Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 31, 2014

Better for him not to be so concerned: Reese B. Brabson

Mirable Dictu

Reese Bowen Brabson - (Chattanooga Public Library)

It is axiomatic that great lawyers are sometimes called upon to advocate the less popular cause and to fight the unwinnable war.

Often, these lawyers are nobly, but simply, advancing the interests of their single client as our ethical canons require. Sometimes, though, a larger interest is at stake, and while the client’s individual interests must always remain paramount, the resolution of the underlying issue has causes or repercussions far beyond the simple matter at hand, and those causes or repercussions resonate, for whatever reason, deeply in the soul of the advocate.

Carefully focused and tempered with a healthy dose of objectivity, the lawyer can become an unvarnished voice for justice and reason in a world that has, hopefully momentarily, slipped off track. Several of these columns have been filled recounting the stories of Chattanooga jurists and lawyers who bravely and capably represented both their clients and, in their hearts, the greater good of their fellow man in the midst of incredible political turmoil and unrest.

In recognizing such venerable members of our bar, we would be remiss not to highlight Reese Bowen Brabson, who bravely stood firm in his convictions during one of the most turbulent and misguided moments in our nation’s history.

Brabson was born in Sevier County on Sept. 16, 1817. His family lineage included his great uncle, Lt. Rees Bowen, who perished while bravely fighting the British at King’s Mountain during the Revolutionary War. Although his family lived in a rural farmhouse, his upbringing was by no means modest. Brabson’s father owned significant acreage and a large number of mills throughout Sevier County and the surrounding area. He was said to be gifted at an early age as both a scholar and speaker. Brabson graduated from Maryville College in 1840 and read law under a relative who was a judge in Dandridge, Tenn. In 1844, he married Sarah Maria Keith, who was the daughter of Judge Charles F. Keith (the first Circuit Court Judge of Hamilton County and the subject of one of my earlier columns). In 1845, Brabson moved to Chattanooga with his young wife to establish his law practice.

Brabson began his career in Chattanooga as the law partner of James A. Whiteside, one of the founding fathers of the nascent City of Chattanooga and the civic leader credited with securing Chattanooga as the site of the northern terminus of the Western & Atlantic Railroad – an act that would later come to contribute much to Brabson’s life story. Brabson enjoyed great success as a lawyer and was reported to have held great sway with juries. A portly man with a warm, genial nature, Brabson was also known for his unwavering frankness and integrity. In 1848, Brabson began a foray into politics when, as a Whig, he served as an elector for President Zachary Taylor. In 1851, Brabson was elected by his Hamilton County constituents to serve in Tennessee House of Representatives. There, Brabson gained renown for his bold speeches and his unwillingness to back down from a well-considered position, even in the face of strong resistance. On one occasion, Brabson gave an impassioned speech disparaging newspapermen and editors. The editor of the Nashville Republican Banner and Whig, Felix Z. Zollicoffer, took exception and rebuked Brabson outside the St. Cloud Hotel in Nashville. Zollicoffer went so far as to question Brabson’s veracity and status as a gentleman. In return, Brabson slapped Zollicoffer. Zollicoffer immediately escalated the encounter, drawing a pistol and shooting at Brabson point-blank. Somehow, Zollicoffer missed. For his part, Brabson emerged unscathed and even more convinced of the rightness of his position as to newspapermen and editors.

In 1859, despite residing in a historically Democratic district, Brabson was elected, as a Whig, to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. When discussions of succession began in 1860, Brabson warned his southern colleagues about the dangers of losing the constitutional protections afforded to them by a unified nation. Despite the pressure of his peers and many of his constituents, Brabson remained a steadfast supporter of the federal government and argued vociferously and whole-heartedly against secession and the imminent war it would bring. When Tennessee voted to secede from the Union in June of 1861, a broken-hearted Brabson returned from Washington to his home on Brabson Hill in Chattanooga. He later doggedly refused to take up arms against either side – though both sides offered him a commission.

In April of 1962, James J. Andrews, a Nashville blockade-runner and part-time Union spy, led a group of 20 brave Union soldiers and civilian William Hunter Campbell in what the Atlanta Southern Confederacy called “The Most Daring Undertaking the Yankees Ever Planned or Attempted to Execute.” Dressed as civilians, Andrews and his group hi-jacked a north-bound passenger train and locomotive, the General, when it stopped near Kennesaw, Ga., for breakfast. Andrews’ plan, which had been sanctioned by U.S. Major General Ormsby M. Mitchell, was to take the train north to Chattanooga along the Western & Atlantic Railroad main-line, while along the way destroying rail bridges, telegraph transmission lines, and other vital infrastructure. Mitchell was commanding the federal army in Middle Tennessee, and had hopes of capturing Huntsville, Ala. Then, he would move east to capture Chattanooga. Mitchell recognized, however, that Chattanooga’s natural geography made its capture extremely difficult. Mitchell knew, though, that Chattanooga was receiving a bulk of its war supplies by means of the Western & Atlantic Railroad, which ran between Atlanta and Chattanooga. If Andrews could succeed in his bold scheme and destroy that vital rail supply line, Mitchell believed he could then move eastward to capture a weakened Chattanooga.

The scheme initially worked, with the raiders taking possession of the locomotive and its first passenger car and heading north toward Chattanooga, followed on-foot by an array of railroad employees and Confederate soldiers. However, Andrews’ plan did not take into account certain logistical and natural impediments, not the least of which was the relatively slow movement of trains headed north through the single-track, uphill grades of northern Georgia. The plan also failed to take into account the amount of time required to destroy well-built and recently rain-soaked railroad infrastructure with a relatively small group of soldiers carrying no real explosives. Despite their best efforts, Andrews and his men literally ran out of steam near Ringgold, Ga., and abandoned the General there. Several of the group evaded capture for a short time, but all were eventually caught and turned over to the Confederate Army. Andrews, along with several others, was brought to Chattanooga and placed in a hellish-nightmare of a prison known as Swim’s Jail, where he awaited court-martial on charges of treason and espionage.

Across the Confederacy, the call for Andrews and his compatriots to pay for their alleged war crimes with their lives was immediate and definite. Given the distance between major outposts and the largely rural demography of the southern states, damage to critical infrastructure was seen as one of the major threats facing the rebellion. There were also still large pockets of Union sympathizers throughout the South. East Tennessee, in particular, was extremely tumultuous during this period as it, like Brabson, was largely pro-Union. There was, therefore, great concern across the Confederacy that Union sympathizers in East Tennessee might easily be persuaded to engage in similar acts of vandalism against local railroads if Andrews and his raiders were not publicly and expeditiously made to suffer the full brunt of the sword.

As the recognized leader of the group, a decision was made to try Andrews first. Colonel Joseph T. McConnell and Captain Leander W. Crook, both prominent Georgians and Confederate officers, were chosen to lead the prosecution against Andrews. While Andrews was being held in Swim’s Jail, members of Brabson’s household, including Sarah Brabson, had befriended Andrews and offered him books and other luxuries to help mitigate his stay there. Through these connections, Andrews asked if Brabson might be willing to represent him in the court martial proceedings. Though invoking the scorn of the entire Confederacy and many of his neighbors, Brabson readily and stubbornly agreed to offer his services to Andrews.

Andrews’ trial was held over the course of several days in the second floor of the old Armory at the corner of 4th and Market Streets. Although no transcripts of the proceedings remain, newspaper accounts from the time reflect that Brabson put on a vigorous defense of Andrews – so much so that one local reporter commented that the “defense was so ably conducted by Congressman Brabson that that gentleman was notified he was taking too much interest in the man’s case, and it might be better for him not to be so much concerned.” Despite a valiant and passionate effort by Brabson, Andrews was ultimately convicted and publicly hanged in Atlanta.

Brabson died from typhoid at his home on August 16, 1863 – a month shy of his 45th birthday – while the war he despised continued to ravage his beloved Chattanooga. During his short life, Brabson’s contributions to our community were numerous and certainly were not limited to the practice of law or his political career. He and his family were great benefactors of the arts and culture and made many contributions that helped establish Chattanooga as a city of significance. His home, though renovated by subsequent owners, still stands today on Brabson Hill at 407 East Fifth Street. Brabson is buried in an unmarked grave in Citizens Cemetery.

Andrews’ remains were ultimately brought back to Chattanooga from Atlanta and buried at the National Cemetery here. An impressive monument, with a bronze likeness of the General, stands there today commemorating the lives of Andrews and the other brave souls who took part in what has come to be known as The Great Locomotive Chase. Several of the Union soldiers were awarded the first National Medals of Honor for their bravery. Andrews, as a civilian, was not eligible for such an honor.

If you are more interested in the travails of the Andrews’ Raiders or in the role Brabson played in the subsequent trial of Andrews, much of the information I’ve included in this column was obtained from Craig Angle’s “The Great Locomotive Chase” (C. Angle 1992) and Russell S. Bond’s “Stealing the General” (Westholme Publishing 2006), both of which I highly commend to you for further reading.   

For more photos, pick up a copy of the Hamilton County Herald.