Memorial stone to Abram [B.] Brant - Fort Meade National Cemetery, near Sturgis, South Dakota. Courtesy of Scott Nelson.

Abram B. Brant – The Man from Manhattan

The fine photograph of the newly-erected marker for Abram [B.] Brant, Company D, 7th U.S. Cavalry, in Fort Meade National Cemetery, Sturgis, South Dakota similar to the one that graced the front cover of the Little Big Horn Associate’s Newsletter  (November 2008) rekindled pleasant memories of a fairly recent visit to this scenic part of the country, but it is the similarities between Brant and Private James Pym, Company B, that most caught my attention. For example, both men were awarded the Medal of Honor for bringing water to the wounded at the Battle of the Little Big Horn; both met violent deaths as a result of having been being shot at point-blank range;1 both headstones depict what is almost certainly an incorrect year of birth; and whereas the inscription on Pym’s stone displays an extraneous second initial ‘J’, Brant’s ‘ever present’ second initial ‘B’ is missing. As I had already researched Pym’s extraordinary life [see Biography No. 50], I was curious to find out more about Brant’s pre-7th Cavalry days and, in particular, if ‘Abram’ or ‘Abraham’ was his given name, in what year was he actually born, and why the traditional Christian cross motif had not been engraved on his headstone.2

My first point of contact was John Saul, the best-selling author of suspense and horror novels, who is a direct descendent of Brant’s elder sister, Mary, and her second husband, the Reverend John Sargon Saul, a minister in the Swedenborgian Church. Apparently Mary graduated from the Dutch Reformed School, New York, in the same class as the fabulously rich Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843-99), which suggests the Brants themselves were reasonably well heeled.

Saul was quick to tell me that, as far as he was aware, the precise date, let alone the year, of his great-granduncle’s birth remains uncertain, which confirmed my suspicion that the year 1849 inscribed on the headstone was probably based on the age given on enlistment; regrettably, all too often an unreliable source. Saul went on to say that his Brant ancestors were most definitely members of a Protestant Church, thus dis-spelling the supposition that they may have belonged to a non-Christian faith, which would have accounted for the blank space near at top of the headstone where an encircled cross motif would normally be found.

The next course of action was to check out the three decennial censuses that covered this trooper’s short life. The first, for Ward 17, on Manhattan’s lower east side, taken 29 July1850, lists him as “Abraham Brant, age 3 years,” the youngest of five children born to John C. Brant,3 a (stone) mason from New Jersey, and his wife, Mary H. Brant, from New York.4 Long experience has taught me to treat census returns with the utmost caution but in this instance I saw no reason to doubt the veracity of this particular entry. After all, what possible motive would a highly respectable family like the Brants have in deliberately deceiving the census enumerator, not only by declaring that their youngest child was called ‘Abraham’ if his name was ‘Abram,’ but also by claiming the lad was three years-old if, in fact, he was more than three times less that age.

By the time of the next census – 14 June 1860 – the family had moved to District 4, Ward 9, a more fashionable neighbourhood on Manhattan’s lower west side, and on this occasion we find “Abm. B. Brant, age 12,” which gives credence to the information contained in the earlier survey. Alas, what the initial ‘B’ stood for was never disclosed but, as his army records consistently show, it clearly became very important to the man himself.

The third and last census of interest, taken on 19  September 1870, records “Abr B. Brant, age 22 – Engineer Civil – born New Jersey,” lodging with Jacob and Elizabeth Beardslee at the Temperance House, Sparta Township, Sussex County, New Jersey.  Again it flies in the face of reason to think that the census enumerator would omit just one letter, i.e. an ‘a’, when there was more than enough room on the page to write ‘Abram’ in full, which further convinces me that it was clearly a perfectly acceptable contraction of ‘Abraham.’ It is likely that the information was extracted from the lodging house’s register, which Brant may have signed two or three months before when he was still 22 and the Beardslees had no way of knowing (or caring) that he had since passed his 23rd birthday. We know he was born in the state of New York, not New Jersey, which makes this particular source somewhat less reliable than the previous two.

While I would argue strongly that the above evidence fully vindicates my initial thoughts that Brant’s given name was not “Abram” but ‘Abraham,’ and “he was not born in 1849” but ‘1847’ (most likely June or July) I have absolutely no problem in accepting John Saul’s assertion that his collateral ancestor was known as ‘Abram’ within the family and beyond; in much the same way as Private Alfred E. Allen, Company C, was known as ‘Fred.’Undoubtedly he called himself ‘Abram B. Brant’ and we know that he joined the U.S. Army under that name at St Louis, Missouri, on 27 September 1875.6 By my reckoning he would then be in his 29th year – comparatively ancient for a first enlistment – and it should come as no surprise to discover that, like so many of his contemporaries, he felt the need to reduce his age to be more in line with of the majority of his fellow new recruits.7

Finally, Section 2 of the ‘Application for Standard Government Headstone or Marker,’ dated September 17, 2008, and submitted to the Department of Veterans Affairs, plainly shows “Abram B Brant” as the ‘name of deceased to be inscribed on headstone or marker,” which makes it all the more disappointing that the initial ‘B’, such an integral part of his name, should be so conspicuous by its absence from the memorial stone.

It is hoped that at some time in the not too distant future a locally-based Custer enthusiast will track down that elusive entry in a New York City public record or church register which proves beyond doubt the correct date of birth and given name of the heroic private from Company D, 7th U.S. Cavalry, whose mortal remains lie buried in an unmarked grave somewhere within the hallowed ground of Fort Meade National Cemetery.

Notes

1. Brant died on 4 October 1878, at Camp Ruhlen, Dakota Territory, of an accident gunshot wound in the abdomen received while handing his revolver to a sergeant.

2. Compare with headstones of other LBH Medal of Honor recipients, e.g. Sergeant Benjamin C. Criswell, Company B, Pleasant Hill Cemetery, Harmon County, OK; Private James Pym, Company B, Custer County Cemetery, Miles City, MT; Private (later Sergeant) Charles Windolph, Company H, Black  Hills National Cemetery, Sturgis, SD; etc.

3. According to notes from the obituary of one of his grand-daughters, John C. Brant was “a great friend of Horace Greeley, and provided the first capital to begin his paper,” i.e. the New York Tribune, which was established in 1841. Brant was a director of the Mechanics’ Institute, New York   City (the New York Times, May 11, 1855).

4. The following obituary notice was published in the New York Times, September 29, 1869, it reads: “BRANT – At Jersey City, on Tuesday, Sept. 28, MARY H., widow of the late John C. Brant.” The date of death of Abram’s father is not known.

5. Alfred E. Allen, from Melton Mowbray, England, who enlisted under the name of Fred E. Allan, was killed with Custer’s column at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

6. Brant joined Company D at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, October 21, 1875.

7. According to a collateral descendent, Scots-born Sergeant Alexander Brown, Company G, reduced his age at enlistment by an incredible 16 years!

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