Henry Clay Pate, Student (1832-1864)
    by Camille Horton

Henry Clay Pate was born in Bedford County, Virginia on April 21,1832 to Edmund and Sarah Pate. His father Edmund was a veteran of the War of 1812 who reinforced in his sons the value of education rather than soldierhood. In 1848, Pate matriculated to the University of Virginia Law School as a part of the State Student Program where he was eventually joined by his brother the following year.  Unfortunately he dropped out due to financial troubles even though the Pate family owned slaves and were presumably wealthy. Pate held some animosity towards UVA; he wrote in his 1852 book The American Vade Mecum, in which he criticized the university for encouraging the idea of Virginia being the leading state in the country, "They, indeed, are the very princes of freemen; breathing, as they do, the pure breezes of their own blue mountains, and daily learning lessons of liberty and independence from the wild bird that soars in unobstructed flight and proud defiance about the towering summit of the Peaks of Otter." [Pate, American Vade Mecum] This is important, as we know that the University treated State Students vastly different than the regular student, and while the Pate family was well off, they were not wealthy.

In Cincinnati, Pate found work as a writer, to the criticism of many.

A colleague wrote on Pate, "Some years, four or five years perhaps, ago, the door of a lodging room, in the third story of an obscure building of this city, was labeled with startling letters 'H. CLAY PATE, AUTHOR!' Behind this door were the quarters of a slight young man who had thrust distinction upon himself, by publishing at his own expense, a book! The frontispiece thereof was a wood cut of the "author," with a facsimile of the autograph of that illustrious individual. .... It was made up of several mournful attempts at 'tales,' and a mass of essays perpetrated at college, introduced by a prodigious exhortation to all young men of the country, to go straightway and take a college course at the institution of the workmanship of which the 'author' was a blossoming specimen.-- Would that we had kept our copy of the volume..." (Quindaro Chidowan, February 13, 1858)

 While disliking the pretentiousness of elite Virginians at his alma mater, Pate carried pro-slavery ideals as he ventured further west. In the Last Generation by Peter Carmichael, there is a section about Pate’s fervor for the cause: “The longer we submit to the blasting monopoly of the northern merchants," he wrote, "the more difficult will it be to cast off the yoke of oppression under which we live." (Carmichael, The Last Generation, p 45) Eventually moving to Kansas, Pate became involved in the Bleeding Kansas crisis, causing him to come into contact with infamous abolitionist John Brown. He joined Westport militia Shannon’s Sharpshooters (named for Democratic Governor Wilson Shannon) whose assignment was to hunt down Brown’s men and bring them to justice (regardless of the Governor's official orders). Pate ultimately was promoted to Deputy United States Marshal. He set out to find and arrest John Brown after the Pottawatomie Massacre. Pate and his men camped out in Douglas Country near Blackjack, and on June 2nd, 1856, John Brown’s men attacked the pro-slavery militia, beginning a battle which lasted for three hours. Although Pate's men outmanned Brown’s men, the abolitionist eventually won. Pate surrendered and was taken hostage. Many call the Battle of Black Jack the first battle of the Civil War, as it is the first armed conflict between pro-slavery militia and antislavery forces.

 Pate and his men were freed by Colonel Edwin Sumner, a commander of Federal troops on a trip to Fort Leavenworth. Colonel Sumner, who would go on to become a Union General in the Civil War, arrived with orders from Governor Shannon to free Pate’s men. A witness, Federal troop G.W.E Griffith, would note this incident:

"Then, Captain Pate got up on a log and said he would like to make a few remarks. Colonel Sumner then lifted up his voice and said distinctly, 'I don't want to hear a word from you, sir. You have no business here, the Governor told me so.' Captain Pate and his company then disappeared..." [Griffith, Black Jack, 525]

While the Battle of Black Jack was a failure for Pate, he eventually went on to achieved success in the outbreak of the Civil War under the Confederacy; Henry Clay Pate served as the Lieutenant Colonel of the 5th Virginia Cavalry and is even said to have designed a new type of revolving canon that carried five shots. While in Kansas, Pate had an encounter with Lieutenant J.E.B Stuart, who was then one of Colonel Sumner’s officers. He had encountered him even earlier during a legal dispute Pate had with friend Thomas Rosser in Westport, in which Stuart took Rosser’s side. In the Civil War, Pate served under Stuart’s command.

General Stuart put a large amount of responsibility on Pate during the first attack of the Battle of the Yellow Tavern. General Stuart told Pate to hold his position until reinforcements came in, to which Pate “up and looked squarely at the General from whom he was estranged” and replied, “I will do it.” The General thanked him [Freeman, Lee's Lieutenants, 421]. On the second wave of Union attack, Pate held his position, as promised, and was killed. Both Pate and General J.E.B Stuart, who was mortally wounded and died the next day, were both killed in the Battle of Yellow Tavern. On May 11th, 1864, Lieutenant Pate died from a shot to the temple. He was only 32. To this day, he is memorialized on the Confederate Army Alumni plaque on UVA’s Rotunda. 

Cite This Entry


Horton, Camille. "Henry Clay Pate, Student (1832-1864)." JUEL, September 18, 2017. http://juel.iath.virginia.edu/node/859.


First published: September 18, 2017 | Last modified: July 2, 2018