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Parson Brownlow — A Patriot Among the Rebels

[Note: This article appeared as an editorial in the July 1862 The Ladies’ Repository. The Ladies Repository was published by the Methodist Episcopal Church North in Cincinnati, Ohio. William G. “Parson” Brownlow was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church – North.]

Among the few who stood firm when many faltered the name of W. G. Brownlow stands conspicuous. Almost alone he breasted the storm of rebellion that swept over the South. To honor his patriotism rather than express admiration of the man or to indorse his views on the slavery question, we have procured a portrait of him for this number. It is from a duplicate of the photograph obtained by George W. Childs, Esq., for the engraving in Brownlow’s book, published by him. It was generously presented to us by Mr. Childs with permission to use it. The likeness is unquestionably good; the engraving all we could desire.

In the subject our readers generally have a deep interest. The stern, unbending patriotism of the man has sunk all his minor faults and given him a place in the hearts of American freemen.

Parson Brownlow was born in Wythe county, Virginia, August 29, 1805. By the death of both his parents he was left an orphan in early childhood. He was brought up by his mother’s relatives. Always inured to hard labor, at the age of eighteen he was apprenticed to a house carpenter in Abingdon, and regularly learned the trade. He says of himself: “I have been a laboring man all my life long, and have acted upon the Scriptural maxim of eating my bread in the sweat of my brow. Though a Southern man in feeling and principle, I do not think it degrading to a man to labor, as do most of the Southern disunionists. Whether East or West, North or South, I recognize the dignity of labor, and look forward to a day not very distant when educated labor will be the salvation of this vast country!”

His early education was imperfect and irregular; but he acquired, by dint of personal effort, a knowledge of most of the branches of common school education. His first earnings after he had acquired a trade were expended in obtaining additional schooling. Such is the discipline by which men and patriots are made.

He entered the traveling Methodist ministry in 1826, and was a delegate to the General Conference in 1832. After traveling ten years he located, and became the editor and proprietor of the Knoxville Whig, in connection with which paper he has obtained his national celebrity. The years spent in the ministry were years of study and improvement as well as of labor. Though he ceased from the pastoral work, he has ever since sustained the relation of an ordained local preacher in the Church, and has performed much ministerial service.

Mr. Brownlow is never neutral on any subject, is not over-fastidious in the use of language, and loves to pile up epithets denunciatory and objurgatory upon his opponents, “all and singular.” A recent writer, who has drawn a portrait of him equally graphic and true, says that he exhibits a singular union of high moral and intellectual qualities with an almost unaccountable deficiency of that sense of the fitness of things which we call good taste. Thus in his personal habits he is singularly pure; whenever tastes liquor, never has used tobacco, never has seen a play at a theater, and never has dealt a pack of cards – a remarkable record for a Southerner. But when he opens his lips his language, although without positive profanity-except when quoting other men’s-is often so grating to polite ears that it saves sensitive listeners from blushes only because it irresistibly provokes to laughter. He confesses that his chief natural gift is in piling epithets upon the heads of scoundrels. He knows no pleasure equal to discovering some new rascal or some new rascality of an old offender and printing the name and facts in capital letters in the next Knoxville Whig. But he is a man whom a thorough Northern training, moral and intellectual, would have built up into a dignified, impressive, and splendid character. He is one of many men in the South, made of Nature’s best stuff, whom the influence of slavery, unconsciously to themselves, has defrauded of their just rank in the scale of true nobility and honorable fame.

During the pending canvass for secession in Tennessee, a report was circulated that Brownlow was soon coming out in favor of the movement. A rabid secessionist in Arkansas wrote to know how long before this denouement might be expected. The following is the pith of Brownlow’s reply, and is a fair sample of his more intense writing: “I have your letter of August 30, 1860, and hasten to let you know the precise time when I expect to come out and formally announce that I have joined the Democratic party. When the sun shines at midnight and the moon at midday; when man forgets to be selfish, or Democrats lose their inclination to steal; when Nature stops her onward march to rest, or all the water-courses in America flow up stream; when flowers lose their odor, and trees shed no leaves; when birds talk, and beasts of burden laugh; when damned spirits swap hell for heaven with the angels of light, and pay them the boot in mean whisky; when impossibilities are in fashion, and no proposition is too absurd to be believed, you may credit the report that I have joined the Democrats.”

While the South were still expecting a “peaceable secession,” Brownlow held forth to them the following language: “The man who calculates upon a peaceable dissolution of the Union is either a madman or a fool. I am among those who believe the Union is not going to be dissolved, because the disunionists have no right to do that thing; they have no power if the right existed, and there is no cause for a dissolution.” Of Virginia he says: “She is like a hill of potatoes-the best part under ground, the part above ground reminds me but of vines. When citizens of other States are called upon to name their great statesmen they point to living men. Make the call upon Virginians and they ask you out into a graveyard, when they will point you to the tomb of Washington, the monument erected over Madison, or the grave of Jefferson!”

The pulpit and the churches of the South were desecrated to the vile purposes of treason and rebellion. We were prepared, says Mr. Brownlow, to see our Southern preachers so early as 1861 following the bad example of these false teachers by preaching Secession, profaning the Sabbath, and taking commissions in the army to aid in carrying on the most wicked and unholy war- seeking the overthrow of the best government the world has ever known. Every branch of the Christian Church is cursed with their labors. The result is that the Churches were speedily demoralized throughout the country, congregations were disbanded, confidence in the ministry destroyed, and whole communities given up to intemperance, gambling, and violence.

The secession epidemic is thus described by Mr. Brownlow: “It has assumed an epidemic form in most of the Southern States, and men become secessionists with marvelous rapidity. It is nothing to know that a particular man was a Union man last night; how is he this morning? This is the question, and where inducements are held out to fall in with the heresy, it is well to inquire of men morning, evening, and at noon where they stand upon this great office and money question. Men change in a night. Men rise up and dress as Union men and turn secessionists before breakfast is over. The worst symptom is the morbid excitement of the organ of credulity. The cry of a loss of one’s rights originates the disease, and it never abates till the patient ‘goes clear out.’ If a man is pressed for money and some one in favor of ‘immediate separation’ has some to lend on time, the man wanting to borrow sees that our only safety is in ‘a united South.’ If a man is a Union mechanic and out of work, the furnishing him with a small job at once discloses the startling fact that Lincoln commenced this war, that it is a war of conquest, and that the sacred soil of the South is to be invaded and the negroes all set at liberty. The malady is short, the disease runs its course in twenty-four hours, and the patient heads a committee to order better men than himself to leave the State in a given time. He believes every lie he hears, and swears to the truth of every lie he tells. He drinks mean whisky, and associates with men whom the day before he would have scorned.”

Mr. Brownlow was soon involved in this desolating tornado. The following graphic description of his trials is furnished to our hand: “He was insulted to his face, dogged in his walks, and threatened with pistol-shots. He was commanded by traitors to transfer the allegiance of his paper to Jefferson Davis, but indignantly refused. He was then tempted with a bribe, which he still more indignantly spurned. Then his pen was smitten out of his hands. The traitors invaded his office, stopped his press, and turned his press-room into a machine-shop for boring rifles to aim at loyal hearts. Still continuing to show his personal allegiance to the Union, he was hunted out of Knoxville and driven to take refuge in the wastes of the Smoky Mountains, where he shot bears and wild turkeys, and slept on a blanket on the bare ground. Meanwhile, without his knowledge, his wife procured from Richmond a pass to permit him to retire from the State. This fact being communicated to him in his mountain retreat, brought him back to Knoxville, where, as soon as he showed his face, he was seized, in violation of the pledge, thrown into jail, and kept in a loathsome confinement for three months.

“During his stay in the prison, almost everyday a cart with a coffin drove to the door, and some victim was taken out to be hung. The prisoners, none of whom were charged with any other offense than loyalty to the Union, seldom had a day’s and sometimes not an hour’s notice when the cart would call, or for whom. Mr. Brownlow, after fully expecting to be hung, and after preparing a speech to be delivered on the gallows, was finally ordered out of confinement and out of the Confederacy. At one time he was told that the drum-head court-martial lacked only one vote of consigning him to the gallows. Frequently men were taken out of the jail and hung, and the secesh rabble would howl at him, and tell him as he looked out from the jail windows that he was to be hung next.”

Among his fellow-prisoners was the noble, martyred C. A. Hawn. He was one of the most moral and upright men in Knoxville-a man of estimable virtues, a Church member, known and respected by all good citizens. He had a wife and two small children. “He was convicted of bridge-burning, and sentenced to be hung by this court-martial, and he had but one hour’s notice to prepare himself. He asked for a minister of one of the Churches in Knoxville to be sent for, but the jailer insultingly refused his request, saying that no traitor to the South has the right to be prayed for, and God does not hear such prayers.’ Poor Hawn was placed on the scaffold, and a miserable drunken chaplain of one of the Southern regiments was sent to attend him. Just as they were about to launch Hawn into eternity, the chaplain said, ‘This poor, unfortunate man desires to say that he was led to committing the acts for which he is now to atone with his life by the Union men, and he is really an object of pity.’ Hawn rose, and in a stentorian voice replied, ‘I desire to say that every word that man has said is false. I am the identical man that put the torch to the timbers of that bridge, and I am ready to swing for it. Hang me as soon as you can.’ He was immediately hung in the most brutal manner.” One day General Carroll, who had been a Union man up to a late period, but was now a Brigadier-General in the rebel service and in charge of Knoxville, came to Brownlow in jail. He had at one time been a great friend of his. He now said to him, “Brownlow, you ought not to be here.” “So I think,” the Parson responded, “but here I am.” The General said the Confederate Court was sitting within a hundred yards of the jail, and if he would take the oath of allegiance he should be immediately liberated. “Sir,” said the Parson, looking him steadily in the eye, “before I will take the oath of allegiance to your bogus Government I will rot in jail or die here of old age. I don’t acknowledge you have a Court. I don’t acknowledge you have a Government. It has never been acknowledged by any power on earth, and never will be. Before I would take the oath I would see the whole Southern Confederacy in the infernal regions and you on top of it.” The General left in great indignation. In the jail were about one hundred and fifty men. The building was crowded to overflowing. Only two-thirds of the company could lie down, and there was neither bench, chair, block, nor other thing to sit or lie upon. A wooden bucket and a couple of tin cups out of which they drank were all the furniture they had. The food was of the meanest character-” such, “to speak with the Parson, “as no gentleman, would think good enough to throw to his dog. “To be short, the treatment of the prisoners was as harsh and inhuman as ever disgraced the Austrian dungeons. As a consequence, many took cold and were sick. Quite a number died and were buried. Among the inmates were three Baptist preachers. One of them, Mr. Pope, seventy-seven years of age, was charged with having prayed to the Lord to bless the President of the United States, to bless the General Government, and put an end to this unholy war. Another old man, a minister, seventy years of age, was thrust into jail for having thrown up his hat and hurrahed for the Stars and Stripes when a company of Union Home Guards marched by his house with the Stars and Stripes flying over them. The third, a young man, was confined for having volunteered as chaplain of a Union regiment.

The following will serve as samples of the incidents of prison life, and also of Mr. Brownlow’s style of Journalism:

“Tuesday, December 17th.-Brought in a Union man from Campbell county to-day, leaving behind six small children, and their mother dead. This man’s offense is holding out for the Union!

“Two more carts drove up with coffins in them and a heavy military guard around them. This produced in our circle of prisoners great consternation, for we did not know certainly who were to hang. They, however, came into the jail and marched out Jacob Harmon and his son Henry and hung them up on the same gallows. The old man was a man of property, quite old and infirm, and they compelled him to sit on the scaffold and see his son, a young man, hang first; then he was ordered up and hung by his side. They were charged with bridge-burning, but protested to the last that they were not guilty. I know not how this was, but the laws of Tennessee only send a man to the penitentiary for such offenses.

“Friday, December 20th.-General Carroll, hearing of my indisposition, came in to-day and offered to remove me to their dirty hospital. I declined the offer-did not want passports to where I would likely be poisoned in twenty four hours. I told him I was ready to receive passports to go beyond the limits of the Confederacy. If these could not be had I desired to remain where I was. This is a terrible night. The sentinels are all drunk, howling like wolves, rushing to our windows with the ferocity of the Sepoys of India, and daring prisoners to show their heads, cocking their guns and firing off three of them into the jail, and pretending it was accidental. Merciful God! how long are we to be treated after this fashion?

“Friday, December 27th.-Harrison Self, an industrious, honest, and heretofore peaceable man, a citizen of Green county, was notified this morning that he was to be hanged at four o’clock, P. M. His daughter, a noble girl, modest, and neatly attired, came in this morning to see him. Heart-broken and bowed down under a fearful weight of sorrow, she entered his iron cage, and they embraced each other most affectionately. My God, whet a sight! What an affecting scene! May these eyes of mine, bathed in tears, never look upon the like again! ” But her short limit to remain with her father expired, and she came out weeping bitterly, and shedding burning tears. Requesting me to write a dispatch for her and sign her name to it, I took out my pencil and a slip of paper and wrote the following:

Hon. Jefferson Davis, my father, Harrison Self, is sentenced to hang at four o’clock this evening on a charge of bridge-burning. As he remains my earthly all, and all my hopes of happiness center in him, I implore you to pardon him. ELIZABETH SELF.

“With this dispatch the poor girl hurried off to the office, some two or three hundred yards from the jail, and about two o’clock in the afternoon the answer came to General Carroll telling him not to allow Self to be hung. Self was turned out of the cage into the jail with the rest of us, and looks as if he had gone through a long spell of sickness. But what a thrill of joy ran through the heart of that noble girl! Self is to be confined, I understand, during the war. This is hard upon an innocent man, but it is preferable to hanging.”

On the 3d of March Mr. Brownlow was released from prison. He says: “We started in charge of Adjutant Young and a relative of my wife. I selected twelve others privately. Sixty-five miles below Knoxville we met a train returning to Manassas filled with furloughed soldiers, all drunk. When they heard I was there they got a rope. Times looked squally. They were drunk enough, and none too good to do it. My guards said if they dared to enter the cars they would blow their brains out, and they backed them off and the train departed. At Shelbyville, fifty-five miles from Nashville, we left the railroad terminus and got into buggies and came to Nashville.” He reached Nashville March 18th. “Then,” he says, “I felt, I knew I was free.”

The later events relating to him the ovations he has received in nearly all the great cities of the North, and the substantial evidence of sympathy, need not be repeated now. Mr. Brownlow in person is slender, not very tall, long armed and fingered, of sallow complexion, with high cheek- bones, his ears projecting. Some one remarked that he looks like Mr. Lincoln, but we doubt whether he is quite as handsome. His style of speaking is deliberate but rough. It is thoroughly ad captandum. He is somewhat inclined to swagger, and evidently has not a little of “the brag” in his composition. But he is honest, straightforward, fearless, and is unflinchingly devoted to the Union. Not more so now when victory is perching upon her banners than he was in the dark days of the Republic.