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George Brent

Union or Secession
George William Brent (1821–1872)
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GEORGE WILLIAM BRENT (1821–1872)

George William Brent (August 1821–2 January 1872), member of the Convention of 1861, was born in Alexandria, a part of the District of Columbia until 1846, the son of George Brent, collector of the port of Alexandria, and Elizabeth Parsons Brent. After completing the study of law at the University of Virginia in 1842, he opened an office in Warrenton. On 16 December 1844 Brent married Cornelia D. Wood in Albemarle County. She died on 15 November 1848, and on 30 January 1851 he married Lucy Goode, daughter of Thomas Goode, proprietor of the Hot Springs in Bath County. They had at least three sons and five daughters.

Late in 1851 Brent was elected to a one-year term in the Senate of Virginia representing the counties of Fauquier and Rappahannock. He sat on the Committee for Courts of Justice and on the Joint Committee to Examine the Second Auditor's Office. Brent also served on the board of visitors of the Virginia Military Institute in 1852 and 1853. By the latter year he had moved to Alexandria and was practicing law there. During the 1860 presidential campaign Brent was an unsuccessful candidate for presidential elector for Stephen A. Douglas, the nominee of the Northern Democratic Party. On 4 February 1861 the citizens of Alexandria County elected Brent to the state convention called to consider the question of secession. He won by a three-to-one margin over David Funsten, leader of the local Southern faction of the Democratic Party that had supported John C. Breckinridge for president in 1860. On 8 March 1861 Brent delivered a long pro-Union, proslavery convention speech in which he defended the union of states as "pre-eminently a Virginian conception," first envisioned under "the hallowed roof of Mount Vernon." He called for a conference of border states to propose constitutional amendments designed to protect the South and serve as a basis for the settlement of the questions dividing the nation. He went on to prophesy that "if this Union is to be involved in war, the institution of slavery will vanish from our midst. The perpetuity of that institution depends upon peace and upon repose. Let civil war once sound its horrid tocsin in this land, and slavery is at once ended." Brent voted against secession on both 4 April, when it failed, and 17 April, when it passed, but he later signed the Ordinance of Secession.

True to his promise in his March speech that "my lot is cast with that of Virginia; come weal, come woe," Brent obtained a commission as a major in the 17th Regiment Virginia Infantry on 2 May 1861. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel to date from 1 May 1862 and fought with the Army of Tennessee at the Battle of Shiloh, and he served as assistant adjutant general on the staffs of Generals Braxton Bragg and Pierre G. T. Beauregard in the Department of the West. In March 1864 Brent was back in Richmond, where he presented a report on the hospitals used for prisoners of war in the city. He surrendered with General Joseph Eggleston Johnston on 26 April 1865 in Greensboro, North Carolina.

After the war Brent resumed his law practice in Alexandria. On 27 April 1870 he was one of more than 300 persons in the Supreme Court of Appeals in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond when the floor collapsed. Sitting just in front of the railing surrounding the judges' bench when the floor beneath him gave way, Brent sprang forward, clutched that railing, and clung to it until a piece of timber from the ceiling above knocked him into the gallery of the House of Delegates. Rescued in such a disfigured condition that his friends did not recognize him, he incurred a broken right leg, a severe cut in his throat, and serious bruises. Brent remained in Richmond for several weeks before returning to Alexandria to recuperate.

George William Brent died at his home in Alexandria on 2 January 1872, four days after contracting typhoid and pneumonia. He was buried in the cemetery of Saint Mary's Catholic Church in that city.

Contributed by Daphne Gentry

Quotations in George H. Reese and William H. Gaines Jr., eds., Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861 (1965), 1:505, 516, 518.

This biography, with a bibliographical note, appears in John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1998– ), 2:216–217.

Copyright 2001 by the Library of Virginia. All rights reserved.