Editor's note: This article was
originally published in The Charger in the Fall of 2000.
William G. Brownlow, civil war editor
and preacher was called by everyone 'Parson Brownlow'. He was the
editor/owner of the Knoxville, Tennessee newspaper, The Knoxville
Whig and a circuit rider for the Methodist Church. He is best
known as a southerner who strongly opposed session from the United
States and was scheduled to hang for his attitude.
He had a long list of enemies as he
savagely attacked groups he did not like. On the top of his list
were Mormons, Baptists, and secessionists.
His enemies did not take this abuse
sitting down. Brownlow was threatened, sued, beaten up, shot at (and
hit once), hanged in effigy, indicted, imprisoned, and exiled. Not
only did this not silence him but it gave him more ammunition for
his savaged broadsides.
About the Mormons he wrote: “If
President James Buchanan would send an army to Utah, and exterminate
the entire Mormon race, we will declare in favor of his
On witnessing a Baptist foot
washing ritual: “Never did I, before or since, see as many big dirty
feet, washed in one large pewter basin full of water.”
On Isham G. Harris, secessionist
Governor of Tennessee: “His complexion is shallow—his eyes are dark
and penetrating—a perfect index to the heart of a traitor—with the
scowl and frown of a demon resting upon his brow. The study of
mischief, and the practice of crime, have brought upon him premature
baldness and a grey beard...He chews tobacco rapidly, and is
inordinately fond of liquor.”
Southern Vigilance Committee in Memphis, Tennessee reviewing
the local newspapers for disloyal material.
Brownlow wrote this in his
newspaper when the Confederate governor was in power. He was
arrested for treason and sent to prison in Nashville. That didn’t
stop Brownlow from smuggling out letters that were published in the
North describing the horrors in a rebel prison.
The Confederates sentenced Brownlow
to hang for his treason. However, the Confederates did not want to
make Brownlow a Union martyr so they took him to the Union
lines and dumped him.
Parson Brownlow was a hero in the
North and immediately went on a speaking tour. He also rushed into
print a book with his articles against the Confederate government.
Even though a very disjointed book, it sold 100,000 copies. The
Parson also removed from the book nasty articles he had written
about Lincoln, northern members of Congress, and a dozen religions
including Roman Catholicism.
After the Union army took back
Knoxville, The Parson returned home to start printing his newspaper
again. Following the war the people of Tennessee who could vote,
ones who took the loyalty oath, made William G. Brownlow Governor of
By most accounts he was not a good
governor. In 1982, a group of Tennessee historians named Parson
Brownlow as the worst governor in the State’s history. Ranking him
below Ray Blanton, a 1964 Governor who was sent to prison for
selling State liquor licenses.
Clearly William B. “Parson”
Brownlow should win the award for the Civil War #1 Pain the Butt. I
am sure Jefferson Davis would agree. However, if courage is the
measure, The Parson stacks up well. Faced with execution he spit in
the eye of a Confederate general asking him to sign a loyalty oath
to the Confederacy.
After all is said, Parson Brownlow
is one of the people who make the Civil War so interesting to study.