John Brown’s Body Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1928

Type of work: Poetry

Type of plot: Epic

Time of work: 1859-1865

Locale: United States

Characters DiscussedJack Ellyat

Jack John Brown’s BodyEllyat, a Connecticut boy symbolic of the Northern soldier during the American Civil War. He is an ambitious young man whose favorite dream role is that of Phaeton driving his chariot across the sky, proudly displaying the trophy-sun. Jack, a member of an abolitionist family, is troubled by signs of approaching war. He joins the Connecticut volunteers, is mustered out after the Northern defeat at Bull Run, later joins the Illinois volunteers in Chicago, and acquires the opprobrious nickname of “Bull Run Jack.” He is captured after running away at Pittsburg Landing, escapes, finds refuge at John Vilas’ farm, and falls in love with John’s daughter Melora. Melora gets pregnant, and he is reunited with her at the end of the war. Like most soldiers, Jack bears as best he can the buffeting of fate.

Clay Wingate

Clay Wingate, Jack Ellyat’s opposite in the South. He is the son of a plantation owner and lives at white-pillared Wingate Hall. Clay feels himself become a man as war approaches. He and Sally Dupré are drawn to each other before Clay joins the Black Horse Troop and rides away to the battle of Bull Run. When he returns to his Georgia home on leave, he falls in love with Lucy Weatherby, a Virginia girl, but at the end of the war, when he returns to an accidentally burned and ruined Wingate Hall, the weary and wounded soldier finds Sally Dupré waiting for him. Although used to a soft-living, fox-hunting life, Clay hardens himself into a fierce, efficient soldier.

Luke Breckinridge

Luke Breckinridge, a gangling mountain boy who joins up to fight the Yankees simply because the Kelceys, an enemy family, have shown they are not afraid to fight. Luke becomes infatuated with Sophy, a chambermaid at Pollet’s Hotel in Richmond. He is delighted when his patrol catches and searches Shippy, a Union spy in the guise of a peddler and Luke’s chief rival for Sophy’s affections. The patrol finds incriminating evidence in Shippy’s boots.

Melora Vilas

Melora Vilas, the girl who shelters Jack Ellyat and falls in love with him. She is straight and slim, with grave, brown eyes. After the war, with her father and Jack’s son, born in Tennessee, she searches for the father of her baby. As she drives her cart up a hill in Connecticut, Jack, who was wounded at Gettysburg, is standing under some elms, waiting.

Lucy Weatherby

Lucy Weatherby, a fickle Virginia beauty who is more concerned with the men in her life than with the outcome of the war. Although she has an interlude with Clay Wingate in Pollet’s Hotel in Richmond, Lucy seems deeply in love not with Clay or any other suitor but with herself.

Sally Dupré

Sally Dupré, the daughter of “French” Dupré, a dancing master. Although she is temporarily displaced by Lucy in Clay’s affections, she is a faithful lover who waits for her man to come back.


Spade, a slave on the Zachary plantation, near Wingate Hall. He escapes, makes his way to freedom in the “promised land” of the North, and is immediately forced into a labor gang. He later joins the Union army and is wounded in the crater at Petersburg. After the war, Jake Diefer hires him as a field hand on his Pennsylvania farm.


Sophy, the hotel maid whom Luke Breckinridge takes with him when he decides to “leave” the war. Hungry and scared, she willingly goes with him back to his mountains when he announces his intention of putting in a crop and butchering a hog–because there were always hogs in the mountains.

Jake Diefer

Jake Diefer, a “barrel-chested Pennsylvanian” who volunteers for the Union forces but does not really get his fighting dander up until he discovers that the Johnnie Rebs are fighting on his farm at Gettysburg.


Shippy, the sharp peddler-spy for the Union who is to bring Sophy some perfume from the North but who is caught by a Confederate patrol and accused by jealous Luke Breckinridge. He is hanged after papers proving him to be a spy are found sewed into his boots.

John Vilas

John Vilas, Melora’s father. He is a lover of the classics and a lonely, restless man who has made his life a Faustian search for the wilderness stone. During the war, having little sympathy for either side, he hides in the woods to protect his son Bent from recruiters. Later, he accompanies Melora and her child on her search for Jack Ellyat.

BibliographyCapps, Jack L., and C. Robert Kemble. Introduction to John Brown’s Body, by Stephen Vincent Benét. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968. The editors identify Benét’s sources, mark recurring motifs in the poem, and identify and annotate the names of persons, names of places, and literary quotations and allusions in the text.Fenton, Charles A. Stephen Vincent Benét: The Life and Times of an American Man of Letters, 1898-1943. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958. Discusses Benét’s sources for John Brown’s Body, his writing habits, and the contemporary critical and popular responses to the poem.Gregory, Horace, and Mary Zaturenska. A History of American Poetry, 1900-1940. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946. In this survey, the authors devote a few pages to Benét. They identify the virtues of John Brown’s Body–clarity, vividness, occasional humor, easy rhythms, and patriotic purposes–and then its defects–stereotypical characters and shallow treatment of griefs and delights.Monroe, Harriet. “A Cinema Epic.” Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 33 (November, 1928): 91-96. A laudatory contemporary review of John Brown’s Body, stressing its several movielike aspects.Stroud, Perry. Stephen Vincent Benét. New York: Twayne, 1962. Contains a long chapter praising John Brown’s Body as an epic poem of historical and philosophical significance. Discusses its clusters of imagery, notably those involving Phaeton and his chariot, stones, and seeds, its contrasting realistic depiction of war and romantic conception of love, and its varied meters–blank verse, versatile long line, and poetic prose.
Categories: Characters