Brock was born on March 18, 1831, at Madison Court House, the daughter of Ansalem Brock and Elizabeth Beverley Buckner Brock. She and her siblings studied with their father, who was a tavern keeper and teacher, and with a graduate of Harvard University, whose name is not recorded but who lived with the family for four years. About 1850 the family moved to Charlottesville, where Brock’s father ran a residence hotel for students at the University of Virginia while her brothers attended medical school. Eight years later the family relocated to Richmond, where Ansalem Brock kept a hotel at Richmond College.
In 1860 Sallie A. Brock, as she was usually known, was a tutor in a household in King and Queen County. At the outbreak of the Civil War she returned to her parents in Richmond. Brock’s two brothers served as doctors for the Confederate army, and she contributed to the cause herself by nursing, knitting, and rolling bandages. She was acutely aware of the war’s effect on the residents of the city. Brock experienced the anxiety of the average citizen forced to learn about political and military situations through a combination of unreliable rumors and newspaper reports. After her mother died in 1864, she took charge of her father’s household.
At the end of the war Brock tapped her literary skills in an attempt to earn money. Later, in her only published novel, she described a governess who supplemented her income by writing magazine fiction under an assumed name. Perhaps Brock had also been writing in this way, but the first evidence of her career dates from a visit to New York City during the summer of 1865, when she began a manuscript recounting her experiences in wartime Richmond. The volume appeared in 1867 as Richmond During the War: Four Years of Personal Observation. Released under the pseudonym A Richmond Lady, it is an intelligent interpretation of the Civil War as experienced by a woman in the Confederate capital. Brock’s grasp of the events that led to war and her analysis of its progress are accurate, well considered, and surprisingly conciliatory. Her presentation is alternately comprehensive and anecdotal and provides both an overall view and detailed stories of how food shortages, the booming population, crime, stress, and chaos affected the city and its citizens. Brock’s biases and convictions are typical of a woman of her time and social position and only sporadically distract the modern reader from the story. The book remains in print, a tribute to its enduring value as a frequently cited source for events and everyday life in the capital of the Confederacy.
The success of Richmond During the War spurred Brock to other work. In 1869 she gathered the most significant poetry that southerners had written about the Civil War into an anthology entitled The Southern Amaranth: A Carefully Selected Collection of Poems Growing out of and in Reference to the Late War, published for the benefit of a ladies’ memorial association to aid in the reinterment of Confederate soldiers in the South. Brock included four of her own poems, one under the name Virginia Madison, a pseudonym she sometimes used that referred to her birthplace. Her best-known work in the collection was “Stonewall Jackson’s Pall.” Early critics considered The Southern Amaranth one of the best southern collections inspired by the Civil War. In 1869 Brock began organizing another poetry anthology to be entitled American Poets in Their Poetry that juxtaposed brief biographies of major American poets with their favorite example of their own verse. Although this work is listed under variant titles in several reference works as having been published, no examples have been located, and the volume may never have appeared.
Brock traveled through Europe in 1869–1870 and wrote letters about her experiences that appeared in several magazines. After her return she wrote for Frank Leslie’s Lady’s Magazine. Brock also contributed to the New York Home Journal, predecessor of Town and Country. Later in life she described her work as consisting of editorials, historical articles, reviews, essays, letters, travel sketches, short stories, biographies, and translations. Brock was respected by her peers but not widely known, perhaps because few articles in ladies’ magazines of the period were signed. One measure of her talent is the inclusion of her description of Weyers Cave in Augusta County in William Cullen Bryant’s Picturesque America: or, The Land We Live In (1872–1874), a notable travelogue of sixty-five articles, only two of which were by women.
In 1873 Brock published Kenneth, My King, a romance set in the South and a transparent imitation of Jane Eyre that is very readable but shows no talent for plotting. A savage review in the New York Times of March 8, 1873, dismissed it as “really a hopeless book.” On March 19, 1873, the Richmond Daily Enquirer predicted that the novel would “find many readers and admirers in her native State, as well as elsewhere.” Its strong female protagonist probably reflects Brock’s estimation of her own life to that point—unmarried, intelligent, and left to fend for herself, she chose to work rather than rely on her relatives for assistance.
In Richmond on January 11, 1882, Brock married Richard Fletcher Putnam, an Episcopal minister and member of the Boston publishing family. Although she continued to contribute to magazines after she married, she wrote more for enjoyment than for a livelihood, and her output diminished considerably. The couple lived in New York and Connecticut and traveled frequently. Brock retained her literary contacts and participated in a display of books by Virginia authors at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. She wrote two more novels and started a third but published none of them, although her draft novel “Myra” is sometimes listed as published.
Sarah Ann Brock Putnam died in New York on March 22, 1911, five years after her husband’s death on January 16, 1906, and was buried next to him in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.
- Richmond During the War: Four Years of Personal Observation (1867)
- The Southern Amaranth: A Carefully Selected Collection of Poems Growing out of and in Reference to the Late War (1869)
- Kenneth, My King (1873)