Now a salute to Sarah Brandon, a Moundsville woman whose 1914 obituary described her as the “Mother of the Civil War”. According to a story in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa Gazette, she died at 113, and had 23 children, including 16 boys who fought in the Civil War. (14 for the Union, two for the Confederacy.) It also mentioned this fact: “She drank and smoked moderately for 90 years.”
I discovered Brandon’s story thanks to a recent mention on Twitter by University of Tennessee-Knoxville historian and Appalachian writer Bob Hutton. (He did not return a couple emails seeking comment; I’m happy to publish his comments here if he wants to add something.)
Brandon’s life story shows how early media legends were created, and illustrates in vivid detail the tough, painful lot of women in 19th century America.
A search of newspaper archives shows that Brandon was a minor media sensation in the 1900s and 1910s. Her likeness hung in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, and the Ohio state gallery in Columbus. Then she was forgotten. I never heard her story while researching material for our movie (which you can rent for $3.99 here.)
Moundsville town historian Gary Rider hadn’t either, but he found and emailed me genealogical research indicating that newspaper accounts exaggerated her age and number of children.
Here is the most likely truth, according to those records: Sarah Barker was born in Ohio in 1819, 16 years after it became a state. So she was 95 when she died, not 113. But still: She came into the world only a few decades after the age of Washington and Jefferson, and lived into the century of the Wright brothers, the Atom bomb, Hitler, the moon landing, and Eminem.
And this is even crazier: At 15, she married a 74-year-old man named Charles Brandon, who was born in England in 1761 and was one of the Ohio Valley’s first white settlers, establishing a homestead and fighting against Native Americans. When they tied the knot, Charles had already fathered over 20 children in two previous marriages. Together, they had 15 children. The large number of Charles’ other children explains why newspaper accounts credit Sarah herself with as many as 32 offspring.
No wonder she filed for a divorce in 1856, even though she reportedly never learned to read. In 1887, she told the Xenia, Indiana Journal that she had divorced her husband the year he died. According to descendants, he died 10 years later. In 1863, she remarried a man named William Swaney or Sweney. By the 1910 census, he was no longer around either.
By then, Brandon was getting old and newspaper reporters were flocking the Moundsville to write stories about her.
An 1887 story in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer has her walking as many as 20 miles in a day between towns on the Ohio River. It says that Mrs. Brandon was known
as a somewhat eccentric personage, and many interesting stories are told about her. Although verging on seventy years her strength and powers of endurance are remarkable, exceeding, as they do, that of the average man… In personal appearance Mrs. Brandon is striking. Six feet tall, she has the build of a backwoodsman… Her features are not unpleasant, but her countenance is marred by the absence of her right eye, shot out with an arrow by one of the second wife’s children a generation ago, in a fit of childish rage. She is unable to read or write, but in conversation is intelligent, quick witter and possessed of great will power. She is a wonderful woman and one of the few remaining links binding the civilization at present existing along the Upper Ohio Valley with the savage and bloody past.
A 1911 story from The Appeal, a St. Paul, Minnesota paper, describes her as
hale and hearty. She does all her own housework and cultivates a small garden patch in the rear of her home. She smokes a pipe constantly, favoring only the strongest tobacco. Without the pipe, she says, she grows nervous and lonesome.
The little house in which she resides snuggles against a hill within a few yards of the city limits of the Ohio River town [Moundsville], and every week Mrs. Brandon can be seen wending her way to the city for supplies of her Sunday dinner.
Almost all the stories about Brandon refer again and again to her fondness for smoking tobacco. A 1911 story from the Rutland Daily Herald (Vermont) with a Moundsville dateline discusses how her reportedly 80-year-old son Evan went to buy “the annual supply of smoking tobacco” for his reportedly 111-year-old mother. “There are authentic records to prove that she is as old as she says she is,” the story says.
Mrs. Brandon is wonderfully active and is able to do much of the work around the house and even goes into the fields and assists there. She has had the very best of health all her life and in the last 30 years has not had a suck day. She, with other women of her day, learned to smoke and today her pipe is her constant companion.
An account in the Central News of Perkasie, PA makes her sounds like a hippie smoking weed:
Mrs. Brandon began to corner the smoking tobacco market at an early age, yielding to the lure of the pipe, and for many years requiring her son to lay in an ample supply of bright, golden, burley tobacco for her own special use. She hits the pipe freely and every day and night witnesses angelic visions through the curling smoke of the fragrant weed.
Of her children who fought in the Civil War, the Rutland Daily Herald story, says, “some were killed in battle, some were wounded, while others returned home unscathed.” One story from 1911 mentioned her reportedly 89-year-old son Hiram. He “works every day in a steel mill and boasts that he was never sick a day in his life.” Her son Evan “digs coal” and “carries scars from bullet and saber wounds received while fighting for the Union in the Civil War.”
Brandon lived in an age even more divided than our own, soiled by the blood of a literal civil war that killed some of her children. Initially celebrated only as a mother of soldiers, she comes across in later newspaper accounts as somebody who, despite illiteracy, a quasi-forced marriage and a life in a society painfully oppressive to women, persisted, and died very much her own person. May we all be so lucky.
John W. Miller.