudice- Not that I imagined it at all likely that you or Clarke or George Steele would ever believe that I would sell 10 or 15 pounds of meat to a man out of provisions for a dozen bullets or demean myself even towards those characters otherwise than as a gentleman should- But I had really done a good deal for Neil, fed him and lent him a horse for two days, and had supposed Atkinson to be a friend of mine- Carroll had done a great deal for both of them. Neil even to this day owes the undersigned for money paid out for him after we left Fort Union. Enough of the damned rascals- I only regret that I can’t have half an hours talk with them.
I most sincerely hope that your health is greatly improved and that your legs are again fully up to their duty- [Dawson had been badly crippled in an earlier fall at Fort Benton.] Let me have a short letter from you, if you can find the time, directed to Frankfort Kentucky- whence it will be forwarded to me.
Please do not fail to remember me most sincerely to Clarke, Carroll and Geo Steele—friends whom, with yourself I can never forget—and whose numerous kindnesses make Fort Benton seem a home to me- If it were possible that I could be in Frankfort, at my own home I would insist on you and Clarke spending a day or two with me if the time could possibly be squeezed out of your short allowances, but I am as I told you a cavalry officer and one day in Kentucky, the next probably in Tennessee—uncertain as to times and places- Please try and let Atkinson know my exact opinion of him which is that he is a damned double-faced lying scoundrel—by doing which you will peculiarly oblige.
Most truly & sincerely yr friend
Jno Mason Brown
Do me the favor to express to me at Frankfort a couple dozen buffalo tongues if any have come down—and send bill collectable on deliver of freight.”
The 10th Kentucky Cavalry had been raised by Col. Joshua Tevis, a veteran of the Mexican War, and organized at Maysville in northeastern Kentucky during the summer of 1862. During July-September Confederate generals Braxton Bragg, Kirby Smith, and Humphrey Marshall invaded Kentucky, and the 10th encounter the enemy at the battle of Perryville. After that battle on October 8th, the Confederates retreated from Kentucky, and the 10th participated in the pursuit, following Gen. Humphrey Marshall's men through the mountains, capturing prisoners, horses and arms. The 10th remained on duty in Kentucky during the principal part of its service with excursions into Tennessee and [West] Virginia.
Major John Mason Brown joined the 10th on October 27th, and assumed command of two companies forming a battalion for a two-month scouting expedition. On December 25, Maj. John Mason Brown’s battalion moved through London and Barboursville to Big Creek Gap, and engaged in numerous skirmishes along the way.
Major Brown’s battalion rejoined the regiment in central Kentucky and remained on active service through the winter and spring of 1863, operating from the borders of Virginia to Somerset. During this time Col. Charles J. Walker and LtCol. Maltby commanded the 10th.
In the spring of 1863, Confederate Cavalry returned to raid Kentucky. On March 5th, confederate Col. R. S. Cluke's 8th Kentucky Cavalry crossed the Cumberland river at Stigall's Ferry below Somerset, and made its way to Richmond, Winchester, Mount Sterling, and other points. The 10th Cavalry opposed Col. Cluke, advanced from Crab Orchard, and skirmished at Lancaster. Pushing on, it encountered Cluke's men at many points. Among them was a fight about half way from Winchester to Mount Sterling where, as reports indicate, Maj. Brown checked a fierce attack, and with the 44th Ohio coming up, the enemy fled. In this pursuit of Cluke the 10th Kentucky marched 135 miles.
At one time Col. Cluke’s force of eight hundred men at Winchester, was charged and driven out; then by feigning to go to Paris he drew the Federal forces in that direction, and returned to Mount Sterling where he fell upon a portion of the 10th under Capt. Ratcliffe, who defended his men from homes in the town. Cluke resorted to the torch, and after burning the place captured Ratcliffe and paroled him and his men. On March 28th the 10th, cooperating with the 5th Kentucky Cavalry, succeeded in driving Col. Cluke out of Kentucky and into Virginia.
On June 30, 1863, Maj. John Mason Brown assumed command of the 10th for a month. In July a portion of the 10th under Maj. Brown captured Confederate Gen. Humphrey Marshall's "artillery." A report of Col. Cluke described the action, "Gen. Marshall is in forty miles of this place moving on with sixteen hundred cavalry. He lost his artillery the other night. The guard placed over it went to sleep, and some 'Home Guards' slipped in on him, and carried off the gun, leaving the carriage and caisson."
Throughout this period the 10th Cavalry protected Eastern Kentucky, and had numerous engagements with the enemy in which it suffered loss. Among their battles were Elk Fork, Tenn., Glasdesville, Va., Mount Sterling, Triplet's Bridge, and Lancaster, Ky. It participated in the pursuit and rout of Pegram and Scott; in the course of its service it was rarely at rest, being on active duty all over Eastern Kentucky, and into East Tennessee and West Virginia. The depleted 10th was mustered out of service September 17, 1863, at Maysville.
In the fall of 1863 Brown was promoted to Colonel to recruit and assume command of the 45th Kentucky Mounted Rifles. Mustered in on October 10th, the 45th served at Mount Sterling, and covered the front from Cumberland Gap to Louisa until March 1864. At that time, Col Brown was appointed commander of the 4th Brigade, 1st Division, District of Kentucky.
In May 1864, confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan rode into Kentucky through Pound Gap on his last cavalry raid into the state. Federal cavalry under Col. Brown, Col. Wickliffe Cooper, and others attacked Morgan at Cynthiana, Mount Sterling, and Augusta. At Mount Sterling, Morgan dismounted his men to burn enemy supplies and scour the countryside for horses. Morgan left his dismounted element and his maneuvering with his mounted force succeeded in confusing Union commanders. Col. Brown, commanding the 2nd Brigade, gained sufficient intelligence to convince his commander, General Burbridge, to change direction and descend on Mount Sterling to attack Morgan’s men. In this attack Col. Brown’s soldiers smashed through the outposts and into the unsuspecting Confederate camp. This attack decimated Morgan’s men, killing or capturing about 314 officers and men.
Overall, during his raid into Kentucky, Gen. Morgan lost over half of his men and finally was driven into east Tennessee, where he was killed at Greenville on September 4th. Col. Brown’s earlier command of the 10th and 45th together with his leadership in the engagements that drove notorious Col. John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate cavalry from Kentucky, earned him a reputation as an exceptional soldier. One official report stated, “There was no more gallant and efficient officer than Col. John Mason Brown . . . [who is] young, ardent, intelligent, and peculiarly acquainted with Kentucky.”
Leaving service in December 1864, Brown resumed his law practice at Frankfort. There he married Mary O. Preston, eldest daughter of confederate Brig. Gen. William Preston, and raised a family. Later moving to Louisville, he became one of the leading citizens, standing at the head of the bar and business enterprises and becoming a founder of the famed Filson Club. Upper Missouri adventurer and exceptional Civil War leader Colonel John Mason Brown practiced law until his death on January 29, 1890 and is interred in Cave Hill Cemetery, Louisville.
Ken Robison is a local historian and author of Confederates in Montana Territory: In the Shadow of Price’s Army and Montana Territory and the Civil War: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield.
1. Major Brown served with distinction during the Civil War.
2. Col. John Mason Brown’s grave in Cave Hill Cemetery, Louisville, Ky.